TESDA’s pork money mill: Who gets how much, how?

Seventh of a Series

EVEN THOUGH the Supreme Court (SC) had declared the pork barrel dead and unconstitutional in 2013, the Commission on Audit’s (COA) Annual Audit Report (AAR) would still show that P125.95 million of the legislators’ Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) sitting in a small agency, the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority or TESDA, during that year.

Then again, that is probably because when the high court finally junked PDAF, only a few weeks were left before 2013 ended. The legislative pork that was still in TESDA at that time was thus likely a combination of PDAF from members of the 15th Congress, which bowed out in June 2013, and those from the 16th Congress, who still had a few months to be generous to the likes of TESDA before the high court declared pork illegal.

A year earlier, TESDA had actually enjoyed even more generous servings of pork from a lot more legislators. In 2012, COA listed 68 members of the House of Representatives and four senators who allocated to TESDA P301.47 million of their pork shares. And from TESDA, they had willed that at least sixth or P47.1 million be allocated in turn to 17 technical vocational institutions or TVIs from the private sector.

Of the 17 TVIs that received pork-funded projects from TESDA in 2012, Asian Spirit Career Foundation, Inc. and Asian Touch International Institute, Inc. continued to get pork-funded projects from TESDA in 2013, from some of the same legislators who had invested in the agency in 2012. Further, in 2013, Phil-Best Entrepreneurs, Inc., a sister company of the previous two, was also enabled by the same and other legislators to secure contracts with TESDA.

By the looks of it, these legislators had not done so as an affirmative vote for the mandate and purposes of TESDA: “to become the country’s lead institution in molding a workforce that can meet the challenges of trade liberalization and global competition” and “to mobilize the full participation of the industry, labor, technical and vocational institutions, local government, and the civil society for skilled manpower development programs.”

After all, while TESDA runs its own network of 21 regional training centers, 43 provincial training centers, and 56 technical vocational schools in 2013, these failed to land the legislators’ favor as deserving of pork. Instead, the private TVIs did.

These TVIs would soon figure in the COA’s audit reports on TESDA for 2012 and 2013 in less flattering light. The reports point to many “discrepancies” in the implementation of pork-funded projects by these TVIs, including overpricing of supplies and training courses, contracts awarded without bidding, improper selection of beneficiaries, seminar attendance sheets of doubtful integrity, and the conduct of different seminars on the same day and time for the same dubious beneficiaries, but at different locations.

‘They want pork in’

But whether it is the TVIs or the legislators themselves or other parties in TESDA should be held to account for these discrepancies is the big question.

Even TESDA Director General Joel Villanueva has expressed a sense of powerlessness when it comes to how pork funds lodged at his agency should be expended, and for which TVIs.

In a phone interview with PCIJ last week, Villanueva said that legislators, through TESDA’s directors and managers at its regional and provincial offices, are the ones who get to accredit and select the TVIs.

“They were the ones who dictated the costing, the partners, ‘yung ibang tools,” he said, referring to lawmakers who had already channeled their pork to the TVIs through TESDA. Villanueva added that the legislators get to identify which TESDA unit should manage their pork, and the officers of these units in turn get to enroll the service of TVIs.

“The funds are given to the regional and provincial offices,” he said. “Ayoko namang sa akin ma-sentro lahat, kaya sabi ko, kayo mag-manage niyan… ibang-iba ako kaysa sa nauna sa akin dito (I didn’t want everything to be centralized under me so I told them, you manage that… this is where I differ from my predecessor).”

“Yang scholarship, tool kits, ayoko din niyon pero kasi ‘yun ang gusto ng mga congressman (The scholarship programs, the tool kits, I didn’t want that, too, but those are what congressmen like),” he also said. “Noong una, pumapalag pa ako, pumapalag rin sila… Baka masabit ka, huwag na po, ‘di po malakas loob ko dito. ‘Di sila makahirit, sa bidding, may 30 observers. (At the start, I was resisting, they were resisting. Because one may get into trouble and I am not a risk-taker. They could not get their way (because) there are 30 observers during biddings.)”

Haunted by past

As for the officials and personnel of TESDA itself, Villanueva said that a sense of fright that they could be sued or go to jail now hounds them because “ang dami-dami sa amin nabigyan ng preventive suspension, nawalan ng trabaho, 15 sa central office (too many of us here have been put on preventive suspension, had lost their jobs, including 15 at the central office).”

By Villanueva’s account, TESDA has turned into a reform and reformist agency, in part because it had a controversy-ridden past under his predecessor.

Before Villanueva assumed office at TESDA in July 2010, Augusto ‘Buboy’ Syjuco Jr. was TESDA’s boss.

While he was serving as a congressman of Iloilo’s second district from 1998 to 2001, Syjuco has been charged with graft for alleged misuse of his pork-barrel funds. That, however, was just the beginning of Syjuco’s entanglement with pork and the courts.

Since 2013, the Office of the Ombudsman had filed graft charges against Syjuco before the Sandiganbayan four times.

On April 26, 2013, the Ombudsman filed six counts of graft charges amounting to a total of P358.8 million against the ex-TESDA director general. A year later, on April 15, 2014, it filed more graft charges against Syjuco as TESDA head for entering into contracts worth P80 million in scholarship funds grossly disadvantageous to the government.

Then in August 2014, the Ombudsman filed additional cases against Syjuco and his wife Judy, along with two others, for the alleged misuse of P20 million of pork monies coursed through TESDA in 2005 while Syjuco was its head. The P20 million came from the PDAF of Judy Syjuco, then Iloilo representative, for a project that was implemented by a nongovernment organization founded by Buboy Syjuco himself.

Just last March, the Ombudsman filed a new criminal case against Syjuco for the purchase of P9.25-million worth of books using TESDA money, through a printing contract that was awarded sans public bidding.

The Ombudsman indicted Syjuco for awarding the contract in July 2006 to Grand C. Graphics, Inc. to print 250,000 copies of a book that he himself wrote, Salabat for the Filipino Soul Book II and which he described to be “a book of Filipino virtues” and “a career guide for Filipino children.”

Seven TESDA employees and four persons from Grand C. Graphics were named co-respondents because, the Ombudsman said, they “willfully, unlawfully and criminally give unwarranted benefits, advantage and preference” to the printing company.

Insiders’ story

But Villanueva’s depiction of a TESDA now fairly high in the integrity meter is not one shared by some TESDA employees and partner training institutes.

Two senior employees of TESDA told PCIJ a different story – of “scholarship vouchers” awarded to favored private contractors by TESDA’s regional and provincial offices, in exchange for commissions of 20 to 35 percent of contract cost paid up– front or at the close of the program, always in cold cash.

One of the insiders explained, “At the end of the program, when it’s time for the PO to pay the chosen schools, that’s when there are ‘arrangements.’”

Uso sa mga PO (provincial offices) ang ganyang kalakaran (Such shenanigans are popular at the POs),” said one of the insiders. “Since PO disburses the scholarship vouchers to their chosen private schools, and the chosen private schools will report their scholars, true or false, there is no way to find out talaga.”

By contrast, the source added, “ang public schools at TESDA training centers, totoo talaga ang naka-declare kasi talagang mahihirap ang mga clients (with the public schools and TESDA training centers, what’s declared is true because the clients are really poor).”

By the account of the source and another TESDA insider, the amounts involved are huge. One of the sources said that the collection, per contract, “would range from 100K (100 thousand pesos) up, depending on the number of scholarships awarded to the schools, which amounts to millions per school.”

The second source and TESDA insider rued that the moneymaking ventures continue to thrive at TESDA because many of its officers and senior employees own either a school or an assessment center with TESDA accreditation.

“The officers of TESDA have schools or assessment centers, that’s how they earn,” said the second insider. The source added that scholars or schools that want to get such accreditation, in fact, do not have to pay any fees, “but centers are paid by TESDA on a per-head basis times the amount of assessment fee. So, depende ’yun kung ano trade nila (it depends on what their trade is).”

Payback time

Both sources also say that on the TESDA board sit at least two owners of schools located in Cavite, Batangas, and Metro Manila, that have been doing good business with TESDA.

“Corruption in the assessment (of scholars) happens,” the second source said, “when private schools pay back the PO, since they were allowed to participate in the assessment. Lahat ng nag-serve as TESDA representative from PO will receive from the assessment centers, JO (job order) included.” The “minimum amount” in such transactions,” said the source, “is 40K pataas (forty thousand pesos up).”

That such sums run into so many digits is not surprising since huge amounts of pork monies have poured into TESDA. In 2012, lawmakers had practically smothered the agency with their PDAF.

Of the 72 legislators who allocated a total of more than P300 million to TESDA that year, 68 were party-list and district representatives who channeled P284-million of their PDAF through TESDA. Four senators gave P17.5 million more.

COA listed two more legislators—Pangasinan 2nd District Rep. Leopoldo N. Bataoil and Aklan District Rep. Florencio T. Miraflores—who initially allocated some of their pork shares to TESDA. Bataoil, however, withdrawn his allotment, whereas Miraflores had his “previously released allotment” modified.

More than a dozen of the 68 representatives gave multimillion-peso pork allocations to the agency. Five gave P20 million or more each to the agency, with the topnotcher being Buhay Hayaan Yumabong (BUHAY) Party-list Rep. William Irwin Tieng. The bulk of his P27.1-million pork went to two TVIs that are sister companies: Asian Touch International Institute, Inc. and Asian Spirit Career Foundation, Inc.

Asian Spirit got P10.5 million, and Asian Touch, P7.5 million – or a total of P18 million – from Tieng. The balance of P9.1 million from the BUHAY Party-list representative’s pork went to various schools holding TESDA-endorsed seminars.

Makati City 2nd District Mar-Len Abigail S. Binay was TESDA’s second biggest source of pork in 2012. She allotted P26 million to the agency as “(f)inancial assistance for scholarship program in the 2nd district of Makati City.”

Representatives Monique Yasmin Q. Lagdameo (Makati, 1st District), Oscar G. Malapitan (Caloocan, 1st District), and Winston T. Castelo (Quezon City, 2nd District) came in third, fourth, and fifth, respectively, in terms of the pork funds they lodged in TESDA.

Six other legislators allocated over P10 million of their PDAF shares: Quezon City 1st District Rep. Vincent P. Crisologo, Palawan 1st District Rep. Antonio C. Alvarez, Democratic Independent Workers’ Association (DIWA) Party-list Rep. Emmeline Rep. Y. Aglipay, Rizal 1st District Rep. Joel Roy Duavit, Taguig City 2nd District Rep. Sigfrido R. Tinga, and Davao Oriental 2nd District Rep. Thelma Z. Almario.

PADPAO Private Security Academy, Inc. got P5.5 million in four tranches from the pork of DIWA Party-list Representative Emmeline Aglipay, wife of Las Piñas Lone District Rep. Mark Villar.

From the PDAF of Bagong Henerasyon Party-list Rep. Bernadette Herrera-Dy, Big Hands Institute got P5 million for its mobile school.

In 2013, Binay, Lagdameo, and Castelo were also among TESDA’s biggest source of pork based on the COA audit report. Their combined allocations of nearly P40 million comprise a third of the total P125.95 million in PDAF that went to TESDA that year. Binay allocated P15.1 million to TESDA; Lagdameo, P14.84 million; and Castelo, P10 million.

Senators, too

Four senators pitched in pork funds, too, through TESDA: Senator Juan Ponce Enrile gave P10 million for “(f)inancial assistance for scholarship program from 28 (barangays) of Taguig City”;  Senator Alan Peter Cayetano gave P3.5 million for “financial assistance for scholarship program” but did not specify his chosen beneficiaries; Senator Antonio Trillanes IV gave P3 million for “scholarship program of 400 students”;  and Senator Vicente Sotto III, P1 million for “financial assistance for scholarship program.”

About a sixth or P47.1 million of all that pork went to only 17 TVIs that COA’s 2012 report identified. Of the 17, sister schools Asian Spirit and Asian Touch bagged nearly half the amount and shared between them P24 million in all. Ten other TVIs each received a million pesos or less.

Asian Spirit and Asian Touch would also figure in COA’s 2013 annual agency audit report on TESDA as among TVIs that were allegedly non-compliant or with deficiencies in implementing the Training for Work Scholarship Program (TWSP).

Among that report’s findings was that Asian Spirit and Asian Touch, along with their third sister firm Phil-Best, had implemented majority or 28 of the 40 training programs in which TESDA was overbilled.

Just too much

According to the COA 2013 report on TESDA, that nine TVIs, for the 40 technology based-community training programs (TBCTP) they conducted in CAMANAVA and Quezon City in 2013, billed TESDA several times more than the original training cost they had computed in their project documents.

The rate of overpricing by these TVIs ranged from at least 82 percent to as much as 1,100 percent.

In the case of Asian Spirit, Asian Touch, and Phil-Best, COA noted that their training program on “basic empanada making” that cost P3,000 was 476 percent higher than the computed cost of P521.28 that appeared in their project documents. Asian Spirit also charged P3,000 for its training program on “pickled appetizers” or 718 percent higher than the P366.97 computed cost.

These three TVIs, along with I-Connect Solutions Tek Bok Inc. and Ilaw ng Bayan, also implemented 10 food processing programs (i.e., basic ham and peanut-butter making) that registered the highest difference between the computed and actual training costs: from P250 to P3,000 or a P2,750 difference. – PCIJ, August 2015