By Karol Anne Ilagan, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ)
Last Jan. 21, at a House of Representatives committee hearing on the alleged collusion and corruption in World Bank-financed road projects, Pampanga Rep. Aurelio Gonzales Jr. offered a quaint proposition. He said it should be the Bank that should be sanctioned and not the contractors who won the bids under a cloud of collusion and overpricing.
“(Hindi) dapat i-sanction ang mga contractors (The contractors should not be sanctioned),” said Gonzales, one of the vice chairmen of the committee on public works and highways that was conducting the hearing. Instead, he asserted, it should be the World Bank that should be put under scrutiny.
The suggestion triggered laughter, then applause. What is no laughing matter, however, is the possibility that public interest may be taking a backseat to personal and party concerns in Congress investigations such as the one handled by Gonzales’s committee.
Indeed, this may be why the committee stood clear of the alleged connection of one of the blacklisted contractors with Jose Miguel Arroyo, the president’s husband, which Sen. Panfilo Lacson raised in a Senate inquiry.
This could also be why, after only two days of hearing, the committee cleared the three Filipino firms that had been debarred by the World Bank – one indefinitely, and two for four years – from participating in its projects.
The probe did not include the issue raised against the First Gentleman by Senator Lacson because, according to Davao del Sur Rep. Marc Douglas Cagas IV, the House investigation was limited only to determining if there was collusion in the bidding for road projects.
Cagas is one of the 37 members of the pro-administration party Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats (Lakas-CMD) who are committee members.
In addition, 23 other lawmakers from the President’s Kampi party, eight from the maverick (part pro- and part anti- administration) Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) party, and one from Lakas-NUCD party also sit in the committee. In all, easily 69 or 72 percent of the committee members are Arroyo allies.
After just two days of hearing, committee chairman Roger Mercado, Southern Leyte representative, proclaimed that there was no collusion among the contractors, saying the Bank failed to show proof to support its charges against the Filipino firms.
Colleagues in Congress
As it turns out, the contractors might have more than friends, colleagues among the committee members, hence the apparent excess of empathy for them in the House.
Gonzales, in fact, is one of them. He is one of 12 members of the 14th House of Representatives who have revealed in their Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) that their personal estate had been built around businesses and/or assets related to construction.
In his 2007 SALN, Gonzales declared shares of stock and equity surplus in ADG Jr. Construction and Trading Corp. totaling about P33.4 million. This represents 44 percent of his total personal assets of P76 million.
Apart from Gonzales, five of the 12 House members with interest in the construction industry are members of the committee on public works and highways.
One of the five is Quezon Rep. Proceso J. Alcala, who lists Cotta Builders, a construction company, and P2.4-million worth of construction equipment in his SALN. Just like Gonzales, Alcala is a vice chairman of the committee.
The four other committee members with construction-related interests and assets are Biliran Rep. Glenn Chong, Apayao Rep. Elias Bulut Jr., Cagayan Rep. Florencio Vargas, and Zamboanga del Sur Rep. Victor Yu. All four are members of the pro-administration majority in the committee.
Interestingly, a company that is on the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) list of registered contractors has the same name as Representative Chong’s construction firm: Glejoben Construction.
For sure, having some experience in the construction business may help these lawmakers steer the committee through matters that may otherwise be unintelligible to others. So far, however, the public has yet to see convincing evidence of this.
Apart from the five committee members with assets in the construction industry, the other House members have declared construction-related businesses in their 2007 SALNs include Representatives Jocelyn Sy-Limkaichong (1st District, Negros Oriental), Arturo Robes (San Jose del Monte), and Adelina Rodriguez-Zaldarriaga (2nd District, Rizal).
In addition, family members of some lawmakers who had previously served in the House had revealed interests in construction. The list includes the relatives of Representatives Janette Garin (1st District, Iloilo), Danilo Suarez (3rd District, Quezon), and Czarina Umali (3rd District, Nueva Ecija).
Garin’s father-in-law, former Iloilo Rep. Oscar Garin, owns Garin Construction, as stated in his 2004 SALN.
Suarez’s wife, former Quezon Rep. Aleta Suarez, declared in her 2001 SALN that she is a shareholder of Centurion Construction and Marketing Corp.
In his 2004 SALN, Umali’s husband, former Nueva Ecija Rep. Aurelio Umali, declared that he is a stockholder of Mariposa Ventures Builders Inc.
Over the last four congressional terms, the pattern is unbroken: Over five to 10 percent of all House members is a contractor, or has interests and assets in the construction industry.
The biggest number of contractors in the House was recorded in the 11th Congress (1999-2001) at 13 percent or 29 of 220 elective congressmen. The incumbent 14th Congress yields the lowest number of contractors at 12, or only five percent of all House members.
Still and all, research and interviews by the PCIJ with some representatives and congressional staff members indicate that as many as seven in 10 congressmen may be involved in the construction industry, but a great number dodge scrutiny through nominees and dummy corporations.
The construction sector ranks only sixth among the multiple economic interests upon which lawmakers have built their estates.
The PCIJ’s database on the SALN of lawmakers from 1992 show that the top five assets and sources of wealth of lawmakers are: agricultural land, agricultural enterprises, fisheries, banking, financial services, and media, publishing and communication.
Without a doubt, lawmakers are typically drawn to join committees that could protect or proscribe, or are relevant to, their economic interests.
The committee on public works and highways, for one, has not lacked for interested members. Next to the committee on appropriations (125 members), the committee on public works is the second biggest in the House with 95 members, or nearly one in every two congressmen.
The third and fourth biggest committees in the House are the committees on transportation (85 members) and on ways and means (75), respectively.
Smallest, biggest issues
There are 58 House Standing Committees and 12 other Special House Committees, the smallest having only 20 members.
If membership in committees reflects how congressmen assign priority to legislative issues, the House offers a picture of misaligned priorities.
Nine committees have only 25 members, and two others, just 20 members.
The 11 smallest committees in the House focus on what could well be the biggest issues to voters in May 2010 elections: poverty alleviation, people participation, Muslim affairs, the welfare of children, national cultural communities, population and family relations, rural development, cooperatives development, revision of laws, and ethics and privileges.