September - December 2007
Power and poisons
Public Eye

From newshound to news target

HE WAS still in his last year in college when he landed a job at the alternative newspaper Malaya in 1985. That was at the tail-end of the Marcos rule, but the regime’s grip on media was still strong and journalists who dared to criticize the Palace often wound up behind bars or went missing. Yet journalist Ellen Tordesillas says the young Ben Evardone remained true to his profession and steadfastly pounded his Commission on Elections beat even though he had already been warned the police could arrest him anytime.

EASTERN Samar Governor Ben Evardone being sworn in by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo after being reelected in the May 2007 elections. [photo courtesy of]

Tordesillas, who was Malaya’s education reporter at the time, says that Evardone had a preventive detention action (PDA) against him because of his activities as a student leader and editor of the University of the East paper, The Dawn. The PDA allowed government forces to arrest alleged subversives and throw them in detention cells. “Bilib nga ako sa kanya noon (I admired him then),” says Tordesillas. “Kasi ang iba niyang kasama nagtago na, siya nagku-cover pa rin (His colleagues had already gone into hiding, but there he was still covering his beat).”

Indeed, there was much to admire in the young man. Born to impoverished parents, he had supported himself through college by working as a waiter and earned his allowance from his stint as student paper editor. By 1986, he had a business degree.

Today, however, Tordesillas can barely hide her disappointment over Evardone, who has gone on to become the governor of Eastern Samar. In fact, she says, “I’m angry with him. I send him text messages cursing him, telling him he has no shame.”

She says her anger stems from Evardone’s alleged departure from what a journalist strives to do daily: expose the truth. “He has allowed himself to be a tool against what a journalist stands for,” says a fuming Tordesillas. “He’s a mercenary now.”

At the very least, Evardone is now the subject of news reports — and not only in the province he governs. Late last month, he was thrust in the national spotlight when he admitted being involved in the October 11 cash-dispensing scandal in Malacañang. As Evardone told it, he — or more precisely the League of Provinces of the Philippines (LPP), of which he is secretary general — was the source of the bags containing P500,000 each that were handed out to first-time governors Ed Panlilio of Pampanga and Joselito ‘Jonjon’ Mendoza of Bulacan.

But many wondered why Evardone had at first denied that money had exchanged hands at Malacañang, and then changed his story after two weeks, and only after all sorts of theories were being thrown around on who gave the cash and why these had been given (and at the Palace at that). Evardone also made his admission on the same day the LPP had come out with a full-page advertisement that branded the reports of cash gifts as trumped-up, outrageous, and fictitious.

That some congressmen received money as well was left unexplained. Last week, though, Mindoro Rep. Amelita Villarosa tried to clear up that part of the mystery by saying the president’s party Kabalikat ng Mamamayang Pilipino (Kampi), of which she is a member (as is Evardone), had been responsible for the sums given to legislators. And when reached by the PCIJ by phone, Evardone said, “My conscience is clear. I just want to help the neophyte governors, being more senior than them.”

He admitted that he has been receiving criticism from friends, including Tordesillas, in the wake of the Malacañang cash-giving scandal. “Hindi siya masaya (She’s not happy),” he said simply of Tordesillas. But he said it was the second time the LPP had handed out cash, the first being last August, during an orientation seminar for neophyte governors at the Marco Polo Hotel in Cebu City.

Kung bribery, dapat may kapalit (If it were bribery, there should be something in return),” he argued. “There was none. What favors can they give except their cooperation and support?” Already on his second term as Eastern Samar’s chief executive, Evardone said he sees nothing wrong in helping out fellow governors, adding, “I give money to people every day at the provincial capitol.”

EVARDONE’S HOME turf, Eastern Samar, is not rich. It is a second-class province, with less than half a million population spread over 22 towns and one city. Recently, however, it moved out of the country’s infamous list of 20 poorest provinces. In 1997, poverty incidence, or those whose income fall below the poverty threshold, was placed at 67.2 percent. By 2003, the figure was down to 41.1 percent — enough to get it out of the “Club 20” of the nation’s poorest provinces, but still far from elevating it to the wealthy group.

Like most poor provinces, Eastern Samar’s Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) buoys up its finances. A look at its balance sheet also shows that the province’s tax collection went down to P4.8 million in 2005 from P5.39 million in 2004, while its service income fell from P1.5 million to just P77,536. Its business income, however, grew from P5.4 million in 2004 to P10 million the next year, and its IRA from P346.6 million to P371.2 million during the same period.

Evardone is a known avid supporter of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Some observers believe this enables him to “bring home the bacon” — in the form of a heftier IRA, for instance — to his constituents. This may be largely why he was reelected last May, although it could also be that many Estehanons think he was responsible for their province’s escape out of the notorious Club 20.

The development programs that helped pull Eastern Samar out of the rut, however, were already in place and in motion long before Evardone was first elected governor in 2004. Evardone has also proven to be a less than prudent manager of his province’s finances. According to the Commission on Audit (COA), Eastern Samar, under Evardone, mishandled millions of pesos in government funds in 2005.

To begin with, the whole provincial budget for that year was a controversial document for government’s fiscal overseers. Eastern Samar’s undated budget was received by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) only on April 28, 2005, although it was approved by the Sangguniang Panlalawigan on December 21, 2004. Under DBM rules, all local government unit budgets have to undergo review by the budget department before it is spent. The DBM immediately disallowed a P1.5-million confidential and intelligence fund for the office of the governor. But since the budget was submitted late, almost half of the fund had already been disbursed to a certain SPO2 Randy Derilo.

That wasn’t all. State auditors noted that the transfer, made in two disbursement vouchers, was done without supporting documents, such as receipts. One of the vouchers also had a marginal note by the assistant provincial accountant, who wrote that she was releasing the money “with objections due to the unknown identity of the payee and lack of supporting documents.” She also said that the “approval was made due to the insistence of the Local Chief Executive.”

When COA made further checks, it discovered that Derilo was not an employee of the capitol, but Evardone’s official security aide. The agency also noted that Derilo did not liquidate the amount, prompting COA to order Eastern Samar’s financial officers to require Derilo to account for the money.

When the PCIJ asked him recently about the P700,000 that went to Derilo, Evardone replied that his office had already liquidated the money, and that it had said so in a report submitted directly to the office of COA Chairman Guillermo Carague. “Kasi intelligence funds are not subject to audit,” he said. The governor also said that he was not informed his province’s budget had been submitted late, and that the budget department had disallowed the use of the intelligence fund.

EVARDONE SAYS he has been trying to keep a low profile following the flak he garnered with his admission that he was involved in the October 11 controversy. Actually, despite his supposedly strong Palace connections, he has succeeded in flying below the radar of most of the major news organizations. Even when he was the media director of the ruling coalition’s Team Unity in the last elections, Evardone was barely mentioned in most news reports.

For the most part, it seems that this has been to the governor’s advantage. For example, few outside of the province — and perhaps even within — know that the COA had questioned how his province in 2005 spent a total of P30.7 million for its aid and subsidy program. The money apparently came from lump sum appropriations from the office of the governor, vice governor, and members of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan. While the fund had the noble goal of supporting the province’s Annual Investment Plan, the disbursement procedures gave it a semblance of a slush fund. It was mostly handed out in cash, COA said, while some were in kind, such as construction materials, jetmatic pumps, medals and trophies, and cell phones.

COA noted that the fund had been disbursed without safeguards. Among the irregularities it discovered were the diversion of P97,000 to the personal bank account of the barangay captain of Dolores and the issuance of official receipts ahead of the release or issuance of some checks.

COA also discovered that in 2005, the capitol had used the aid and subsidy program to transfer more than P2 million to Philippine National Police (PNP) Provincial Director Pio Laher Manito, allegedly to implement the province’s peace and order program. But there was no memorandum of agreement for the money, “and the disbursements had no other supporting documents except for some official receipts” issued by Manito, wrote the state auditors. Interestingly, among those who withdrew money from the aid and subsidy program was SPO2 Derilo, who received P385,000.

Eventually, though, Evardone’s peace and order initiative did not prosper, in part because he failed to first establish how he intended to implement the program — even as the capitol kept on recording disbursements for it. These included a total of P900,000 that COA said the capitol spent from January to December 2005 for a media consultancy contract with “a certain Diego Cagahastian, et al.” for the initiative.

It was only in August 2006 that the governor announced he was setting aside another P100,000 for the use of a technical working group to formulate guidelines for the peace process.

The National Democratic Front (NDF)-Eastern Visayas has twitted Evardone’s peace and order efforts as “a cheap publicity gimmick” and mere “politicking.” In its website, NDF Eastern Visayas spokesman Fr. Santiago Salas pointed out that the peace process was already being carried out at the national level. Salas added that Evardone was “hypocritical in talking of peace while holding hands with the military” and “for not holding the military to account for killings and violent attacks committed on militant activists and civilians in Eastern Samar and the region.”

IN THE meantime, even some non-Estehanons have become aware of the sorry state of several of Eastern Samar’s major roads. This is despite the capitol having set aside P4 million from its Economic Development Fund precisely for their repair and maintenance. Indeed, the provincial board had even enacted two supplemental budgets for an additional P500,000 for the roads.

Yet whatever seriousness of purpose there was for the endeavor seems to have been lost in the implementation. Seventy-two percent of the fund or P3.26 million was spent for wages of casual workers; only 16 percent or P720,000 went to filling materials like sand and gravel. Of the remainder, P464,826 was spent for diesel, oil, and gasoline, while P48,500 was given as financial assistance to a barangay.

The provincial engineer told COA that the office of the governor had hired the casuals. Pressing further, the auditors discovered that the workers’ time records were signed not by the foremen of the engineer’s office, but by some officials in the office of the governor and by other provincial department heads only when COA came calling. “It was evident that the repairs and maintenance funds were intended to sustain the hiring of casuals,” said the auditors.

COA also found that the provincial engineer no longer prepared programs of work (POW) for projects covering the maintenance of roads and bridges. The job — and the fund that came with it — had been placed under the governor’s control. COA warned that the absence of POWs “resulted in poorly maintained provincial roads and bridges and in difficulty and inconvenience in public transport.”

Evardone told the PCIJ that he had no knowledge that most of the P4.5 million set aside for the repair of roads and bridges went to paying casual workers. But the PCIJ could not elicit more responses on him afterward regarding the COA report for 2005.

Tordesillas describes Evardone as the type of person who avoids confrontation. The 44-year-old governor even merely laughs off her tirades, she says, “pero pailalim naman ang tira niya (he does things covertly).”

A former college mate, meanwhile, says that Evardone is “a realist,” adding, “He can rationalize any action and make sure you didn’t feel guilty about something bad you did.” The schoolmate, who declines to be named, recalls that Evardone ran for student council president under a leftist banner, although he did not seem to be Left-leaning. The schoolmate remarks, “(Evardone) wasn’t really a leftist, he was a politician.”

Malaya publisher Amado ‘Jake’ Macasaet, however, says he never had an inkling that Evardone was interested in politics while the future governor was still working for his paper. But he does remember Evardone as “polite” and as an “above-average” reporter. He also says, “Evardone never acted like a newsman, who are often arrogant, and that’s probably why people trusted him.”

EVARDONE EVENTUALLY became Malaya’s senior political reporter and columnist, covering the House of Representatives. Macasaet says Evardone became quite close to then House Speaker Ramon Mitra Jr., himself a former journalist.

But it was then Pangasinan congressman Oscar Orbos who in 1990 recruited Evardone to be an assistant secretary at the Department of Transportation and Communications, which Orbos had been tapped to head. Evardone also joined Orbos at the Palace when then President Corazon Aquino appointed the latter as executive secretary.

Orbos quit the Cabinet in July 1991, while Evardone went on to become a PR consultant for several companies and institutions. According to an official write-up on him, he later “set up several companies mostly in the telecommunications industry,” including one based in Hong Kong. But somehow he found his way back to politics, and ran for governor of Eastern Samar for the first time in 2004.

Yet Orbos seems to be less than pleased with what Evardone has achieved. Refusing to be called the governor’s mentor, he told PCIJ in a recent interview, “Excuse me. I just recruited him. After that, people walk their own walk.”

“He must have been an idealist in his younger years,” observes a media strategist of Evardone, “but he embraced politics too much.”

The governor’s former college mate, for his part, says he was not surprised at all when he heard that Evardone was somehow involved in the Palace fiasco. But he says the father of two “is a good person” who is merely trying to “survive politics” for his constituents. He adds that Evardone is the type people cling to when they are desperate.

“He won’t die for them,” says Evardone’s ex-schoolmate. “He’s too smart for that, but he will achieve the objective.”