Corruption charges vs NIA officials over P66M irrigation projects

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Cases of corruption against 53 persons involved in 4 anomalous irrigation projects in Agusan del Norte were filed with the Ombudsman on Monday, September 8. (READ: EXCLUSIVE: Corruption cases filed vs irrigation officials)

Members of a Joint Special Investigation Team presented around 60 folders of evidence against the accused, among them former National Irrigation Administration (NIA) Caraga Regional Managers Modesto Membreve and Dexter Patrocinio and current NIA Caraga Regional Manager Encarnacion Soriano.

They are accused of graft and corruption and violating the Government Procurement Reform Act (Republic Act 9184).

The special investigation was a joint effort between the Philippine National Police (PNP), National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

The documents presented as evidence include Commission on Audit (COA) reports, NIA files and sworn affidavits by witnesses.

The 4 irrigation projects are Packages 1, 4, 5 and 6 of the MAP IP Project which totals 7 packages in all. The 7 MAP IP packages were supposed to be implemented in the remote villages of Mat-i, Ambacon, and Pinana-anof in the town of Las Nieves, Agusan del Norte in 2012.

The filing of evidence pertaining to the implementation of the previous 3 irrigation projects was first reported by Rappler last August 18.

The 4 projects, with a total cost of P66,134,282 (US$1.5 million*), are allegedly tainted with irregularities such as apparent rigged bidding, incompletion past the set deadline, and implementation of the projects by a contractor who did not win project biddings but used dummies as a cover-up.

The bidding of Packages 4, 5 and 6 was not competitive since they involved only one bidder each, in violation of the RA 9184, documents showed.

Unfinished irrigation canals

The investigating team reported that as of March 2014, at least 3 out of the 4 projects were still unfinished more than a year after the deadline. The projects are mainly irrigation works like canals, embankments and filter drains meant to bring water to the villages’ crop fields.

What should have taken only 4 months to build remained incomplete at least a year and two months after the deadline. the team added.

There was also a gross discrepancy between the accomplishment reported by NIA and the actual accomplishment observed by the investigating team who went on the ground to assess the projects.

For example, Package 4 which involved the construction of a dam, was reported by NIA Caraga to be 95% complete even if the foreman admitted he still had to construct 40 meters of covered canal and 60 meters of open canal.

The NIA personnel who were present during the inspection also could not present construction plans. Maintenance of the ongoing project was poor, causing part of the canal to be covered by earth and vegetation.

Of the P18.26 million ($417,000) contract cost, winning contractor PALMEA Construction and Development has already been paid 95% or around P17.34 million ($396,000), according to COA documents.

Delayed supplies, substandard materials

But investigation further revealed that some of the contractors who officially won the bid for the projects were not the ones who executed the projects.

EVIDENCE. More than 60 folders of evidence are filed with the Office of the Ombudsman against 53 respondents. Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler

EVIDENCE. More than 60 folders of evidence are filed with the Office of the Ombudsman against 53 respondents.

Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler

The foreman constructing Package 4 told investigators he was hired by a Gardinel Jimenez of Dungan Constructors and Development Corporation (DCDC) and not by PALMEA Construction, the official bid winner.

The subcontractor working on Package 1 also admitted he was hired by Jimenez, not by winning contractor LMG Construction.

Package 1, meant to bring water from a dam in Agusan del Sur to farmers in Agusan del Norte, remains incomplete and has even been suspended.

The subcontractor blamed Jimenez for the sorry state of the project. Jimenez, who was supposed to provide all the equipment and building materials, delivered them late and irregularly.

The late delivery and coordination by Jimenez led to a delay in the implementation. Though the Notice to Proceed was issued in July 2012, the subcontractor only got to work in September 2012.

Due to the lack of building materials and their substandard quality, the 20% accomplished by the subcontractor was swept away by water. There were times when the subcontractor and his workers were forced to take a vacation for a month because the needed supplies did not come through, noted the report.

The difficulty in dealing with Jimenez, who the subcontractor claimed showed a lack of interest in finishing the job, led him to abandon the project in December.

The in-limbo state of Package 1 affects the other MAP IP packages as well. Without Package 1, Packages 3 to 7 would not be as effective in irrigating farmlands in Las Nieves.

Monopoly of projects?

Jimenez is said to be in control of 5 out of the 7 MAP IP packages through dummy contractors who win the project bids on paper.

Two of the 7 winning contractors (LMG Construction and  WIRO Construction) already admitted to receiving royalties from Jimenez in exchange for allowing him to use their licenses as contractors.

They said they signed all documents needed for the projects without even visiting the project site. They did not even know NIA projects had been awarded to them.

Aside from the MAP IP packages it allegedly controls through dummies, DCDC was officially awarded 10 projects.

But a source privy to DCDC operations said “almost all projects on irrigation system under [the] NIA proposed plan” were awarded to the company. In Agusan del Sur alone, DCDC is said to have been awarded 21 contracts.

The MAP IP packages and 10 official DCDC projects were bidded out and awarded during the time of then NIA Caraga Regional Manager Modesto Membreve in 2012.

MODESTO MEMBREVE. Allegedly anomalous NIA projects were awarded and implemented during his time as NIA Caraga Regional Manager

MODESTO MEMBREVE.

Allegedly anomalous NIA projects were awarded and implemented during his time as NIA Caraga Regional Manager

He was replaced by Dexter Patrocinio in October 2012 who was himself replaced by current Regional Manager Encarnacion Soriano. Patrocinio and Soriano allowed the MAP IP packages to proceed.

Because Membreve, Patrocinio and Soriano signed the contracts, abstract of bids and disbursement vouchers, they would have had the power to stop or spot anomalies in the bidding process or withhold payment to contractors if projects were not being implemented properly, investigators said.

In a text message to Rappler on September 8, Membreve said rigged bidding during his time was "impossible."

"Only an observer would know what really happened in the bidding, not outsiders. There are minutes and attendance to prove there was no rigging," he said in a mix of English and Filipino.

"We didn't do anything wrong and our conscience is clean," he added.

The 53 accused also include Gardinel Jimenez and the alleged dummy contractors he hid behind.

Still in government

After their terms as regional managers, Membreve and Patrocinio were assigned to the NIA Central Office based in Metro Manila.

In 2013, Membreve was even appointed by Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala as NIA acting central deputy administrator for engineering and operations.

He was replaced last July 2013 and is now in the mini hydropower department under the office of the administrator. Patrocinio is currently in the engineering department.

Membreve has denied rigging bids or awarding the MAP IP packages to DCDC.

“How can there have been rigged bidding when other officials and COA were present? As far as I know, our bids and awards committee was very thorough when recommending contractors for projects,” he told Rappler in a phone interview last August 18.

Current NIA Caraga officials also gave assurances they have instituted reforms to prevent rigged bidding or awarding of contracts to dummy contractors.

For instance, the owner of the license of the winning contractor must personally sign the contract instead of sending a representative or having the contract sent to them, NIA Caraga Manager of Engineering and Operations Constancio Bana-ay Jr told Rappler.

They also require more detailed implementation plans from the contractors which are monitored monthly by NIA irrigation managers, he added.

The filing of the corruption cases comes more than a year after President Benigno Aquino III ordered a probe into the failure of NIA to meet its annual irrigation targets despite spending all of its funds. In June 2013, Aquino scolded the agency for its poor performance and fired then NIA Administrator Antonio Nangel.

The NIA is now being overseen by Food Security Secretary Francis Pangilinan and its new administrator Florencio Padernal. NIA, an attached agency to the Department of Agriculture, was put under the Office of the President in May. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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