In response to Senator Leila de Lima’s resolution calling for an inquiry in aid of legislation into how government agencies can perform their mandate and their officers to discharge their functions without the improper influence and interference of parties with vested interests and dubious reputations as revealed by the internal squabble at the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, Senate Committee on Games and Amusement Chair Panfilo Lacson conducted an inquiry into PCSO’s charter and other issues pertaining to its operations the other week.
The Senate hearing however took a bizarre turn when resource persons transformed it into a forum by which they expressed their personal grievances against PCSO officers and hit back at their offenders. Subsequently, the resource persons practically took control of the proceedings, asking other resource persons to testify under oath and even warning them not to lie, and naming other people who should testify. On the second day of the hearing, Senator Lacson seemed to have turned over the hearing to members of the House of Representatives as they did most of the questioning,
The proceedings opened with Camarines Sur Rep. Luis Villafuerte, Jr. accusing the PCSO of failing to stop a gaming firm from engaging in “illegal gambling in the guise of operating a lawful STL.” In reaction, Senator Lacson raised the possibility of ending the operations of small town lottery (STL) throughout the country if the PCSO cannot take on the job.
PCSO General Manager Alexander Balutan said they are not tolerating any violation. “We summoned the PNP and asked them to investigate such violations. We do not have police power,” Balutan explained. To which Lacson said the PCSO, not the Philippine National Police, is still “ultimately responsible” since they give gaming firms authority to operate. In the province alone, STL operations have a gross collection of P5 million daily, but these are not properly remitted, Lacson said.
After Balutan had used up the three minutes allotted him, Lacson asked resource person Charlie “Atong” Ang to speak. Ang introduced himself as a businessman, consultant to PAGCOR, Jai Alai, and Meridian where he is also operations manager. He said his appearance in the hearing is to serve as resource person and to expose the stink in PCSO.
Atong Ang then launched a monologue denying the accusations of then PCSO chair Jose Jorge Corpus and General Manager Balutan that he is a gambling lord and that his operations are illegal, narrating that he met with President Duterte twice at the instance of the latter and not because he was applying for STL, describing in great detail how the two PCSO officers treated him rudely and referred to Sandra Cam disrespectfully, and lecturing on the charter of PCSO and on what charity really means.
All the time he was talking he was looking at Balutan angrily, his right hand pointed at him in a castigating manner. He referred to Corpus and Balutan by their surnames, even referring to them as “loko-lokong” generals.
When Lacson told him that his three minutes had expired (actually Ang had talked for ten minutes) and for him to go direct to the point, Ang said he was just answering the accusations levelled against him. When Lacson told him to refrain from maligning the PCSO officers, Ang said he was just retaliating because they maligned him. Lacson admonished him not to do it in the Senate hearing.
Then Ang asked Balutan to explain some operational matters like PCSO giving donations to some local governments and to Congress where there are no sick people, spending lavishly for a Christmas party, and sending to Europe a lady consultant frequently seen with Balutan. At that point Lacson cut him off and told him to address the chair, not resource persons, and that he wanted to hear other resource persons, Ang’s three minutes having turned over three times. Ang used about 11 minutes to tell his story.
Next resource person to speak was PCSO board member Sandra Cam. She said, her voice cracking and her eyes shedding tears, that her loyalty is to the country and to the President only and that all she wants is to expose corruption in PCSO under Balutan and recently resigned Jose Jorge Corpuz as part of her responsibility to ensure that charity funds are spent on the poor.
So that the public may know, she brought up the extravagant PCSO Christmas party, the policy of doling out charity funds to both rich and poor patients, the anomalous contracts, and the control of STLs by gambling lords. She was about to go into the details of the corruption in PCSO, holding up high a picture of a woman with the Eiffel Tower in the background when Lacson told her to focus on the PCSO charter first. Still, she managed to identify the woman as Balutan’s consultant who “lords over” PCSO procurements below P1 million, including the purchase of expensive corporate giveaways and the large food baskets distributed during the Christmas party.
On the second day of the hearing, on Feb. 12, resource person took on a more prominent role. She suggested that Dante Ang, owner of the Manila Times, and who Cam claims to be the public relations man of Balutan, be invited to the hearing to shed light on a full-page ad supposed to have been placed in his paper by united STL operators but suspected by Cam to have been placed by Balutan. When PCSO Assistant Manager Cabuyo answered a question posed to her by Lacson, Cam butted in and said she was lying. She demanded that all this lying must be stopped. She later on suggested that Cabuyo be cited for contempt for “lying through her teeth.”
When STL operator Aguilar was asked to testify, Cam told Lacson Aguilar has not yet taken the oath. She also told Cabuyo to tell the body if Aguilar had posted the cash bond required to be an STL operator. When Lacson asked Aguilar if there was a board resolution granting him a franchise, Cam said, “Don’t lie Mr. Aguilar.”
Towards the end of the day’s proceedings, Cam asked to be placed on record Balutan’s threat to her so that if something happened to her, they know who to investigate. Before the hearing was suspended, she asked that Bong Pineda be invited to testify as he is suspected to be the financier of many STL operators.
The hearing was intriguing in that the squabbling PCSO officers — Balutan and Cam — were appointed to their PCSO positions by President Duterte. The President exonerated Balutan of any malfeasance with regard to the “lavish” Christmas party. “That doesn’t matter to me,” said the President hours after Cam slammed Balutan. The day after, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque revealed that the infighting among Social Security System officials prompted the President not to reappoint Amado Valdez and Jose Gabriel La Vina to the SSS. Would the President make a similar decision with regard to the PCSO officials?
The active participation of members of the House in a Senate committee hearing is intriguing enough. But when Lacson, Congressmen Romeo Acop and Amado Espino, all former high-ranking officers of the Philippine National Police and alumni of the Philippine Military Academy formed the hearing panel and Balutan, a retired Marine general and also a PMA graduate being the principal resource person, not to mention the presence of 14 active senior police officers, the hearing caused many to wonder if there is any significance to the involvement of many PMA graduates.
There is something common among Lacson, Balutan, and Cam. They all have hostile feeling towards former president Gloria Arroyo. Even Congressman Villafuerte may be considered unfriendly to Arroyo.
Lacson ran against President Arroyo in the 2004 presidential elections. He was ordered arrested for the murder of Bubby Dacer during the presidency of Arroyo. Balutan, then a Marine colonel assigned in Central Mindanao in 2004, testified in the Senate that Arroyo had committed election fraud in the 2004 presidential elections. Cam testified in the Senate in 2005 that Arroyo’s son Mikey and brother-in-law Iggy were receiving payola from gambling lords. Villafuerte is estranged son of Luis Villafuerte, a staunch political ally of Arroyo.
Does the mention of Bong Pineda, known funder of Arroyo in all the elections she ran in, in the Senate hearing as the financier of illegal gambling in many provinces suggest a hidden agenda on the part of any of the principal characters in the on-going inquiry into PCSO?
Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a member of Manindigan! a cause-oriented group of businessmen, professionals, and academics.