Philippine Daily Inquirer | May 29th, 2014

A day after he was fired as Metro Rail Transit general manager, lawyer Al Vitangcol III appeared before the House committee on good government and public accountability. He had a chance to clear the air about the now-controversial P517-million maintenance contract, or at least to make himself heard above the din.

The version of events Vitangcol chose to present before the committee, however, raised more questions than it answered. He said that when he discovered that a company bidding for the contract as part of a joint venture had an uncle of his wife’s serving on the board of directors, he told the uncle, Arturo Soriano, to divest himself of his equity in the firm.

“When I learned [of] that particular item, then I directly told him that it would be improper on his part and on my part if he would continue to be a director of PH Trams. So he divested and he sold his shares as director of PH Trams. At the time that the bidding was done by DOTC, Mr. Soriano was no longer a part of that particular firm.” Vitangcol has repeated his assertion in interviews; he said it was he who impressed the impropriety, the conflict of interest, upon Soriano.

This runs counter to Soriano’s own recollection. He told the Inquirer on Tuesday: “When we organized the corporation, our intention was to deal with private entities. But when I learned that we would be dealing with the MRT, I got out of the company. I knew it was wrong for me because I work in the government (he is currently the provincial accountant of Pangasinan) and my niece is the wife of the MRT general manager at that time.”

The conflicting views are of real interest; two men implicated in a possible corruption scandal offer versions of the past which highlight their moral sensitivity. But the two versions share something deeply troubling: an implausible sequence of events.

PH Trams was incorporated in August 2012; both Vitangcol and his uncle assert that Soriano had divested all his stock in PH Trams in September 2012; the joint venture between PH Trams and the much larger, much older Comm Builders and Technology Corp. (CB&T) won the maintenance contract in October 2012.

Perhaps those born yesterday may take Soriano at his word, that PH Trams was incorporated “to deal with private entities.” But the more likely scenario is that it was incorporated precisely to bid for the MRT-3 contract.

Perhaps those born yesterday may take Vitangcol at his word, that “Soriano was no longer a part of that particular firm” at the time of the bidding conducted by the Department of Transportation and Communications. But which investor will back out of a new company a mere month after it was formed?

The most immediate problem facing Vitangcol, however, is that which got him fired. He did not inform his superiors or the bids and awards committee, of which he was a member, of the fact that his wife’s uncle had been an incorporator. Why not? He gave the House committee a legalistic answer: “They already provided the deed of sale and transfer of rights.” He gave ANC’s Headstart a lame excuse: “I did not because it’s the duty of the bidder to put that in their disclosure statement.”

So much for daang matuwid.

That a relative of his within the prohibited third degree of consanguinity or affinity was an incorporator of a new company that helped win a multimillion-dollar contract from his own agency came as startling news to officials of the DOTC and other members of the bids and awards committee. President Aquino shared with reporters the contents of a text message Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya sent him on Monday night: “We are relieving MRT 3 GM Vitangcol and we’ll appoint LRTA Administrator Joy Chaneco in an acting capacity. We are investigating GM Vitangcol if he knew of the fact that a relative by affinity was a board member.”

As has become clear, Vitangcol did in fact know, but chose to keep quiet about it.

At the hearing, ACT Rep. Antonio Tinio asked what we thought was the crucial question. What did a new company with a paid-up capital of only P625,000, without a track record of any sort, “bring to the table”? He offered a possible answer: “It would appear that the main thing PH Trams brought to the table was its connection with the bids and awards committee. The hypothesis coming out is that PH Trams was a broker.”

If this is true, then firing Vitangcol is not enough. He and other implicated parties must face the necessary charges.