By Gil C. Cabacungan | Philippine Daily Inquirer | April 5, 2014

Administration critics allege Malacanang coddling Vitangcol
Members of the House of Representatives want to summon Wilson de Vera, the alleged “envoy” of Metro Rail Transit (MRT) general manager Al Vitangcol III, to an investigation of

allegations that the transport official tried to extort $30 million from Czech train car builder Inekon Group 21 months ago.

Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares and Navotas Rep. Tobias Tiangco said on Friday that the House committee on good government and public accountability should compel De Vera to answer the allegations hurled at him and Vitangcol by Czech Ambassador to the Philippines Josef Rychtar and Inekon Group CEO and chair Josef Husek.

In interviews with the Inquirer on Friday, Colmenares and Tiangco, who filed separate resolutions late last year seeking a congressional inquiry into the alleged MRT extortion attempt, said De Vera was “essential” to a face-off between Rychtar and Vitangcol in the scandal that had tarnished the image of the Aquino administration.

Colmenares said De Vera could provide the committee with crucial testimony since he was tagged as the go-between of Vitangcol to Inekon.

Tiangco said De Vera should explain his presence in the meetings between MRT and Inekon.

“Who is he fronting for?” asked Tiangco who noted that Rychtar and Husek hinted at De Vera’s close ties with top officials of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and some politicians.

De Vera ran for mayor of Calasiao town, Pangasinan province, under the Liberal Party last year but lost.

Tiangco said Vitangcol failed to attend two hearings of the House good government committee. “If he does not attend our next hearing, committee members have agreed to exercise Congress’ powers to compel him to attend,” Tiangco said.

He said Rychtar had indicated willingness to attend the committee hearing. The ambassador is standing by his affidavit and denied reports that the statement is unsigned, Tiangco said.

In his cover letter to the affidavit submitted to the House committee chair, Pampanga Rep. Oscar Rodriguez, Rychtar said: “It reveals that I, as the ambassador of the Czech Republic, confirmed that an extortion attempt took place in July 2012 followed by other suspicious circumstances which led to a questionable bidding in March 2013.”

In the same affidavit, which he also submitted to the NBI, Rychtar said, referring to De Vera: “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 for them. I think everybody was surprised with this suggestion of Mr. W. de Vera, which was $30 million.”

In his affidavit submitted to the House committee, Husek said he and Rychtar first met with the MRT group led by Vitangcol, De Vera, and Manalo Maralit on July 9, 2012, over dinner at Carpaccio restaurant in Makati City. Husek said they agreed to meet the next day at Rychtar’s residence.

During that meeting, which Vitangcol did not attend, Husek claimed that De Vera “suggested that we (Inekon) would be selected as supplier of the tram vehicles and related services, provided that we paid to an unknown entity a certain amount of money. … and indicated such payment should amount to $30 million.”

Husek said he was “shocked” by De Vera’s demand because “we did not expect this way of doing business.”

Rychtar said Inekon rejected the demand because “the requested additional and nonstandard payment would cause the price to rise significantly.”

“Mr. Wilson de Vera left several times the premises of the residence to consult someone by mobile phone. When he finally returned to the residence, he told us that according to Mr. Vitangcol the contract price for one tram vehicle was not to exceed $3 million, as that is a fixed ceiling price set forth in a MRT consultancy expert report. He then told us that the sum of $2.5 million instead of $30 million indicated originally would be sufficient,” Husek said.

“We refused that proposal and intended to leave the residence. Before we did so, Mr. Wilson de Vera encouraged us to think about his suggestion,” he said.

 The following day, Husek’s group went to the office of Vitangcol who not only followed up on De Vera’s proposal but also offered a 60-40 joint venture between Inekon and “people suggested by Mr. Vitangcol” who would assume the maintenance contract of MRT.

“We refused both offers. This made Mr. Vitangcol apparently upset and in few minutes we left his office without any follow-up on the negotiations,” Husek said.

A few hours later, Husek said Rychtar received a text message from Maralit stating that “Vitangcol and De Vera were furious, because we refused to accept their suggestions … and MRT would never do any business with Inekon Group in the future.”

Rychtar said he tried to forget the “incident” as unimportant   because “people sometimes try to get advantage when they know or pretend to know higher officials and they attempt to convert the situation to their profit.”

In October 2012, Rychtar said MRT’s maintenance contract with Sumitomo expired and was transferred to CB&T and PH Trams, which he claimed included a Maralit, a certain “Boyet Bacar” and “Mr. P. Rodriguez” who told him that the joint venture was “backed by the highest DOTC officials and some politicians.”

In March 2013, the DOTC bid out a contract to purchase 48 new MRT coaches (this was eventually won by China’s CNR Dalian Locomotive & Rolling Stock). Rychtar said Inekon officials went to the bidding but did not participate because the terms were not objective and the price and terms of delivery were unrealistic.

Later, Rychtar said he received two sets of “white papers” that described in “precise terms a fraud organized for the new coaches bidding by persons from the private sector as well as from the state institutions” and the “technical parameters of the scam inside the Terms of Reference of the Bidding.”

“All of the above-described facts led me to the decision that there was already sufficient evidence confirming that bidding process and all other activities related to the deals with DOTC/MRT are manipulated and faked in the disadvantage of the Czech company,” said Rychtar, who poured out his grievances to Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya in a two-hour meeting in April last year.

Rychtar had a second meeting with Abaya in July last year for a discussion of allegations in newspaper reports (not in the Inquirer) that presidential sister Maria Elena “Ballsy” Aquino-Cruz and her husband, businessman Eldon Cruz, were involved in the extortion attempt. (The couple were invited three years ago by Rychtar in Prague to meet a group of Czech businessmen.)

In a separate paper submitted to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Rychtar denied that he or his embassy was the source of the malicious reports.

“I insist that the President’s family members are not involved and implicated; instead the responsibility lies with some government officials and private persons associated with them,” Rychtar said. He clarified that he did not implicate any DOTC undersecretary in the extortion attempt.

Rychtar wrote a letter to President Aquino “strongly denying” the allegation and insisted that the Cruz couple did no business with any Czech firm.

Rychtar also took note of the DoTC’s silence on the allegations hurled at the President’s sister.

“Until now (July 25, 2013) it was only the Czech ambassador who reacted quickly to clear the name of the members of the President’s family. Up to now, the officials of the DOTC, who knew the real story since three months ago, did not initiate any action to clear the names of the President’s family,” Rychtar said in a letter to the Department of Foreign Affairs.