Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Al Vitangcol: hustler and idealist rolled into one? One thing sure, he’s going through his own Calvary now. Is Ambassador Rychtar merely trying to save face with a deal that didn’t come through?

Former activist Fidel Nemenzo posted a reaction to my earlier blog on the case of Atty. Al Vitangcol, where I stated that I liked the latter’s straightforward answers at the hearings conducted by the House Electoral Reforms Committee chaired by former Makati Rep. Teddyboy Locsin in late May to early June 2010---apart from Vitangcol’s looking like a seminarian. Nemenzo posted: “I remember Al Vitangcol from college days. He did look (and acted) like a seminarian. Hard to imagine him metamorphosing into the hustler media is portraying him to be.”

Indeed this is the problem of the controversial GM of MRT-3.  A large part of media is indeed making him look like a "hustler” and leader of an extortion ring that allegedly tried to mulct $30 million from Czech company Inekon in the second half of 2012, when the DOTC was bidding out the purchase of additional trains. Is Vitangcol really the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde they’re portraying him to be: an idealistic technocrat (Namfrel volunteer, lecturer, author of three books) and corrupt bureaucrat-mulcter rolled into one?

People who have taken pains to examine his statements and actuations--- in other words, those who have gone beyond press releases dished out by a powerful propaganda machine apparently paying big bucks to paint Vitangcol as corruption personified---have opined that he's being pinned down as fall guy for some highly influential persons.

In this connection, he's being painted as a sleazy politico when, as he protested in a recent TV program, "I'm a technocrat, not a politician."


At a forum organized by a student group at De la Salle U in Manila where Vitangcol was the speaker, his former colleagues in the local IT world showed up to demonstrate, as one of them put it, that they don’t doubt his integrity at all, and to lend moral support to him.

Among them were former Comelec Commissioner Gus Lagman, former Chief of Comelec's IT department Ernie del Rosario, former Comelec lawyer Melchor Magdamo  (who had denounced the ballot secrecy folder scam amounting to a whopping P700 million, and a few months ago also exposed the overprinting by the Comelec, through a private printer, of ballots way after the May 2013 elections), IT practitioners Lito Averia, who was recently appointed member of the Comelec Advisory Council (CAC), and Nelson Celis, who was president of the Philippine Computer Society in 1999 and again in 2009.

These distinguished IT experts represent large computer umbrella groups such as AES Watch and PCS, that have monitored various elections and decried electoral frauds.

A number of them who had their own run-in with their former offices, such as Lagman and Magdamo,  denouncing issues of fraud and integrity within the poll body, commiserated with Vitangcol who, they said, is undergoing his own Calvary now with the intense organized vilification against him. But they're solidly backing up his reputation of integrity.


PCS former prexy Nelson Celis pointed out that Atty. Vitangcol, who’s a UP-trained civil engineer, master’s degree holder in computer science from De la Salle U and certified forensics investigator, headed the forensics team that in June 2010 investigated and examined six PCOS machines recovered in a private house in Antipolo, still smoking from prolonged use (outside the precinct). Vitangcol, in his final report to former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and former Speaker Prospero Nograles, asserted that the extracted Hash Code of those examined machines (which is to the PCOS machine what finger-print and DNA are to humans---a unique identifying mark) did not match the Hash Code published in Comelec’s official website. Magka-iba.

Moreover, said Vitangcol, there was no evidence to prove existence of digital signatures in those machines, contrary to the claim of Smartmatic.


The forensics team under Vitangcol also found that the PCOS machines contained a console port which Smartmatic claimed was only a one-way output port. But very significantly, using a serial cable provided by the Smart technicians, the forensics guys were able to connect AN ORDINARY LAPTOP COMPUTER to the console port of a PCOS. To the surprise of everyone (now longer surprising, after IT experts have grown hoarse denouncing Smart’s many grave shortcomings), the serially connected laptop computer was able to ACCESS the operating system of the PCOS machine, in a NON-SECURE manner---meaning, WITHOUT ANY PASSWORD OR USERNAME REQUIRED (emphasis BOC’s)!

It clearly showed that the machines were perfectly open to hacking and being controlled from outside (which apparently happened in 2010 and again in 2013, leaving the outcome of those elections totally DISPUTABLE).

Why am I belaboring these findings of the forensics team headed by Vitangcol in 2010? Obvious, di ba?  Vitangcol is clearly that sophisticated and idealistic. Thus, it defies comprehension how and why he would suddenly be the RING-LEADER of the seemingly shady characters who sought to extort $30 million from Inekon in exchange for guaranteeing the contract for additional MRT-3 trains.


In his power-point presentation at De la Salle Vitangcol flatly asserted that he does not personally know the people the Czech Ambassador is linking him with in the alleged scam, but that he has dealt with them only on a professional basis. Neither has he authorized anyone to talk to the ambassador on his behalf.

Vitangcol also stressed that Inekon submitted a bid for extra trains way above the price offered by a wide range of other bidders from all over the world, but that nevertheless he forwarded its bid to Usec Perpetuo M. Lotilla, chair of the DOTC’s bids and awards committee, and Usec Rene Limcaoco who handles the rail sector of DOTC, “for appropriate actions.”


At the same time Vitangcol stressed the huge discrepancy between Inekon and the other bidders (China Dalian eventually won the bid in June of 2013), and later also reminded his superiors about “open competitive public bidding procedures as per RA 9184, the Government Procurement Reform Act.”

It should also be noted that there are two layers of decision-makers in that bidding process ABOVE Vitangcol---DOTC Secretary Joseph Abaya and the undersecretaries (Vitangcol holds rank of assistant secretary). Then there’s NEDA that approved a budget contract for $1.895 million per train that would bring in 48 additional trains instead of the 26 offered by Inekon.

Another relevant factor: even if he suddenly turned corrupt, away from his old  idealistic reputation, due to the dizzying prospect of getting part of $30 million in kickbacks, would Vitangcol be so brazen and audacious as to try to ram through a huge scam WITHIN SIX MONTHS after he was appointed to his office (on Jan. 2, 2012 by DOTC Secretary Mar Roxas)? This is his very first government job, but even veteran bureaucrats couldn’t be that bold in a six-month old job!


What am I driving at with all these facts? It’s that there's nothing in Vitangcol’s professional record to indicate he would suddenly turn corrupt. Even if the titillating   prospect of having a big slice of the $30 million extort fee could have corrupted him, he’s too intelligent not to realize that there are the real decision-makers above him---unless he’s fronting for Abaya. But that speculation cannot wash as Abaya treated him quite shabbily in late 2012---ordering Vitangcol to go on leave three consecutive times, slapping one order after another, allegedly so as not to influence the extortion investigation.

On the third order to go on leave, however, Vitangcol refused to obey and instead challenged  Abaya, through a lawyer, to just file charges against him, but until now there’s no charge. In fact, two weeks ago Abaya CLEARED him of all administrative charges, ahead of the NBI’s completion of its investigation. 

Secretary Abaya, an outstanding Annapolis graduate, seems quite inconsistent in his actuations toward his subordinate. 


As for Czech Ambassador Rychtar, Vitangcol pointed out a number of inconsistencies in envoy's statements to media, asserting that a lot of what he has said is pure hearsay that won’t stand in court (he plans to sue Rychtar). There’s also the letter that Inekon Chair Josef Husek wrote Vitangcol on July 16, 2012 where he sounded quite confident that he'd bag the contract and thanked the MRT-3 GM for a “fruitful and promisable (sic) discussion” in Manila. In that letter Husek announced the reduction of train unit price from Euro3.1 million each, to $3.05 million each and his plan to set up a “daughter company” for the separate maintenance contract (which a Filipino joint venture ultimately bagged). Husek also invited Vitangcol to visit Prague (“mabuti na lang hindi ko tinanggap,” he mused at the forum). 

When the deal failed to be consummated, Husek began echoing Rychtar’s line about the MRT-3 GM being the scam ringleader.

Folks who have followed the exchange between Rychtar and Vitangcol suspect that the envoy could have been promised the contract early on by some people close to the powers that be---only to lose it when Vitangcol discouraged the DOTC officials by highlighting the big discrepancy in price of the trains. They opine that Rychtar might have lost face with his government on this deal, so that now he has become quite irascible about Vitangcol and ayaw na pasaway. 

Paging Mareng Winnie.