'Independent Republic of BuCor': Why DOJ officials opposed joint venture Bantag entered into with private corp

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 19 2022 08:06 AM

This photo, taken on November 14, 2022, shows the suspicious excavated area located near the Bureau of Correction -Director General's Quarters inside the New Bilibid Prison. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News
This photo, taken on November 14, 2022, shows the suspicious excavated area located near the Bureau of Correction -Director General's Quarters inside the New Bilibid Prison. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Guevarra, Remulla both say joint venture was stopped soon after it was signed

MANILA — It was supposed to be a deal that would hit two birds with one stone — decongest the New Bilibid Prison INBP) and earn revenues for the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), without costing the government a single cent.

Under the deal, Agua Tierra Oro Mina Development or ATOM Corporation would donate 234 hectares of land to BuCor and put up buildings to relocate 28,000 persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) or inmates of the NBP, according to a press release published in December 2021.

In exchange, the company will develop the 375-hectare NBP Reservation in Muntinlupa City into a commercial, residential and industrial area.

The revenue would be split between the two — 65% to ATOM Corp. and 35% to BuCor.

But the joint venture agreement (JVA) between BuCor and ATOM Corp. met strong resistance from officials of the Department of Justice (DOJ) because of one crucial factor — they were never informed nor did they consent to the project.

DOJ NOT INFORMED, DID NOT CONSENT TO JVA

Former Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, now Solicitor General, said he only learned about the joint venture after the agreement was signed.

“I immediately sent out a memo to DG [Director General Gerald] Bantag asking him to defer further action on the project until the DOJ had reviewed the relevant documents. Eventually, we found that the unsolicited proposal failed to comply with certain legal requirements,” he told ABS-CBN News in a message.

“So, we sent a memo to the Executive Secretary to inform him about our findings. The BUCOR-ATOM project was apparently discontinued thereafter,” he added.

Guevarra’s successor, current Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla, confirmed what happened, sharing more details as to how exactly former DOJ officials learned about the secret deal.

“President PRRD [Rodrigo Roa Duterte] was invited to grace the groundbreaking of that project. So, as usual, the system is for the Presidential Management Staff to do a complete staff work. That’s when they found out that the joint venture was entered into by BuCor together with a private corporation, without the permission of the DOJ, at that time, Sec. Guevarra. So, the President didn’t go to the groundbreaking,” he said.

DOJ spokesperson Assistant Secretary Mico Clavano said a BuCor chief alone cannot decide on a big project without informing the DOJ nor the Office of the President.

“As per the recommendation and the legal study conducted by our team here in the DOJ, it seems like that’s not allowed because under the BOT [Build Operate Transfer] law, which is the applicable law here…kailangan ng approval ng DOJ and ultimately the President of the Philippines,” he explained.

The DOJ has yet to release a copy of Guevarra’s memo to then-Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea.

According to Remulla, there are rules on joint venture agreements (JVA) and unsolicited proposals that have to be followed.

Unsolicited proposals refer to project proposals from the private sector which are not in response to a formal solicitation and are not part of the identified priority projects.

ATOM Corp.’s unsolicited proposal, Remulla said, should have gone through a Swiss challenge, a procedure where competitive proposals are invited but the original proponent has the right to match a lower proposal within 30 days. This was supposedly not done.

But the Justice chief raised a more fundamental objection — he does not believe in selling government-owned lands.

“I cannot accept that because first of all, I do not want to privatize Bilibid. I do not believe that we should be selling property as a country. Ang tawag natin diyan, patrimonial property of the state. Nakatitulo ‘yan sa Republika ng Pilipinas. Ang pagmamay-ari niyan, lahat ng taong bayan kayo lahat may-ari nyan. Tayong lahat may-ari niyan. Kaya hindi pwede yan idispose ng isang tao lamang,” he said.

“Kahit may isang batas na nagsasabing BuCor Modernization Law, it does not give plenary powers to anybody to dispose of government property. It has to go through a process,” he added.

As the DOJ has yet to release a copy of the JVA, it is not clear if the deal includes the sale or transfer of ownership of the NBP Reservation to ATOM Corp.

Remulla is also not in favor of just relocating the entire Bilibid population to Nueva Ecija since that would mean still maintaining a “megaprison.”

“The worldwide trend in penology does not agree with the idea of a megaprison, that’s why it’s a useless idea. It’s not really good for our times,” he said.

In contrast to the JVA, Remulla said his plan is to transfer minimum security prison to Nueva Ecija and the maximum security prison to Sablayan in Occidental Mindoro while waiting for the regionalized jails to be set up.

All of these will be done through government funds.

“Walang private partner dun. Of course, there are proposals to privatize jail management. But I will not go for that yet. I think it’s too early for this country to think about it,” he said.

“But if there are proposals, we’ll look at it. If that’s the trend around the world, we'll look at how they’re performing and if it’s worth our money,” he added.

NBP EXCAVATION

The issue of BuCor’s JVA with ATOM Corp. came to light when suspended BuCor chief Gerald Bantag, in a radio interview, defended a mysterious excavation near the director general’s quarters inside the NBP compound.

The pit is about 200 meters wide and 30 meters deep, or equivalent to the height of a seven to nine-story building.

He said the digging was financed by ATOM Corp. as part of its JVA with BuCor and was meant to build a pool for disaster response training and for his scuba diving activities.

But Remulla divulged Friday that Bantag actually told him in August or September this year that he was hunting for the fabled Yamashita treasure, or the loot stolen by Japanese Imperial forces from Southeast Asia during World War II which they supposedly hid in tunnels and caves in the Philippines following their defeat at the hands of the Americans.

Historians doubt the existence of this treasure.

INFORM THE OMBUDSMAN

Aside from the excavation, the new BuCor leadership also confiscated contraband items and animals within the NBP compound, which were supposedly smuggled during Bantag’s watch.

Remulla said he expects more will be uncovered.

“Syempre the Ombudsman will be informed of all of these developments. It’s our duty to inform the Ombudsman on these developments because apparently some of them were not within legal bounds. There were some laws that were probably violated by some of these supposed projects,” he said.

“We will cooperate, whatever documents we have here, but it was never submitted to the DOJ kasi. It was done as an independent Republic of BuCor dealing with the private sector. Hindi niya sinama ang DOJ noon tsaka hindi niya rin sinama ang Office of the President, hindi niya sinama ang Department of Finance,” he explained.

These are on top of the murder complaints Bantag is facing before DOJ prosecutors, where he is accused of masterminding the killings of radio commentator Percy Lapid in Las Piñas on October 3 and alleged middleman Jun Villamor inside NBP on October 18.

Despite these, Remulla said he is not in a hurry to seek Bantag’s dismissal as BuCor chief.

“When I have the chance. It’s not very urgent for me right now. Because he’s still under preventive suspension anyway. And that automatically gives him a hold departure order because he cannot travel without a travel permit when you are a member of government. So, there’s a convenience to it. And we’re subject to the laws of this country,” he said.

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