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Opinion

Scare grafters out of their wits

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

The Senate inquiry on the questioned procurement of laptops for public school teachers started last week coinciding with the return of face-to-face classes in most parts of the country. The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee and the Senate committee on basic education conducted a joint public hearing on the questioned procurement of supposedly “pricey, outdated” laptops as part of the “blended learning” program of the Department of Education (DepEd) during the pandemic.

The inquiry took off after the Commission on Audit (COA) flagged down DepEd’s purchase of nearly P2.4 billion worth of laptops, funded under the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act of 2020, for distribution and use of public school teachers. The 18th Congress approved it for the DepEd’s “blended learning” program. Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, chairman of the Senate committee on basic education, got irked to find that the Procurement Service of Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM) was only able to purchase half the required number of laptops due to alleged “overpricing” in the supply deal.

The joint venture (JV) undergoing scrutiny included the Sunwest Construction and Development Corp.; LDLA Marketing and Trading Inc.; and, the VSTECS Philippines Inc. that won the PS-DBM public bidding for the laptop contract.

Again revealed in the latest Senate probe were nothing new. We have known them all along.

There are huge cracks in the country’s procurement system that need urgent repair.

It’s an open secret in DepEd that the supply of computers/laptops have always been cornered by a handful of companies that supply mostly Chinese brands. In fact, as recent as 2019 — or months before the pandemic struck — DepEd also reportedly purchased laptops through PS-DBM worth almost P100 million. Yet, no one dared to question the deal. And now the Senate probe to the supply of laptops priced at P58,000 each occurred in the middle of the pandemic, amidst a severe chips shortage and disrupted supply chains.

It behooves upon the Senators to check whether purchase deals done by DepEd and PS-DBM since 2016 followed the same controversial pattern or process as the most recent laptops purchase. That’s the only way for lawmakers to establish whether there was a pattern — or worse — a conspiracy among a certain cabal of DepEd and PS-DBM officials and select suppliers to enter into deals that are disadvantageous to the government.

One only has to look at the recent Pharmally fiasco to know how brazenly some suppliers with bare minimum capitalization cornered multi-billion peso deals due to connections. Despite the obvious anomaly uncovered during the hearings, none of these shady suppliers were found liable. They remain scot-free.

While DepEd officials originally passed the buck to the PS-DBM for the higher-priced computers, it turned out that DepEd’s own information technology division agreed and signed off the purchase deal. The higher price and the inclusion of software, carrying case and three-year onsite warranty, among others, caused the price of the laptops to jump to P58,300 from the original allocated budget of P35,046.50 for each standalone laptop. The higher price due to the added peripherals and services naturally led to the reduction in the number of laptops purchased from the original target of 68,500 laptops to only 39,583 units.

One of the laptop suppliers—LDLA Marketing—might not be a big-time player yet in the information and communications technology (ICT) industry. But among the players in this highly competitive ICT industry, it is gradually being recognized as a reliable and trustworthy provider of state-of-the art digital solutions in both the public and private sectors.

In fact, among the LDLA’s clients include several government agencies and offices. No less than the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) and the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) were among them. The other ongoing projects of LDLA include the Smart Campus of the Marikina Polytechnic College and the Romblon State University. The LDLA is also helping modernize through digitalization the facilities of Central Bicol State University for Agriculture and Mindanao State University (MSU) campus in Marawi City.

The LDLA undertook these projects with its brand partners that include the biggest telecommunications companies such as Globe Telecom; Philippine Long Distance and Telephone (PLDT) Co.; Microsoft, Dell, Epson, Samsung, Huawei, Fujitsu, and Canon. The LDLA prides itself as the preferred partner of American multinational technology company Dell Computers and it is on its way to become a Tier 1 Partner of the global firm.

There is no single player in the ICT industry that can claim to be a “one-stop shop.” Thus, companies would have to enter into business ventures or partnerships with other players with niche markets to be able to meet the demands of their clientele. Will LDLA risk its accomplishments and long list of clients and global partners if they fail to deliver reliable, credible, and trustworthy ICT products and services provider?

As lawmakers try to find culpability and those ultimately accountable for this flaw in the procurement system, they must dig deeper and not simply focus on a single transaction. Much remains to be uncovered in the forthcoming hearings. The public can only hope that it will lead to positive changes rather than just another media spectacle.

Speaking in our Kapihan sa Manila Bay last Aug. 17, Sen. Gatchalian renewed his call to abolish the PS-DBM for its miserable failure to carry out its mandate to protect government interest with such shenanigans and hanky-panky that remain entrenched in the bureaucracy. Aside from being the concurrent DepEd Secretary, Sen. Gatchalian urged Vice President (VP) Sara Duterte to wield her “political will and huge political capital” to help institute radical reforms not just in education sector but also for the rest of the bureaucracy.

With VP Duterte’s track record of tough leadership, it should scare enough would-be grafters out of their wits.

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