Friday, January 27, 2006

Graft in Pampanga quarrying brazen, shameless

By Tonette Orejas, Inquirer

ANGELES CITY—Lawyer Estelito Mendoza, former solicitor general and Pampanga governor, for the first time spoke out against the alleged scam in the capitol’s collection of taxes from Mt. Pinatubo’s sand, calling this an “example of graft so brazenly and shamelessly committed.”

Mendoza, 75, one of the country’s top legal luminaries who held various posts during the Marcos regime, gave the scathing remarks during the opening of the joint cultural and historical conference of Pampanga and Cavite at the Holy Angel University here on Tuesday.

“Here in Pampanga, it is not artifacts that are being dug (up). It is sand that is quarried. But this is something we should be ashamed of because I have not seen an example of graft so brazenly and shamelessly committed and only a few are crying against it,” he told some 200 teachers, writers and researchers.

This was the first time that he made public his views on a controversy that has hounded the provincial government since 1998 or 12 years after he served his term.

Mendoza delved into the quarry problem after he pointed out that the conference, which ended Wednesday, was a way to “see the value of the past to the present.” Former Prime Minister Cesar Virata, a Caviteño, also attended the conference.

“We should now ignite a feeling of guilt at our indifference and beyond that, our lack of will and courage to confront and stop the erosion of moral values in our society, the corruption in our government and the abdication of our sovereign will to govern as constituted elements of what we claim a democratic republic,” Mendoza said.

“We are unworthy of the legacy,” he said, referring to the contributions of Kapampangans who served the cause of freedom and independence from Spanish and American colonizers.

In his speech, Mendoza did not name the officials involved in the alleged quarry collection irregularities. He, however, talked about the discrepancies he observed in the number of truckloads of sand hauled daily and the actual revenues generated by the capitol.

The current chair of the provincial quarry task force is Gov. Mark Lapid, son of Mendoza’s former political protégé at the Nationalist People’s Coalition, former governor and now Sen. Manuel “Lito” Lapid. Mendoza and former President Joseph Estrada first fielded the elder Lapid, then an actor, as NPC vice governor in 1992 and as governor in 1995 to trounce Lakas candidates.

The elder Lapid was charged with graft in 1998 in connection with illegal quarry fees. The charge was dismissed before the May 2004 elections after the office of the Ombudsman withdrew the information.

Under President Macapagal-Arroyo, Lapid reclaimed for the capitol the right to collect quarry fees, which Estrada had earlier transferred to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

According to Mendoza, about 3,000 to 4,000 truckloads of sand are extracted from the province and these, at a tax of P300 per truck, should be enough to raise P900,000 to P1.2 million daily.

“Only a small amount is being remitted,” he said, referring to the P10 million collected toward the end of the elder Lapid’s term in 2004 and almost P40 million in 2005.

Vice Gov. Joseller Guiao estimated that the capitol lost a minimum of P176 million last year due to graft.

Mendoza said income from the quarry industry, which enjoyed a boom following the construction frenzy after Mt. Pinatubo’s 1991 eruptions—the same disaster that spewed a huge volume of sand—could help poor people build homes and be provided with basic social services.

“This is a big problem,” Mendoza said.

He also rued the fact that the so-called SOPs, actually a term for standard operating procedures but which now represents the share of grafters in public works projects, had ballooned to 50 percent from 10 percent.

“What we need is a just and clean kind of governance,” he said.

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