By Delon Porcalla | The Philippine Star | April 7, 2014

MANILA, Philippines - Malacañang has appealed to the public for calm and sobriety while waiting for the results of a probe conducted by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) regarding allegations of extortion against the manager of the Metro Rail Transit (MRT).

“We’re just waiting for the NBI to finish its process, which has already been explained by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima,” Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. yesterday said, referring to the complaint of Czech Ambassador Josef Rychtar against MRT chief Al Vitangcol.

In an interview over state-run radio dzRB, Coloma said all aspects of the case are being taken into consideration, especially since the primary objective is to “provide better service to commuters.”

Coloma kept a safe distance, however, with regard to plans of the House of Representatives to conduct its own inquiry on the issue in aid of legislation, since it is a separate and coequal branch of government.

“It’s a process in the House and in Congress. We respect their processes, as we have always avoided interfering in the affairs or procedure from another department. I think it would be best to recognize and respect their separate process,” he stressed.

“We will just be mere observers here in the sidelines, and we’re hoping that this issue will result in the betterment of the country and our people in general,” Coloma said.

Headlines ( Article MRec ), pagematch: 1, sectionmatch: 1

He likewise cleared Ballsy Aquino-Cruz, elder sister of President Aquino, from allegations that she was involved in the extortion attempt, noting that Rychtar himself had absolved the presidential sister from any wrongdoing.

“Early on, the ambassador of Czechoslovakia has already declared that the President’s sister had nothing to do with that case,” he said.

Malacañang is also open to the idea of the Ombudsman conducting its own investigation – even without a request from any party – regarding allegations of Rychtar that Vitangcol extorted $30 million from Inekon, a Czech-owned supplier of train coaches.

“Under its (Ombudsman’s) rules, it may motu proprio (on its own) investigate but as to what actions they have taken I’m not aware of any,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.

He said the NBI is currently investigating the complaint filed by Rychtar against Vitangcol who was the alleged mastermind behind the alleged extortion attempt sometime in 2012.

And as far as the Palace knows, the administrative investigation conducted by the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) – which has jurisdiction over MRT – may have been finished, which was why Vitangcol already went on leave last year.

“I don’t know if anything came out of that but it seems that there was no participation from the ambassador. But there is a criminal investigation right now with the NBI. So that is what is being awaited by the DOTC,” Lacierda added.

At the same time, the spokesman could not say whether Aquino personally knows Vitangcol, or a certain Wilson de Vera who is reportedly a member of the ruling Liberal Party that the President heads as party chairman.

“I don’t know him (De Vera). I was told he ran under the party, but we’re not involved in the local elections or local politics,” Lacierda, who served as LP spokesman in the May 2010 presidential elections, maintained.

The same is true with Vitangcol. “I don’t even know if the President knows Mr. Vitangcol personally. He is an MRT manager,” he stressed, downplaying Rychtar’s insinuations the MRT official is “protected” by higher officials, owing to his continued stay in government.

“I am certain that the President knows the Cabinet secretary, but lower than the Cabinet secretary, I don’t know if the President knows the entire bureaucracy,” Lacierda pointed out.

De Vera dares envoy

De Vera had challenged Rychtar to undergo a polygraph test so that the truth would come out.

He told The STAR yesterday in a phone interview that he decided to break his silence and dared Rychtar to take a lie detector test because of his perceived malicious and libelous statements against him.

Once he returns from a business trip abroad, De Vera said he would rebut, in a tell-all interview, all of Rychtar’s accusations.

“I challenge him (Rychtar) to a polygraph test. I challenge him to reveal whom they have talked to because it is unfair they will make me as their fall guy,” De Vera said.

De Vera said Rychtar’s statements against him are unfair. “It’s not because you are an ambassador that you could fabricate lies (against me),” he said.

Contrary to Rychtar’s claim, De Vera said no extortion attempt was made, verbal or otherwise.

“In the first place how could I do that since there were no terms of reference yet (during our talks) and I have no powers or connections with the Department of Transportation and Communications,” De Vera said.

He said he and his business partners talked to top level officials of Inekon Group for a casual dinner followed by coffee talk. Then there was a meeting at the MRT office. “But after that, I was no longer privy as to what happened next,” he said.

He said that he knows Vitangcol only through their professional dealings.

De Vera said he has executed an affidavit before Consul Reichel Quiñones of the Philippine Consulate General in San Francisco, California for the NBI probe in December last year.

“It’s already on public record, why don’t they just release that?” De Vera said. No case, however, was filed against Vitangcol, he said.

He said Rychtar’s statement that he had escaped the Philippines is wrong and libelous, adding that he is a green card holder and is now a permanent resident of the US with his family.

“I did not flee. I went home to America (after I lost in the elections) because I am a permanent resident here, my wife is working here and our child is studying here,” he said.

He said he would not want people to feast on him, adding that the accusations are unfair. “What they are saying is wrong. This time I would now talk, I am ready, whether it be in the Senate or Congress,” he added.

De Vera said he is just a simple businessman doing legitimate business. He added he would not take the baseless allegations against him sitting down as that would make him a worthless person. He said his lawyers are looking at the possibility of filing a libel case against Rychtar.

He said his being a Liberal Party member has nothing to do with this issue.

De Vera ran for mayor of Calasiao, Pangasinan in the 2013 elections but lost.

He said it is unfortunate that the losing firm could not accept why they did not win in the bidding and “they might not know how to justify their huge expenses to their principal company so they are trying to spin another angle.

House probe

Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares said Rychtar and Josef Husek, chairman and chief executive officer of Inekon Group, should attend the investigation of the House of Representatives committee on good government on the alleged extort try.

He said the Czechs should show up in the next hearing of the committee chaired by Pampanga Rep. Oscar Rodriguez.

He said Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya and Vitangcol should also show up so they could confront Rychtar and Husek.

Colmenares suggested that businessman De Vera be asked to appear before the committee to explain his supposed participation in the alleged extortion attempt.

Rychtar has linked Vitangcol and De Vera to the reported extortion try. Inekon was interested in supplying the 48 additional trains that MRT-3 needs but subsequently backed out of the bidding process. A Chinese firm eventually won the bidding.

“From all indications, there seems to be powerful forces in Malacañang trying to cover up the real score on this issue. It is still not clear who are all the players, as well as how high up in the Palace are the culprits connected,” Colmenares.

He said if government officials invited to the next hearing do not show up, they should be cited for contempt and punished.

Colmenares and Navotas Rep. Tobias Tiangco are the authors of two resolutions seeking an inquiry into the alleged extortion attempt. They based their request on newspaper reports on the incident.

Rychtar, Husek, Abaya, and Vitangcol did not show up in the committee’s hearing last February 25, though they were invited.

Instead, the Czech ambassador furnished the panel with a copy of a supposed affidavit-complaint he filed with the NBI and another affidavit executed by Husek.

However, the envoy’s complaint is not signed, prompting Rodriguez to say that his committee could not take cognizance of it unless the ambassador shows up in a hearing and affirms or repeats his allegations under oath.

Husek signed his statement.

In his supposed affidavit, Rychtar claimed that the alleged exortion try took place on July 9, 2012, when he, Vitangcol, Husek, a certain Haloun (another Inekon executive), a Boyet Maralit, a Wilson de Vera, and a certain M. De la Cruz had dinner at the Carpaccio restaurant on Yakal street, apparently in Makati City.

After dinner he 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. de la Cruz also left or was present with the others, since it happened a year and a half ago,” he recalled.

“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 million,” the ambassador said in his unsigned statement.

He said 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 million, but even that was refused by Mr. Husek,” Rychtar said.

Husek corroborated his ambassador’s story in his affidavit, which he said was prepared with the assistance of Inekon Group’s “outside counsel” in Prague.

Last week, Rychtar gave a television interview in which he reiterated his allegations. With Jess Diaz, Eva Visperas