[EXCLUSIVE] Undersecretary in Bong Go's office confirms letter on frigate deal

MANILA, Philippines – The former undersecretary at the office of Special Assistant to the President Bong Go confirmed he called a meeting with the Navy to discuss the selection of the Combat Management Systems supplier for the controversial P15.5-billion frigate project.

Former Palace Undersecretary Lloyd Christopher Lao told Rappler that the letter dated January 18, 2017, in which he invited Rear Admiral Robert Empedrad to a meeting in Malacañang’s New Executive Building, is real. 

Lao, however, said the meeting was a normal procedure. 

“It’s a usual course of action done by our office if there are complaints,” Lao told Rappler on Thursday, January 18.

He said the "complaint" came from the winning bidder for the frigate deal, Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI). The South Korean company expressed preference for another South Korean company, Hanwha Thales, to supply the CMS.

Malacañang, said Lao, merely relayed the “concerns” of HHI to the Department of National Defense.

“We referred to the agency the concerns of the winning bidder during President Aquino’s time, regarding the delay of the implementation of the signed contract,” said Lao. 

HHI and officials of the Philippine Navy were debating which supplier was qualified to provide the CMS of the two warships. The contention had delayed the project since the construction of the ships couldn't start until the issue was resolved.

Lao said all his office did was to ask Empedrad for “clarification” on the complaint they received.

“The agency just explained to our office,” said Lao, after he was asked what happened in the meeting.

Asked why a complaint about the frigate project was coursed through Malacañang and not through the DND, Lao likened the complaint to those his office is “overwhelmed with” due to President Rodrigo Duterte’s call-out for complaints about corruption.

“A lot of complaints, request for assistance are being sent to Malacañang from all around the Philippines due to the drive of the government encouraging public to report complaints, even anonymous complaints,” said Lao. 

But he said his office had to act on the complaint since they are mandated to do so “by law.”

Lao, according to a Rappler source, was one of Go’s most important aides as he dealt with all confidential investigations into presidential appointees and was among core officials who oversaw the finalization of Duterte’s appointments.  

Lao is perceived to have so much of Go’s trust that his communications are interpreted as instructions from Go himself.

From Go's office, Lao was transferred to the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board. He was appointed commissioner in April 2017.

Malacañang has slammed Rappler for its supposedly "baseless" reporting on Palace involvement in the frigate project.

Go has issued a blanket denial, and has told Rappler he found the word "intervene" too harsh.

Duterte has challenged Rappler to prove Go's involvement. If proven, he said he would ask Go to resign. – 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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