Forever gagged?
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva1 (The Philippine Star) - April 19, 2016 - 10:00am

At the risk of being cited for contempt of court, but this must be said. There is something suspicious with the gag order granted by the Sandiganbayan yesterday supposedly in favor of the petitioner who has a pending case before the anti-graft court. The Third Division of the Sandiganbayan chaired by associate justice Samuel Martires issued the gag order effectively applicable to all five presidential candidates as well as the media.

During the open court hearing on Vitangcol’s gag order petition yesterday, Martires announced: “Presidential candidates Manuel Roxas, Jejomar Binay, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Rodrigo Duterte and Mary Grace Llamanzares-Poe are hereby prohibited from discussing, talking, writing, or propounding questions that may elicit or seek to obtain answer or information with respect to the awarding of the interim maintenance contract of MRT-3 with the joint venture of PH Trams and CB&T.”

The Third Division more than generously granted the petition filed last week by former Metro Rail Transit 3 (MRT-3) general manager Al Vitangcol who sought the gag order. In his petition filed last April 15, Vitangcol specifically asked that the gag order be issued against Roxas only. Roxas is the anointed presidential candidate of President Benigno “Noy” Aquino’s Liberal Party (LP) in the coming May 9 elections.

Roxas happens to be Vitangcol’s former boss at the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) when the controversial MRT-3 maintenance contract got him in trouble. Vitangcol is the only one facing graft case for it.

To be fair to all, the anti-graft court’s Third Division justified the all-encompassing gag order: “In order to protect the right of the accused and the integrity of this court in the administration of justice, let all the presidential candidates be prohibited from publicly accusing Mr. Vitangcol of criminal act included in the Information of this case.”

Naturally, Vitangcol was happy over the grant of his gag order petition. When sought for comment on the Sandiganbayan ruling, Vitangcol told me he himself was pleasantly surprised at the turn of events. Attending the court hearing yesterday, Vitangcol said he was initially bracing himself for Sandiganbayan’s rejection or dismissal of the gag order petition against Roxas.

“I wasn’t really expecting it. In our motion, we’re specific only to Roxas. I don’t know what happened there,” Vitangcol said. “Personally, I think it’s (gag order) a welcome relief because nobody can now discuss it (his graft case) and accuse me or claim I am guilty of something.”

Before he filed this petition for gag order, Vitangcol appeared as my guest during the Kapihan sa Manila Bay last March 30 at Café Adriatico in Remedios Circle in Malate. This was a few days after the televised presidential debate held in Cebu last March 20. Vitangcol’s name was mentioned several times during the heat of exchange among the four participating candidates – Binay, Roxas, Poe, and Duterte. Santiago, who was undergoing clinical test of cancer-cure medicine, begged off from the Cebu debate.

While he was watching at home the televised presidential debate, Vitangcol related during our weekly breakfast forum that he nearly fell from his seat. He heard his name several times being dragged into the bitter exchange among the candidates.

A lawyer by profession, Vitangcol immediately sought to defend his honor and called up TV5 as the carrying network of the Cebu presidential debate in joint partnership with The STAR, BusinessWorld, Bloomberg and The Freeman. He requested for equal airtime to rebut the attacks against him – which he unfortunately did not get.

He kept his peace and let the Holy Week pass. Vitangcol finally broke his silence and let out a mouthful about the MRT mess at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay.

Vitangcol quoted verbatim the words of Roxas in Tagalog spewed out during the Cebu debate. He swore the statements of Roxas were wrong on three counts.

First erroneous claim of Roxas, Vitangcol said, was he was not removed nor fired from his post but resigned at his own volition on May 27, 2014. Proof of which, Vitangcol showed us a copy of his one-page resignation letter addressed to President Aquino and the acceptance letter by executive secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., dated June 11,2014.

Second wrongful claim by Roxas, Vitangcol cited, the person referred to as his supposed uncle, Arturo Soriano as owner of PH Trams, is not his but his wife’s uncle. And third wrongful claim, Vitangcol said, Soriano had already sold his shares in PH Trams to its chairman Marlo de la Cruz under a Deed of Assignment signed on September 10, 2012. This was before the firm even joined the bid for the MRT maintenance contract. De la Cruz, Vitangcol claimed, happens to be a member of the LP Pangasinan chapter.

The PH Trams – the controversial maintenance subcontractor and partner in the joint venture – eventually won a six-month interim maintenance contract of the MRT-3.

The DOTC, headed by Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya who succeeded Roxas, awarded the contract. This was why Vitangcol found it odd Abaya along with 12 other DOTC officials were not included in the graft complaint.

Incidentally, it was also Abaya who succeeded Roxas after the latter went on leave as LP chieftain following his transfer as Interior Secretary.

While the Sandiganbayan gag order is seemingly favorable to Vitangcol, it is also beneficial for Roxas who was posted at the DOTC when the questioned contract with PH Trams started. Poe and Binay have zeroed in on Roxas’ once heading the DOTC. The MRT mess is effectively taken out of the political football field by the gag order.

The DOTC is being blamed for the current state and condition of public mass transport system in the country like the MRT, one of its many attached agencies.

The Sandiganbayan’s gag order, however, does not only stop all five presidential bets and media from discussing Vitangcol’s MRT-3 contract but any other person, for that matter, is restrained under pain of penalty/punishment from the court. So does it mean all of us are conveniently gagged to complain how badly run the MRT-3 is because of the shenanigans that went into this maintenance contract?

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