A representative of Boracay Shangri-La Resort and Spa told lawmakers on Monday that the hotel charged the Supreme Court P82,000 for Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and her staff's use of the presidential villa during the 3rd ASEAN Chief Justices Meeting in March 2015.
Melissa Ann Santiago, Boracay Shangri-La's director for sales, however clarified that the payment was hugely discounted as it was part of a "room block."
Instead of the P171,000 a night cost for the use of the presidential villa, the Supreme Court was only charged P42,000.00 a night because the SC was given a "courtesy upgrade" from a one-bedroom pool villa to a presidential villa.
Santiago said it was Sereno's then chief of staff and now Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Zaldy Trespeses who asked for an upgrade and they accommodated it on account of the entire contract package.
The contract initially involved a 59-room block which later increased to a 78 room-block for the 2015 ASEAN Chief Justices' Meeting on March 1 to 3, 2015. The total bill, according to records from Shangri-La, amounted to around P2 million.
Lawmakers repeatedly asked Santiago if the courtesy upgrade was given on account of Sereno's position while pointing out that government officials are prohibited from directly or indirectly receiving or requesting any form of benefit from a party whom a public officer might have to deal with.
A lawmaker suggested that it is possible that the hotel might have been thinking of a future benefit in exchange for accommodating the request.
Santiago maintained that the courtesy upgrade was given because of the total package and could be extended to other guests under similar terms.
"This is a common practice in our hotel to extend courtesy upgrade to our guests. Upgrade [was] for overall contract," she said.
Compostela Valley 2nd District Rep. Ruwel Peter Gonzaga and House Committee Chair Reynaldo Umali repeatedly scored Sereno for allegedly misrepresenting that the hotel "offered" the use of the presidential villa at no extra cost when, as Santiago testified, it was Trespeses who asked for the upgrade.
In her verified answer, the Chief Justice said:
"In its 24 July 2014 letter-proposal to the Supreme Court (which eventually became a letter-agreement), the Resort 'offered' the 'Presidential Villa' as part of a 'Room Block' for the event."
"Instead of booking additional rooms, Sereno, her staff and part of the secretariat were allowed to stay at the Presidential Villa with no additional charges. No fee, in addition to what had been paid for the 'Room Block' of which the 'Presidential Villa' was already part of, was charged and paid for by the Supreme Court for the use of the villa during the 3rd ACJM."
During the hearing, Trespeses defended the decision to choose Shangri-La Boracay, as it was the only hotel in Boracay which could meet the security requirements for the ACJM. He admitted, they did not receive any written quotations from other hotels, as required under the Government Procurement Reform Act.
"None in writing but we went to different sites but the only one which offered security is Shangri-La," he said.
After scrutinizing Trespeses' background as a private practitioner before joining Sereno's team when she was still associate justice at the SC, Umali blamed his background for the controversy.
"Marahil kung matagal na kayo sa public sector, you wouldn't have concluded that…Puro kasi novice, walang background, walang experience on public administration," he said.
The House Committee on Justice will continue looking into the use of the Boracay presidential villa when its hearing resumes on Wednesday.