The Philippine Star | May 31, 2014

It’s been a year since the ambassador of the Czech Republic hurled a serious accusation against an official of the daang matuwid administration. Today Josef Rychtar is ending his stint as ambassador to Manila with his accusation still not resolved.

Rychtar filed a signed complaint accusing the general manager of the Metro Rail Transit, Al Vitangcol III, of being behind an attempt to extort $30 million from Czech railway firm Inekon in exchange for a deal to supply trains to the MRT.

Several of those accused of involvement in the purported shakedown later bagged a lucrative deal with the MRT. They set up a company called PH Trams, with paid up capital of P625,000, which entered into a joint venture with a bigger company, CB&T. Two months later, they signed a deal with the MRT for train maintenance.

Among PH Trams’ incorporators and directors were Arturo V. Soriano, the provincial accountant of Pangasinan who happens to be the uncle-in-law of Vitangcol, and Wilson de Vera, a US immigrant who ran and lost last year for mayor of Calasiao, Pangasinan under the Liberal Party.

Why would a big company like CB&T partner with an unknown, undercapitalized firm? What did PH Trams bring into the joint venture? Was it a direct line to the man in charge of the project?

In 10 months, the maintenance contract earned for PH Trams and CB&T about P517.5 million. That’s 10 times more than the P50-million threshold for simple corruption to be elevated to plunder.

Transport and Communications Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya, who from the start had tried to discredit Rychtar, was one of the signatories in the maintenance deal won by PH Trams. This week Abaya finally ordered Vitangcol relieved, after which the MRT chief tendered a revocable resignation that President Aquino has not acted upon.

Vitangcol claimed Soriano had divested his shares in PH Trams before the company started earning nearly half a billion pesos. This explanation will have to be assessed by the Office of the Ombudsman, which must pursue this case quicker than the National Bureau of Investigation’s one-year probe of the Czechs’ complaint.

Apart from an unbiased, thorough probe by anti-graft prosecutors, a separate assessment must be made by an independent body, to determine if these questionable deals have contributed to the frequent breakdowns in the MRT. This is not unusual when deals are awarded based on connections rather than qualifications. It’s the wang-wang mentality at its worst, with the public suffering the consequences.