Marcelo’s franchises given with undue haste

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc () - December 1, 2001 - 12:00am
If the Philippine National Police can’t even solve just the murder of actress Nida Blanca, what else can we rely on it to do? This wasn’t an obvious political assassination like that of Ninoy Aquino or Rolando Olalia, in which the masterminds concocted intricate subterfuge to mislead investigators. Blanca at the time of her death had retired from showbiz and was leading the quiet life of a movie rater. Her killers – more than one judging by the circumstances like number of stab wounds and apparent carriage into her car – couldn’t have had the compartmentalized organization of a murder squad.

Yet the investigation bore signs of deliberate bungling. The police colonel who claimed to have cracked the case never told prosecutors that "confessed killer" Philip Medel was his "asset" or civilian informer. The colonel knew him well, but didn’t provide enough background on Medel in the investigation report. When prosecutors sought to wrap up the case with neuropsychiatric and polygraph tests on Medel, the colonel refused. Why he did so should be a matter of parallel investigation. It makes NBI agents, who are now handling the case, suspect a coverup. For whom and why, they might soon find out.

With the transfer of the case to the NBI, the National Police again suffered a blackeye. It renews questions if the police organization has turned into a sluggish giant who can’t move about anymore. Or if it still carries in its officers’ corps vestiges of distorted military thinking – picked up from decades of integration with the AFP during the Marcos years – to cover up for higher-ups or produce instant yet unthinking results.

Whatever, the National Police does need a top-to-bottom makeup. It can’t untangle traffic, it can’t solve crime. It is a useless organization that should perhaps be broken up and placed under the supervision of local officials.
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If Pacifico Marcelo is an American barred from controlling telecoms firms, how come Congress granted him franchises for them? If his APC Wireless Interface Network Inc. and Philippine Communication Clearinghouse Inc. were severely undercapitalized to operate nationwide, why did Congress give him the operations go-signal so fast? A review of the minutes of committee hearings on the franchise applications may reveal the answers.

During the hearing on November 28, 2000 of the House committee on legislative franchises, several congressmen in fact took turns questioning the proprierty of APC Wireless’ application. Yet their protests were ignored and Marcelo got his franchise only weeks later. Hardly anyone but the newly-installed Congress leadership – cronies of then-President Joseph Estrada – was looking. All the rest, especially the House and Senate minorities, were preoccupied with Estrada’s impeachment trial. At that time, Speaker Manuel Villar had just been deposed and replaced with Arnulfo Fuentebella for leading Estrada’s impeachment. Senate President Franklin Drilon had been sacked too and replaced by Aquilino Pimentel for wishing to start the trial post-haste.

At the time of the House committee hearing, Rep. Rolex Suplico noted that the application of APC Wireless showed that it had an authorized capital of only P1 million, with merely P62,500 paid up. A telecoms licensing lawyer before he became congressman, Suplico wondered how am company with too little capital could operate a nationwide franchise of high-tech telecoms. He noted that local cable-TV stations, covering only half of small cities, required bigger capital. Why, APC Wirless can’t even afford to rent office space Suplico exclaimed.

Rep. Augusto Baculio, who had co-authored the franchise bill with Rep. Hilarion Ramiro, put up a spirited defense of APC Wireless. Same with National Telecommunications Commission officials, appointees all of Estrada, whom the committee had summoned to explain how they reviewed Marcelo’s credentials. Unsatisfied, Suplico urged his colleagues to study carefully the "legal capacity, financial capability and technical viability" of every franchise applicant.

Rep. Jacinto Paras also noted that the meager paid-up capital of APC Wireless was "not even enough to buy (itself) a PABX system" for office telephones. He twitted the NTC officials for mechanically endorsing to Congress every franchise applicant without reviewing the financials. The NTC men admitted that they study these only after Congress grants the franchise and the applicant goes back to them for a permit to operate.

Rep. Ace Barbers also pointed out that the application was irregular. In one bill, it asked for twin franchises for telecoms and for cable-TV.

Baculio argued that APC Wireless would increase its capital after Congress grants the franchise. Rep. Roseller Barinaga added that they shouldn’t waste time quibbling over such details because Congress sessions would soon adjourn for Christmas.

Because of the heated discussions on APC Wireless, Baculio sought deferment of talks on the other bill, that of PCCI, Marcelo’s other firm.

The committee met again on December 13, 2000. Baculio brought papers showing that APC Wireless had increased its authorized capital to P20 million, with P1.25 million paid up. Several congressmen still found it insufficient to operate a nationwide telecoms network.

When Baculio presented PCCI’s documents, the congressmen raised the same concerns they did two weeks before about APC Wireless. PCCI was projecting revenues of $1.1 billion or P55 billion a year from a clearing center through which giant cellular and land-line telephone companies would interconnect and settle their overlapping fees. It promised a chuck of the billions in taxes for the government. For that, all PCCI could show was an authorized capital of P10 million, with P652,000 paid up.

The protesting congressmen also pointed out the danger of granting two megafranchises to the same set of persons. APC Wireless and PCCI had the same address: Unit 907 Richmonde Plaza, 21 San Miguel Ave. corner Lourdes Street, Ortigas Center, Pasig City. Both had no operating track record before applying for the megafranchises. APC Wireless was registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission on March 31, 2000; PCCI, on June 26, 2000 – both with only P1 million authorized capital. Both were also controlled by the same person with no track record in Philippine telecoms. Marcelo owned 80 percent of APC Wirless and, at that time, 98 percent of PCCI. They had overlapping directorships: Marcelo, Voltaire Alcantara, Leo San Miguel, Dante Madriaga, and Guillermo Yanza.

There clearly was something wrong, going by the Corporation Law. A monopoly was in the making in PCCI, a scam in APC Wireless. More so when the congressmen were told that PCCI majority sotckholders would divest to concentrate on APC Wireless. Why there, when bigger money was to be made from PCCI? Everything made sense only when they realized that Marcelo was merely fronting for Estrada’s top telecoms crony, Jaime Dichaves, who at that time was trying to get his principal out of a scrape by claiming to be the Jose Velarde who owns P3.2 billion in a bank savings account.

Despite the protests, majority of the committee members endorsed the two franchises for floor debates. The House passed it days later. The bills moved to the Senate, where the waiting Senator Vicente Sotto III shepherded them through his committee on public services.

Soon after President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo vetoed the two franchises in April, Marcelo’s gofers spread the rumor that First Gentleman Mike Arroyo had taken P40 million to work for recalling the vetoes. At the same time, Marcelo was complaining to friends in the telecoms industry that he needed to recover at least P40 million that he had spent on lobbying for Congress passage of his franchises. Putting two and two together, one can only surmise the reason for the P40-million rumor on Mike Arroyo. It was an attempt to shake down the First Couple for reimbursement of the amount lost from the veto.
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You can e-mail comments to Jariusbondoc@workmail.com.

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