By Jarius Bondoc | The Philippine Star | April 21, 2014

There’s an odd finale to the $30-million extortion of a Czech company. The MRT-3 awarded a hefty contract to the alleged extorter.

A $6.9-million (P290-million) deal was given to the joint venture, PH Trams-CB&T, in which a principal is Wilson de Vera. He is accused of attempting to extract $30 million from Czech train maker Inekon. From records of the Securities and Exchange Commission, he is one of PH-Trams’ six incorporators-directors.

One contract signatory was MRT-3 general manager Al Vitangcol. It was supposedly for him that de Vera had demanded the $30 million. Another signatory was Transport Sec. Joseph Emilio Abaya, who would later hastily clear Vitangcol when the extortion was exposed.

The purported squeeze play happened in July 2012. Inekon refused to pay up. Vitangcol and de Vera sealed the P290 million on Oct. 19, 2012, documents show.

The $30-million “fee” was so Inekon could skirt the public bidding and instead parley a long-term supply-repair-maintenance deal. Inekon’s rebuff altered it all. MRT-3 and its mother Dept. of Transport & Communications consequently negotiated a short-term maintenance-only pact with PH Trams.

Vitangcol is under fire of late due to poor maintenance of trains and tracks, resulting in frequent breakdowns. Hundreds of thousands of daily commuters have to line up for hours to get onto loading platforms.  Lawmakers correlate the operational mess to bureaucratic corruption.

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Czech Amb. Josef Rychtar and Inekon CEO Josef Husek inculpate Vitangcol and de Vera in the $30-million scam. Their accounts to the NBI corroborate the events of July 9, 2012, allegedly instigated by the two:

• First, at a Makati bistro, was dinner of the Czechs with Vitangcol and de Vera. Also there: Inekon officer Milan Haloun, Filipino consultant Manolo Maralit, and PH Trams chairman Marlo de la Cruz. Partly tackled was Inekon’s offer to supply MRT-3 with 48 new trams, refit 73 existing ones, and maintain the entire fleet and railway.

• Post-dinner the group, minus Vitangcol, retired to Rychtar’s Makati residence to talk technical-financials. De Vera allegedly broached the $30-million payoff for the supply aspect, which Husek rejected. After ostensibly twice conferring with Vitangcol by mobile, de Vera lowered the demand to $2.5 million, which Husek also declined.

• In Rychtar and Husek’s formal meeting the next day at the MRT-3’s Quezon City base, Vitangcol and de Vera purportedly repeated the cash call. Vitangcol allegedly also required, for the maintenance side, a 60:40 partnership of Inekon with a Filipino group of his choice. Vitangcol and de Vera supposedly resented Husek’s rebuffs, so the Czechs left.

His narrative going beyond July 2012, Rychtar says he found out about PH Trams’ interim maintenance contract with MRT-3 from Maralit. De Vera and de la Cruz had incorporated the “Philippine Trans Rail Management and Services Corp.” Maralit joined up, so Rychtar describes him as “changing sides” to become “de facto competitor of Inekon.”

In counter-affidavits Vitangcol and de Vera deny any wrongdoing.

Vitangcol says he never met Rychtar, Husek, or de Vera for dinner on July 9, only at his office on July 10 to discuss terms of reference. De Vera, however, affirms dining with Vitangcol, the Czechs, Maralit, and de la Cruz; then meeting with Vitangcol and the Czechs the next day. No $30 million or forcible partnership was mentioned, both swear.

It was Inekon that brought in de Vera, says Vitangcol. The Czechs allegedly made up the extortion tale to hide their business overspending. Also, because he insisted on open bidding, against Inekon’s negotiating an overpriced government-to-government setup. (The supply deal eventually went to China’s Dalian Locomotive and Rolling Stock Co.)

In a recent TV interview Vitangcol said it was possible that de Vera had used his name with Inekon. But he hasn’t confronted him about it. A member of his staff supposedly takes minutes of all his office meetings.

De Vera says he merely was invited to dinner then coffee to explore a partnership of PH Trams with Inekon. He calls the $30-million exaction a “figment of wild imagination.” As for the $2.5 million, he says the Czechs might have been confused by Husek’s own idea of $50,000 markup by PH Trams on each of 48 to 52 coaches to be sold to MRT-3.

He did get up to make calls on his mobile, he confirms, but those were to his wife and to political aides. He was then eyeing the mayoralty of Calasiao, Pangasinan, in May 2013, under the ruling Liberal Party.

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The MRT-3 interim maintenance deal with PH Trams-CB&T was $1.15 million a month for six months, Oct. 2012 to Apr. 2013. Signed Oct. 19, 2012, it was by closed-door negotiation, not open bidding. Vitangcol, as requisitioning agency head, led in drafting the terms of reference.

The contract was emergency in nature. The regular maintenance service of Japanese giant Sumitomo, already extended four times, was expiring the next day.

Signing with Vitangcol and Abaya was Transport USec. Jose Perpetuo Lotilla, chief negotiator.

Signing for the joint venture was CB&T (Comm Builders and Technology Corp.) president Roehl B. Bacar, an old time contractor with the DOTC. De Vera signed as witness, for PH Trams.

When it expired in Apr. 2013, PH Trams’ contract was extended for three months, with another joint venture partner.