'Build, Build, Build' hits chokepoint

Did he help firms of Dad, half-brod?
Unfair! Prove it, I’ll resign – Bong Go

GOBATO? Just can’t miss this huge tarpaulin on a major road in Davao City. PCIJ Photo by John Reiner Antiquerra

SIXTEEN TIMES across a two-hour interview he uttered the word “unfair.”

At one point, he said it five times in a row: “’Yun ang unfair (That’s what’s unfair). ‘Yun ang unfair. ‘Yun ang unfair. ‘Yun ang unfair. ‘Yun ang unfair. ‘Yun ang masakit (That’s what’s painful) on my part. That’s why I said it’s abuse. My name is being abused talaga. Sa totoo lang talaga (For real), Ma’am.” At another time, he ratcheted his remarks to “very, very, very unfair.”

Thrice, he offered to resign. “I will resign. I will resign immediately.”

By the discourse and devices of his boss, President Rodrigo R. Duterte, Special Assistant to the President Christopher Lawrence ‘Bong’ T. Go had these words to say to PCIJ when asked about the multibillion-peso public works contracts awarded to CLTG Builders and Alfrego Builders, Davao-based construction firms owned by his father Deciderio and half-brother Alfredo, respectively.

Go, the eldest of three children, also said of his initials being the same as the first part of the name of his father’s firm: “Kasi alam mo ‘yung mga bata, noon tayo, tulad noong sa mga SM, usually pinapangalan natin sa mga anak natin.” People usually name companies they own after their children, he said, “just like SM,” apparently referring to the famous mall chain. (SM, owned by the Sy family, is actually shorthand for ‘ShoeMart.’)

But Go swears — and public-works officials interviewed separately by PCIJ confirm — that he has not once or ever brokered or appealed for any of the contracts that the firms owned by his closest of kin have won from the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH). Notably, too, the two companies had not been awarded any contracts by the local government of Davao City, according to procurement data from 2000 to 2018.

‘Projects ni SAP’

Still, PCIJ told Go several times during its recent interview with him that the situational context of his closeness to Duterte is a clear message in itself — and may not require him to say or do anything at all for the firms his family owns to bag deals.

Indeed, in DPWH offices and in the areas where the projects are rolling out, people refer to the same projects as “projects ni SAP Bong Go” or “kay Sec. Bong Go.”

Curiously, too, the DPWH central office had granted multiple requests for information PCIJ requested nine months ago, except for one particular set of data: the CLTG files.

On Nov. 22, 2017, PCIJ sent DPWH a request for the bid documents submitted by bidders, complete contract agreement with annexes, and post-qualification report of several projects that had been awarded to CLTG.

These documents are not uploaded on the websites of DPWH or the Philippine Government Electronic Procurement System (PhilGEPS). Although contract agreements are published online, these are not complete and exclude annexes.

The request for records specific to CLTG’s contracts was the only request denied by DPWH of all the documents PCIJ sought to obtain from that office.

Family speaks out

PCIJ sat down with Go on a recent rainy August afternoon at a restaurant just outside Malacañan Palace. The secretary came in a casual light pink polo with a small red “Du30” logo embroidered on his right breast pocket. He sat across two PCIJ reporters, ordered tea from the waiter he called “boss,” and engaged in small talk over some pork, paella, and pinakbet. Once lunch was over, Go spent the next two hours determined to clear his name.

Several days later, PCIJ would also meet up with a few members of Go’s family, as well as an official of CLTG. They, too, would say the president’s trusted aide has nothing to do with the family’s businesses, among other things.

Secretary Go had sought out PCIJ after learning that it was doing a story about his family’s businesses in Davao. He said that he was unaware that PCIJ had been seeking an interview with him for more than a month, although a letter of request had been sent to his appointments office on June 21 and then a list of questions on July 2.

PCIJ had also emailed Secretary Go last June, in which it noted that CLTG Builders, a B-licensed firm, has become one of the biggest contractors in Davao and also among those that had the most number of civil-works projects delayed in the region. The rise of CLTG Builders also coincides with the allotment of more money for roads in Region XI. (See Davao story)

Less than 15 minutes into the interview proper, Go told PCIJ he would resign immediately if it found any information that he used his position to favor his kin’s businesses.

Click to play: Bong Go Quote_PCIJ
“Ni hindi nga ako nakikiusap sa mga engineer, ‘Ito pondohan mo’ (I don’t even talk to engineers and say, ‘Fund this’),” the secretary said. “Si DBM (Department of Budget and Management), ni minsan hindi ko sinabihan na lagyan mo ang Davao City para makapabor doon sa (Not once have I told DBM to allot money for Davao City to favor)….” He left the sentence hanging and instead said, “Once you are able to prove that I spoke with anyone — secretary, regional directors, DBM — everyone who is connected in your research, if I ever did, I will resign. I will resign immediately.”

PhP4.6-B contracts

CLTG bagged a total of PhP1.85-billion worth of infrastructure projects for the entire region from 2007 to 2017, plus some PhP2.7-billion worth of contracts won through joint ventures with four other contractors, including Alfrego Builders. In total, the firm won PhP4.6-billion worth of projects in a decade, more than half of which it clinched just last year, during Duterte’s first year in office as president.

Alfrego meanwhile got PhP88-million worth of projects in a span of more than decade, from 2005 to early 2016. In 2017, during Duterte’s first 18 months as president, it joined up with CLTG, Triple-A contractor FFJJ Construction, and Double-A contractor Rely Construction to carry out projects worth a total of half a billion pesos.

All these projects were won from the DPWH. CLTG and Alfrego, however, failed to finish on time the big projects it won in 2017, allegedly due to road right-of-way issues, even as Davao’s infra budget doubled during the first year of the Duterte presidency.

“Hindi ko alam yung mga tinatawag na joint ventures na iyan ah (I don’t know these things they call joint ventures),” Secretary Go said. “Kaya nga po ang point ko lang dito (my only point here is), it would be very, very, very unfair on my part kung nagkaroon ng dobleng (funds) sila (if they secured double funds).”

He also said of his kin’s delayed projects for the government:“’Yang mga bagay na ‘yan sagutin ng DPWH ‘yan. Kung kailangan i-sanction sila or i-suspend sila, or i-blacklist sila. I-blacklist sila (It is the DPWH that must address those matters. If there is need to sanction them or suspend them or to blacklist them, then they should be blacklisted).”

Yet again, Go said any suggestions of his links to the DPWH contracts that his family members’ firms had won were “very unfair”. All through the 20 years that he has worked with Duterte, he said he had tried to protect his name because “ako ang pinakamalapit sa presidente, ako ‘yung puwedeng magbulong sa president. Ako ‘yung katabi ko lahat ng Gabinete (I am the closest to the president, I am the one who can whisper in his ears. I sit beside those in the Cabinet).”

CLTG is owned solely by the elder Go. Before Secretary Go became Duterte’s assistant, however, he had been the company’s assistant manager for at least a year and a half right after finishing college. Go said, though, that since he is no longer part of CLTG, his family does not talk about it or its projects with him.

Not in Bong SALN

Go’s Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) from at least 2003 to 2017 do not include CLTG Builders as a business interest or financial connection. But he declared four firms in his latest SALN (2017): Cruz Electrical & Const. Supply Corp. (electrical supplier), Keizenng Trucking Corporation (trucking), EMSI Ventures (cemetery), and EMSI Prime (real estate). Cruz Electrical, whose cashier is Bong Go’s wife Emmylou, was acquired in 2007, while the three other businesses were all acquired in 2012.

PhilGEPS data show that a “Cruz Electrical and Construction Supply” was awarded a PhP1.1 million project for the “Infrastructure Projects of North Luzon TransCo O&M” implemented by the National Transmission Corp. The project, however, was awarded in 2006, while Go’s business of the same name was acquired in 2007. The three other companies disclosed in his SALN do not appear in PhilGEPS bids and awards notices database from 2001 to 2018.

Go said that since 1998, when he replaced Duterte’s former assistant, he had made it a point that members of his family stayed away from the Davao City Hall. “Binabawalan ko talaga sila. Pili kayo — kung ano kayo o ako aalis dito? Ganoon ako (I have really barred them. I told them, choose — you do as you please or I will leave this post. That’s how I am),” he said.

“Physically, as in lahat (everything),” the secretary continued. “Lahat. Makipagtransaksyon — ayaw na ayaw ko (Everything. For them to have transactions — I am averse to that).”

In this residential subdivision in Davao City, CLTG Builders holds office next to a vacant lot that doubles as a parking lot. Alfrego Builders holds office in a bungalow in another subdivision
that was unoccupied when PCIJ visited because it was undergoing renovation. PCIJ Photo by John Reiner Antiquerra

PCIJ field visit

CLTG operations manager Ruth Rodriguez also told PCIJ in a later interview along with a few Go family members – accompanied by a lawyer — that Duterte’s close aide had explicitly told them to stop participating in biddings with the Davao City local government unit “for the sake of delicadeza.” According to Rodriguez, CLTG used to participate in bids at the Davao City LGU but had to stop because of Go’s request. This is the reason why, she said, the company then focused solely on DPWH projects.

Rodriguez had joined Go’s father Deciderio, sister Maritess ‘Ali’ G. de Leon, and half-brother Alfredo in a trip to Manila where they talked to PCIJ last Monday. Apparently, Secretary Go had kept his promise to try to convince his family to agree to be interviewed by the Center.

In early June, PCIJ had visited the listed office addresses of CLTG and Alfrego in Davao City. Both offices are located in residential properties in separate subdivisions there. The property that houses CLTG’s office sits next to vacant lot that doubles as a parking lot. Alfrego’s office, a bungalow, was unoccupied since it was undergoing renovation.

PCIJ was told that CLTG’s general manager Deciderio Go was not available for an interview then since, according to the company’s purchasing manager Sheryl Marino, he was vacationing overseas. Alfredo Go, owner of Alfrego Builders, was also not available. PCIJ then left letters requesting for comment. PCIJ likewise called and sent follow-up emails from Manila.

After almost three months, PCIJ received a call from Rodriguez who said that they were flying to Manila. She would later say during the interview in Manila that they weren’t sure at first if the Center’s request was legitimate because the PCIJ’s logo is red, just like that of a rebel group. But then she also said that they were thinking DPWH would be in a better position to answer the queries posed by the Center.

Gos: It’s expected

Go’s sister Ali de Leon meanwhile said that they are well aware of Go’s sensitive position especially since Duterte became president, and had expected that issues like CLTG getting contracts would crop up. But she said that it’s not like they could easily shift business since they have made big investments in the company already, and acquired equipment that are hard to dispose of. Issues will always be raised, she noted, whichever government agency the Gos will deal with.

“Kung bigas kami, mag-susupply kami sa DSWD, magkaka-issue ‘di ba? Or hardware ba, mag-susupply sa kung ano, anything na nag-supply ka sa gobyerno (If we’re into rice and we supply to DSWD, there will also be an issue, right? Or hardware, anything that we supply to government),” said de Leon. “Nagkataon lang sa DPWH kami so kahit naman saan nga, magkakaroon talaga ng issue (It just so happened that we deal with DPWH, but anywhere we go, there will likely be an issue).”

The secretary himself had said during his interview with PCIJ, “Hindi ko naman puwedeng pagbawalan sila na huwag na kayo magnegosyo, huwag na lang kayo kumain kasi nandito ako sa gobyerno (I cannot prevent them from doing business, and tell them not to eat just because I’m in government).”

The 44-year-old Bong Go said that his father has been in business even before he was born. The elder Go for his part said that he has been in contracting since “around 1985,” with the Davao Golden Construction, a firm owned by her late older sister. The firm no longer exists but he continued on his own with CLTG Builders, which he put up in 1993, he said.

Needs appointment

The secretary’s half-brother Alfredo expressed disbelief when told that Davao residents had referred to Bong Go as ‘SAP.’ Rodriguez also said that people in Davao know the Palace official as ‘Bong’ and not by his full first name ‘Christopher Lawrence,’ and was therefore surprised to hear that they associate CLTG with him.

De Leon, CLTG’s quality management representative, said that having her older brother in public office has not favored their business because “anyone can bid” in government projects. “Hindi po ‘yung title ng company ang titingnan nila, ‘yung bid po ([DPWH] does not look at the title of the company, it looks at the bid),” she said.

According to Deciderio Go, he even needs to set an appointment to be able to see his own son. “Galit na ako sa kanya kasi mag-usap man kami, two minutes, three minutes (I’m already mad at him because we would talk for just two or three minutes),” he said. “Paghintayin niya ako, dalawang oras, ha (He would have me wait for two hours).”

He said that he and the secretary share a love for basketball, which they like playing together. But Deciderio said, “Pero wala siyang time (But he has no time).”

When de Leon commented that her brother has spent more than half of his life with Duterte, Rodriguez followed up with a remark that while Go had publicly said that he would die serving the president, he has never said he would die for his family.

To which Deciderio added: “Hanggang kamatayan na magkasama sila. Hindi kami. (They’d be together till death. Not us).”

The secretary had also told PCIJ that he has distanced himself from his family — not attending birthday celebrations or holding one for himself — because of his work and especially since Duterte became president.

“In fact, hindi ko nga sila nakakasama (I don’t even get to spend time with them),” he said. “Umiiwas din ako sa kanila lalo na ngayon presidente na si boss. Hindi ako nagpapakita sa kanila… siguro mamamatay na lang ‘yung parents ko na – matanda na – mamamatay sila na may sama ng loob sa akin (I also avoid them especially now that boss is president. I don’t show myself to them… my parents will probably pass away having ill feelings toward me).”

Unaware of deals

Go said that he has no reason to help his half-brother’s business because his mother simply would not approve. He said, “Napakasakit on my part. Galit ang nanay ko doon tapos bakit ko siya tutulungan (It’s upsetting on my part. My mother is angry with [him], so why would I help him)?”

Told that PCIJ had learned from multiple sources that CLTG had been allegedly cornering contracts through deals, Go said that he was unaware of such. But he said that these issues must be addressed by DPWH or Davao representatives who are among those approving the budget. Former House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and House Appropriations Committee Chair Karlo Alexei Nograles are both from Davao.

Said the secretary: “Ako napaka-careful ko, inaalagaan ko (pangalan ko) hindi tumatanggap ng regalo, hindi ako nag-intervene, nagtatawag ng mga ganito, sobrang ingat ko (I am very careful, protective about my name, I do not intervene or call people, I am very careful).”

As everyone’s “referee,” Go said that he is just so busy with work and more. “Ang trabaho ko lang talaga sangkatutak lang na problema ang dumadating sa buhay ko (My job has wrought a multitude of problems in my life),” he said. “Ako ‘yung referee ng lahat, referee ng opisina, referee sa lahat ng problema diyan sa gobyerno kung may hindi magkaintindihan. (I am everyone’s referee, the office referee, the referee of all the problems in government, when people get into misunderstandings).”

No less than some Cabinet secretaries run to him for help, Go said.

Billboard of support for SAP Bong Go cover a project billboard in Davao City. Photo by John Reiner Antiquerra

Reluctant bet, too?

Yet for all of Go’s denials of using his position to benefit others, he himself seems to be enjoying the inherent perks of being the president’s closest aide. For several months now, Go has been preoccupied with activities akin to running an election campaign. On the morning before his interview with PCIJ, the secretary attended the anniversary of the Philippine Fisheries Development Authority (PFDA) in Navotas, where he announced that PhP225 million has been allotted for a fishport project in the city. This is one of many public events Go has attended in and out of the country without his superior.

Much like his boss, the supposedly reluctant presidential candidate three years ago, Go these days has repeatedly said he has no plans to run for senator – although he has also said he will consider it if the President says so.

According to Go, it was actually his idea for Duterte to delay filing his candidacy for president in 2015. Duterte first filed a certificate of candidacy for reelection as Davao City mayor in October 2015. But months later, the presidential candidate fielded by Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan withdrew his bid to give way to Duterte, who eventually ran for the post of the country’s chief executive.

These days, Go’s face can be seen on billboards and posters along major thoroughfares while his name is heard in public service announcements on radio. “Ready, Set, Go!,” “Go, Philippines, Go,” and “SaluBONG sa PagbabaGO” are among some of the slogans used in print collaterals, including green-and-white posters placed in strategic spots in Metro Manila and some cities and provinces.

But several news reports have quoted Go as saying that he has no hand in the production of billboards. And while he has gone as far as admitting there have been donations, he has said that these came from private friends, not public funds.

His family also said that they had nothing to do with the posters and billboards. All they know, they said, is that the materials came from various supporters.

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Net worth: P12.8M

With assets worth PhP25.4 million and liabilities at PhP12.5 million, the secretary’s current wealth stands at PhP12.8 million, a figure that may not be enough to cover expenses of a full campaign. His liquid assets come up to PhP3.9 million, according to his 2017 SALN.

At a recent forum, however, the President had referred in jest to Go as a “bilyonaro” (billionaire), adding that the Gos have always run various businesses, including a printing press from the time of the secretary’s grandfather, who was a close friend of Duterte’s father.

Deciderio Go, who owns a coconut farm apart from CLTG, told PCIJ that his family is neither rich nor poor – “just right,” he said. But he said that his wife comes from a wealthy clan, the Tesoros, who own one of the largest printing presses in Davao City. He said that the secretary’s wife also comes from a family who has businesses in Davao.

Bong Go has yet to make it to Pulse Asia’s Ulat ng Bayan survey on the 2019 senatorial elections, which has showed mostly incumbent senators in the Top 12 of voter preferences. A recent survey conducted by the University of Mindanao’s Institute of Popular Opinion (UM-IPO), however, showed Go on the top spot of voter preference. Released Aug. 18, 2018, the UM-IPO survey results showed that 76 percent of Davao City residents would vote for Go for senator.

But Go’s family is not too keen about his running for senator. De Leon, for one, pointed out that they are already facing questions over CTLG’s contracts now even though her brother is “just” an assistant to the president. “How much more if he’s senator?” she asked.

She said though that they are leaving Bong Go’s political career up to fate, even as Deciderio Go said that everything will become clear come October when certificates of candidacy will be filed for the 2019 midterm elections.

“Bahala na sila (It’s up to them),” said Bong Go’s father. “Bahala na si Lord (It’s up to the Lord).” — With additional reporting by John Reiner Antiquerra, PCIJ, September 2018
Check out, PCIJ’s reports on “Build, Build, Build” hits chokepoint”

* DPWH under Duterte: Corruption, politics, slippage mar many projects
* Top 10 contractors under Duterte run record of fraud, delays, blacklisting
* Contractors: Candor from a few, thunderous silence from the rest
* Vetting contractors
* Davao Region most favored; others get cuts, token hike in infra budgets
* Firms of Bong Go kin, top contractors: Many JVs, delayed projects in Davao
* Did he help Dad, half-brod get deals? Unfair! Prove it, I will resign – Bong Go