DPWH chief ‘appoints’ self to head MWSS

DPWH chief ‘appoints’ self to head MWSS
By Gil C. Cabacungan Jr., Kristine L. Alave
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—It appears that Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson could not wait for his boss to appoint him to head the body that regulates the private water concessionaire that he used to manage.

On his own, Singson, the former president and chief executive officer of Maynilad Water Services Inc., wrote a letter wherein he claimed that President Benigno Aquino III wanted him to head the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS).

But the President seems unaware of Singson’s self-appointment. “Will check on that,” he said in a text message, responding to the question of whether he knew that Singson had appointed himself MWSS chair.

In a letter dated July 6 and addressed to MWSS Chair Gabriel Claudio, Singson said: “We wish to inform you that it is the desire of His Excellency, President Benigno C. Aquino III, that the secretary of public works and highways immediately assume the position as ex-officio chairman of the board of trustees of the [MWSS] pursuant to Section 4 of Republic Act No. 6234 as amended.”

Singson, also a former director of Metro Pacific Investments Corp., took over Claudio’s post on July 7, when the MWSS had its first scheduled board meeting for the month.

But Singson Thursday said he “cleared” his move with Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa before going to the MWSS.

“I cleared it with the ES in a letter. I wouldn’t have done it without their signal,” he said.

Conflict of interest?

Reached by phone, Claudio, a top political adviser of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, said that under the rules, the public works secretary served as chair of the MWSS unless the President appointed another person.

He refused to comment on the purported conflict of interest inherent in Singson’s takeover of the MWSS.

Maynilad was formed by the Lopez group 15 years ago to bid for Metro Manila’s huge concession area, which the administration of President Fidel Ramos had divided into two zones to engender competition and protect consumer interest.

Maynilad won the west zone, and Ayala-owned Manila Water Company Inc. won the east zone.

Because of Maynilad’s debt problems, the Lopez group’s allies—Metro Pacific Investment Corp. run by Manuel V. Pangilinan and construction and property giant DMCI Holdings—took over the water firm three years ago.

Singson, however, said there was no conflict of interest when he accepted the public works portfolio after working with Maynilad.

“What conflict of interest? We are both protecting the consumers,” he told the Inquirer over the phone.

He said that in order for this kind of talk to die down, he would sell his shares in the companies he used to head.

“I am selling my shares. I have 30 days to do that,” he said, adding in jest that he would be on the losing end. “Lugi pa nga ako.”

Ties to big business

The deep ties of Singson and other Cabinet officials to big business interests have elicited questions from lawmakers about the “disturbing pattern” of Mr. Aquino’s appointments.

Speculations have swirled about such appointments as Transportation and Communications Secretary Jose de Jesus (a former president of Manila Electric Co., which is jointly run by the Lopez group and Metro Pacific, and a former executive vice president of Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co.) and Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras (a former president of Manila Water and Cebu Holdings Inc., both owned by the Ayala group, and a former treasurer of the Aboitiz group).

In an interview, Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Teodoro Casiño said Congress would keep a close watch on appointees with known connections to utility firms and other powerful business interests, “to make sure that they do not unduly favor the monopoly interests of their patrons.”

Casiño said that during the confirmation and budget hearings, lawmakers would demand from these appointees their firm commitment to prioritize public interest over the interest of their former business associates.

“We are calling on the public to serve as a check to any potential conflict-of-interest situations brought about by such appointments. This is crucial given that oil, water, power and telecommunications firms are itching to raise their prices and profits,” he said.

’Nothing new’

But according to Singson, the MWSS charter states that its ex-officio chair is the public works chief.

“It’s always the DPWH secretary [who chairs the MWSS board]. There’s nothing new there,” he said.

Singson said his decision to chair the MWSS had raised eyebrows because “some people wanted to stay” in the agency.

He also said the Arroyo administration did not follow the charter and gave the posts to political appointees.

The ProPinoy Project