TRC in zombieland still,
2 years after pork scam

Fourth of a Series

AT THE height of the media hoopla over the pork-barrel scam two years ago, Dennis Cunanan had a perennially furrowed brow that matched a grim countenance. But the Dennis Cunanan who sat down with PCIJ recently looked relaxed – which is not exactly what one would expect from someone facing multiple graft cases at the Sandiganbayan.

The cases stemmed from Cunanan’s stint at the Technology Resource Center (TRC), a government-owned and controlled corporation (GOCC) attached to the Department of Science and Technology (DoST). In 2013, TRC had been among five state firms singled out for possible abolition by the Governance Commission for Government Owned and Controlled Corporations (GCG), in large part because of their role as implementing agencies of allegedly anomalous pork-barrel projects.

In the last quarter of 2013, President Benigno Aquino III, approved the abolition of Zamboanga del Norte College Rubber Estate Corporation (ZREC), the National Agribusiness Corporation (NABCOR), and the Philippine Forest Corporation (PFC). Left standing, however, are the National Livelihood Development Corporation (NLDC) and the firm once headed by Cunanan, TRC.

Yet while TRC lives, it does so in zombieland.

TRC, insiders told PCIJ, “is still open but on the way to closing shop.” A DOST Technical Working Group, they say, has set up “parameters on the manner of closing operations.” Until February this year, however, TRC has continued to offer livelihood training seminars, for fees of P1,815 (decorating balloons) to P4,269 (commercial bread-making) per person, including one held in Gerona, Tarlac on how to bake muffins and cookies.

On its Facebook page that links out to the DOST website, TRC this year has also offered training seminars on jewelry appraisal and pawnshop operation; accounting and record-keeping for small businesses, setting up a hardware/construction supply store, travel agency, bakery, silkscreen printing, retail store, beauty parlor, and other small business operations; and making Chinese dimsum, herbal soap and detergents, trendy balloons, processed meat, and doing tilapia culture, among others.

As the DOST’s corporate arm, TRC supports research and technology by providing investments in innovations and rolling out or marketing the products of these studies. But state auditors say that somewhere along the way TRC became a conduit for the flow of pork monies to fake nongovernment organizations (NGOs).

P2.4-B bad pork

The Commission on Audit’s (COA) Special Audit Report on the disbursement of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), or simply pork barrel, form 2007 to 2009 abounds with serious allegations against TRC.

According to COA, P2.44 billion worth of pork monies was transferred to TRC during the period, and that in turn, TRC transferred nearly the entire amount, P2.432 billion to bogus NGOs linked to Janet Lim-Napoles, the supposed pork barrel scam queen.

The projects, the COA report said, were endorsed by a total of 143 senators and congressmen, notably:

  • Seven senators — Edgardo Angara, Jose ‘Jinggoy’ Estrada, Juan Ponce Enrile, Gregorio ‘Gringo’ Honasan, Lito Lapid, Ralph Recto, Ramon ‘Bong’ Revilla. Of the seven, Revilla allotted the biggest amount of PDAF to TRC: P127.5 million.
  • 136 members of the House of Representatives, including then Surigao del Sur 1st District Rep. Philip Pichay, who allotted P209.4 million of his PDAF to TRC.

From 2007 to 2009, said the COA report, TRC transferred the P2.432-billion pork funds it received to 39 NGOs. Of these NGOs, eight had been organized by Napoles.

In total, the Napoles-linked NGOs got P478.64 million from TRC. But COA said that the biggest payout from TRC to a single NGO went to Aaron Foundation Philippines Inc.: P476.41 million.

Cunanan’s role

During the period covered by the COA special report, Dennis Cunanan was still TRC’s deputy director general. He became its chief in 2010. The plunder and malversation charges he now faces, however, pertain to actions he allegedly did while he was TRC’s second in command.

Cunanan told PCIJ, though, that his boss – then TRC Director General Arturo Ortiz – had assigned someone else to handle the PDAF projects while he was tasked with day-to-day operations and “all the office requirements.” He said the set-up basically meant that when it came to PDAF, “hindi ko na nakita iyong buong flow na iyon (I was not able to see the whole flow).

Ortiz, who is also accused of participating in fraudulent transactions, is said to have flown abroad despite being the subject of an investigation. Cunanan himself left with his wife and four children to start a new life overseas as well, but he said he returned to face the charges against him. These now include the accusations against him by Benhur Luy, the self-confessed bagman of the scam’s alleged mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles.

In an affidavit, Luy, the scam’s primary whistleblower, said Cunanan was among the government corporation chiefs who had each received from Napoles a commission of up to10 percent of the cost of every project her NGOs had with their respective agencies.

Ready to face court

In a recent interview with PCIJ, Cunanan replied to the query on whether or not he received kickbacks this way: “Ang ikinaganda niyan, nasa korte na iyan. Mapo-prove na namin ang mga sarili (What’s nice is that the matter is already in the court. We can now prove our innocence).”

He indicated that his actions as then director general of TRC would have been different if he had really accepted commissions. Said Cunanan: “Sana itinago ko na lang ang mga dokumento, hindi ko na lang sila isinama sa blacklisting at hindi natin sila ni-require na mag-report (Then I should have just hid the documents, I wouldn’t have included those [NGOs] in the blacklist and we wouldn’t have required them to report).”

Cunanan had also told PCIJ about generating an NGO blacklist in the TRC as early as 2010. He said as much at the Senate hearing on the scam last year, where he sometimes became teary-eyed while being grilled by the legislators.

But Cunanan’s eyes remained dry when he talked with PCIJ last month, even as he repeated that when he was at its helm, he had tried to steer TRC clear of transactions with fake NGOs.

He said that through a memorandum dated July 16, 2010, TRC had blacklisted at least 44 NGOs that the agency deemed to be dubious.

44 NGOs on blacklist

According to Cunanan, this was after he had a briefing as TRC’s new director general in 2010 and he wanted some things clarified. So, he said, he asked for an evaluation and review of the NGOs and found many that had “reportorial” problems, such as lacking the required address, or they had unliquidated submissions. These NGOs were then sent letters in which they were asked to explain such deficiencies, and those who failed to reply wound up blacklisted.

In all, 44 NGOs were on the list, including eight that were later found to be linked to Napoles. Cunanan also estimated that the total number of lawmakers – from both Houses, he said – who had endorsed the NGOs on the blacklist was just a little more than 44 as well.

Cunanan said TRC informed COA about its NGO blacklist and found that the body was then preparing a special audit report on PDAF projects supposedly implemented between 2007 and 2009. TRC shared its list with COA, along with other documents.  The COA report would later acknowledge TRC’s efforts to pinpoint NGOs with “derogatory records,” and would say that its team “appreciates the action taken by the TRC officials.”

The NGOs that Cunanan said TRC had blacklisted in memorandum dated July 10, 2010 are:

The Napoles NGOs:

  • Agrikultura Para sa mga Magbubukid Foundation, Inc.
  • Masaganang Ani Para sa Magsasaka Foundation
  • People’s Organization for Progress and Development Foundation
  • Philippine Agri and Social Economic Development Association
  • Philippine Social Development Foundation
  • Social Development Program for Farmers Foundation, Inc
  • Agri and Economic Program for Farmers
  • Country-wide Agri and Rural Economic Development Foundation

The NGOs not linked to Napoles:

  • Aaron Foundation Inc.
  • Antipolo Social Alliance for Progress
  • Asiaworld Sanctuary and Development Inc.
  • Bantayog Kalinga Foundation
  • Rodolfo Ignacio Sr. Foundation
  • Farmer Business Development Corporation
  • Gabaymasa Development
  • Handmade Living Foundation Inc.
  • Jacinto Castel Borja Foundation Inc.
  • Kaagapay Magpakailanman
  • Kabuhayan at Kalusugan Alay sa Masa Foundation
  • Pangkabuhayan Foundation Inc.
  • Buhay Mo Mahal Ko Foundation
  • Commoners
  • CTEF Caring Foundation
  • Dynamic Filipino Citizen Filipino Foundation
  • Economic and Social Cooperation Foundation
  • Gabay at Pagasa ng Masa Foundation
  • Gabay sa Magandang Bukas Foundation
  • Gintong Pakpak
  • Global Support Link Foundation
  • Ikaw at Ako Foundation
  • Integrated Health Education and Livelihood in the Philippines
  • Kabaka Foundation
  • Kagandahan ng Kapaligiran Foundation
  • Kaisa’t Kaagapay Mo Foundation
  • Kaloocan Assistance Council
  • Kalusugan ng Bata Karunungan ng Bayan
  • Kapuso’t Kapamilya Foundation
  • Kasangga Sa Magandang Bukas Foundation

Cunanan also told PCIJ that when he was still TRC’s deputy director general – a position he held from 2004 to 2010 — he had headed its “change management team” that initialized “rationalizations” within the state company. He said that among the reforms they spearheaded were trimming down the number of personnel from nearly 700 to just above 160, and cutting TRC’s core functions from five to three. He said they did these to make TRC “more viable” and “more competitive.”

A new chief in place

Whether or not Cunanan’s “reforms” at TRC helped it survive till now is unclear. In any case, as soon as Cunanan went on leave in late 2013 and flew overseas, TRC got a new acting director general instead of an order to shut down.

That new chief continues to preside over TRC to this day: DOST Assistant Secretary Raymund E. Liboro, a former TV sports commentator who first joined TRC as chief of department’s Science Technology Information. He is an appointee of Secretary Mario G. Montejo, the brother-in-law of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr.

A mechanical engineer by training, Montejo himself was appointed to the Aquino Cabinet in June 2010. In March last year, he was quoted as saying by the Manila Times that TRC should not be abolished just yet because it has a role in “promoting innovations for commercial use, especially by technology-driven enterprises.”

“It’s a corporate arm to transfer technology because we need to lead if the private sector cannot take the lead,” he also said. “It’s the role of the government to [help in] commercial operations.”

But how should TRC reinvent itself? Montejo’s reply: “Now as to what kind of changes, it’s still under discussion.”

Since then, it seems like TRC has been busy offering an array of livelihood training seminars that, at first glance, are similar to those being done by state agencies. But then TRC has also signed at least one contract with the Philippine Deposit Insurance Corp. (PDIC) that calls for it to provide “eight units of Juan Time clocks” worth P27,600 per unit, net of installation cost.

The clocks, according to the contract that was signed in November 2014, are “PhST LED digital time pieces with dual function as message board” with mobile connectivity and application, and are suitable to outdoor and indoor environments. Signing for TRC was acting director general Liboro and for PDIC, Nina Noreen A. Jacinto, its administration services vice president.

How reinvent TRC?

But the clock is now ticking fast for TRC, and if reports are to be believed, it is in fact on borrowed time. A June 29, 2015 report run by Philippine Star quoted unnamed TRC employees as saying that TRC would finally be abolished. Then again, the report said that would happen by July 31, 2015, or after President Aquino’s last State of the Nation Address. Nearly a month later, TRC remains in existence.

How TRC would or could reinvent itself, and if DOST will finally fire or retain TRC’s 90 regular personnel are questions that have no clear answers as yet. The bigger question, though, is how TRC will close the book on its recent shady PDAF past.

As for its former chief Cunanan, he had applied to become state witness, just like his accuser Luy. Unlike Luy, however, Cunanan failed in his bid; in 2014, the Ombudsman ruled that he had failed to meet the qualifications to be discharged as a state witness.

This is not the first time that Cunanan has been embroiled in a controversy, although this may be the biggest one yet. In 2004, then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had appointed Cunanan executive director of the Commission on Higher Education, or CHED. But he was unable to keep the post for long after strong public opinion indicated that he was unfit for it since he was a college undergraduate.

Still, when he met up with PCIJ last month, Cunanan seemed ready to accept whatever will be coming to him. He said, “Ang sabi nga ng magulang ko, basta alam mo kung saan ka naniniwalang tama, doon ka (As my parents said, you should stand up for what you believe to be right).” – PCIJ, August 2015