By Lawrence Agcaoili | The Philippine Star | May 27, 2014

MANILA, Philippines - Metro Rail Transit 3 (MRT-3) general manager Al Vitangcol III was relieved of his post yesterday amid reports that he had awarded a P517-million maintenance contract to a company controlled by his wife’s uncle.

Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya named Light Rail Transit Authority administrator Honorito Chaneco as MRT-3 officer-in-charge.

The relief was ordered on the eve of the resumption of a congressional inquiry into an alleged attempt by Vitangcol and several others to extort $30 million from Czech company Inekon in July 2012 in the presence of Czech Ambassador Josef Rychtar.

Pampanga Rep. Oscar Rodriguez, chairman of the House committee on good government, told The STAR yesterday that his panel has again invited Rychtar, Abaya and Vitangcol to this morning’s hearing.

Rodriguez said the invited officials have yet to confirm their attendance. He said his committee could not compel an ambassador to attend the inquiry but it could employ its subpoena power on officials snubbing the investigation.

Rychtar, Abaya and Vitangcol failed to show up at the committee’s first two hearings.

Inekon had sought a government-to-government deal to supply MRT-3 with 48 additional trains.

In signed affidavits submitted to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), Rychtar and Inekon chairman Josef Husek stated that when the company turned down the alleged demand for the $30 million, even after it was whittled down to $2.5 million, the government-to-government proposal was junked and a bidding was held for the contract, which went to the lone bidder, a Chinese company. The deal is on hold.

Vitangcol has denied the accusation and filed libel charges against Rychtar. Ambassadors are immune from arrest or prosecution in their host countries.

STAR columnist Jarius Bondoc wrote yesterday that in 2012, Vitangcol had awarded without bidding a P517.5-million contract to PH Trams, a two-month-old company with a paid-up capital of P625,000, for a 10-month maintenance of MRT-3 trains.

The contract, whose terms of reference were reportedly drawn up by Vitangcol, originally ran from October 2012 to April 2013, with PH Trams being paid $1.15 million or about P51.75 million a month. The contract was extended twice, to June 2013 and then to August 2013, Bondoc wrote.

Vitangcol signed the contract on Oct. 19, 2012 along with Abaya and Transport Undersecretary Jose Perpetuo Lotilla, according to Bondoc.

Signing for PH Trams, Bondoc wrote, were incorporator-directors Arturo V. Soriano, reportedly the chief accountant of Pangasinan and brother of the mother of Vitangcol’s wife; Wilson T. de Vera, a US immigrant who ran in 2013 as Liberal Party candidate for mayor of Soriano’s hometown of Calasiao; and Roehl B. Bacar, president of CB&T, which has a joint venture with PH Trams.

In an earlier administrative investigation, the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) cleared Vitangcol because no one came forward to file a complaint against him.

Abaya said he was waiting for the results of the NBI probe.

Rychtar has told The STAR that he signed the affidavit he submitted to the NBI, and he wondered why government officials keep saying the statement was unsigned. He said he has kept his own duly notarized copy of the signed statement.

In his signed affidavit, he said the alleged extortion try took place on July 9, 2012, when he, Vitangcol, Husek, a certain Haloun (another Inekon executive), a Boyet Maralit, Wilson de Vera, and a certain M. dela Cruz had dinner at a restaurant in Makati City.

After dinner, Rychtar said Maralit “came to me informing that Mr. Vitangcol wants to continue the discussion about the procedures of the deal.”

“I offered that they can continue the talks in my residence. Mr. Vitangcol did not participate in this meeting. I cannot remember now if Mr. M. dela Cruz also left or was present with the others, since it happened a year and a half ago,” he said.

“I was not part of the discussion which was held between Mr. Husek on one side and Mr. W. de Vera on the other side. I think all of us considered him to be an envoy of Mr. Vitangcol since he behaved like that at an official dinner. He went straight to the point of suggesting the payment from Inekon to secure the deal from them. I think everybody was surprised with this suggestion of Mr. W. de Vera, which was 30 mil USD,” Rychtar said.

He narrated that Husek tried to resist the extortion attempt, telling De Vera that $3 million was the cost of one MRT coach, and that if they paid $30 million, “the price of their product would have to rise up significantly.”

“Mr. W. de Vera left the house during the meeting at least two times to call somebody from his mobile phone. After one of the calls, he came back to the hall. He informed us that Mr. Vitangcol said that the price of one coach cannot exceed $3 million… Then he asked for at least 2.5 mil USD, but even that was refused by Mr. Husek,” he said. – With Jess Diaz