Communications Secretary Carandang on dismissal of Deputy Ombudsman, oil price hike, families of the executed Filipinos in China, merging of PLDT and Digitel

Press Briefing by Communications Secretary Ramon A. Carandang:
On the President’s Day in Iloilo, the dismissal of Deputy Ombudsman Emilio Gonzales III from the Office of the President, the oil price hike, the benefits given to the families of the executed Filipinos in China, the merging of PLDT and Digitel, and other topics
Briefing Room, 2/F New Executive Building, Malacañang, Manila
April 1, 2011; 11:00 hrs. EST
COMMUNICATIONS SECRETARY RAMON A. CARANDANG: Good morning, Marie. Good morning to the Malacañang Press Corps.
A few announcements as we kick off our final press con of the week. President [Benigno] Aquino as you know is in Iloilo to inaugurate the expanded facility of the Panay Energy Development Corporation. As they switch-on the plant today, the area will be given an additional [of] 164 megawatts of electricity which much is need by Panay and the nearby areas that are served. The capacity of the plant, which has been existence, is about 110 megawatts. It is now seeing an additional 164 megawatts—much needed power for both consumers and businesses there in the Iloilo and Panay area.
Also this afternoon, the President will attend the Ceremonial Awarding and Distribution of Social Services. These are the poor families who will be benefiting from the Conditional Cash Transfer Program. The expansion of PhilHealth and other social projects meant to ensure that poorest of the poor in our country feel the effects of economic growth. Yesterday also, as you know we were in Batangas. The President witnessed what they call a off-loading of modules meant for oil refineries. These modules were built by AG&P [Atlantic, Gulf & Pacific Company of Manila, Inc.] which a local company. That company—we were talking about that yesterday—is expanding its business because it has gotten contracts from many overseas companies including Bridge Petroleum, Bechtel, some of the biggest industrial companies to fabricate components for their refineries.
Yesterday, as I was talking to some executives of AG&P—the President was also there –they said that they have a need for as many as 4,000 engineers who have experienced working on oil refining facilities. We’ve talked about the possibilities of absorbing workers who were displaced in Libya. As you know, many Filipino workers in Libya were working on oil rigs, oil refineries, and AG&P is actually looking now at hiring thousands of those workers who were displaced from Libya. So, that’s some good news for some of those people who left their jobs behind in Libya. Makakahanap po sila ng trabaho dito sa Pilipinas.
I also want to announce one more thing. The Executive Secretary has released a decision, and I will read it to you right now:
Deputy Ombudsman Emilio Gonzales III has been dismissed by the Office of the President for gross neglect of duty and gross misconduct in the handling of the dismissal complaint against hostage taker, former Inspector Rolando Mendoza, on the recommendation of Palace lawyers who reviewed the findings of the Incident  Investigation and Review committee with regard to the hostage taking in the Quirino Grandstand.
This is the first time that the administration has taken direct action against an official in connection with the August 23 hostage taking, following the review of the IIRC report by Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa and his legal team. The decision was formalized yesterday, March 31, 2011.
Joel Guinto [Bloomberg]: Sir, iyong jobs na io-offer ng AG&P, are these domestic?
CARANDANG: Yes, they’re domestic jobs. They need to hire as many as 4,000, perhaps even more, people with engineering experience. So, we’re hoping that it’s going to be a perfect fit with some of the workers who lost their jobs in Libya.
Guinto: Sir, ilan ba iyong na-displace because of what’s happening in Libya?
CARANDANG: Well, we had about 25,000 Filipinos working in Libya. As I understand, about 22,000 had to leave the country. The rest have opted to stay despite the warnings. Not all of them, Joel, are engineering people who will be qualified for these jobs. But certainly, a substantial number of Filipino workers are hoping to be absorbed by AG&P.
RG Cruz: Sir, will the AG&P be able to match the employment compensation that they left in Libya?
CARANDANG: I’m not sure what the employment structure is. Most likely, in general, RG, the wage levels here are a bit lower than they are overseas, kaya po sila nag-o-overseas. But these are highly skilled workers. And we’ve visited the AG&P facility. They provide housing. They provide food. They are very well taken care of in AG&P. And I think that it’s certainly a better alternative than going back to Libya, which is certainly not a place where we recommend our engineers to go. So, I’m not sure what the wage levels will be. But in general, we can assure them—the AG&P has assured us that the compensation levels are competitive.
Cruz: Going back to the Ombudsman, aside from Deputy Ombudsman Gonzales, are there any other personalities who are, so to speak, on the “chopping block?”
CARANDANG: Well, as you know, we have sent a show cause letter to some of the Ombudsman prosecutors including Wendel Sulit. The Justice Committee report which was submitted to us was treated as a complaint, and that’s going through the process. I don’t want to preempt the process, RG, but suffice to say that that’s being looked into right now.
Cruz: Is there any self-imposed deadline as to when the process with regards to the Ombudsman and the Garcia plea bargain will be terminated?
CARANDANG: I’m not aware that there’s any specific deadline as in next week or next month. But certainly, the process is being undertaken now, and we can expect some word on that in, perhaps, the coming…
Cruz: And since the Deputy Ombudsman has been dismissed, is there any word on possible replacements?
CARANDANG: I’m looking at the report right now. It’s not indicated that we have a replacement in mind at this time.
Reymund Tinaza [Bombo Radyo]: Sir, I understand the fuel subsidy has already been approved… by the President, and yet the transport group, specifically PISTON [Pagkakaisa ng mga Samahan ng Tsuper at Opereytor Nationwide], is not contented and still insisting on scrapping the 12 percent VAT [Value Added Tax] on oil?
CARANDANG: Kapag ini-scrap natin iyong 12 percent VAT on fuel, malaki ang mawawala sa gobyerno—billions of pesos a year, tens of billions of pesos a year. Right now, the economic team does not believe that is an option. Alam ko iyong reklamo ng PISTON, ngunit si Secretary [Jose] Almendras ay nakikipag-usap sa ibang mga union. PISTON is not the only transport union in the Philippines, and there are many more unions. And I think that the discussions with the energy secretary he’s having with the other unions are yielding much more positive results. I just want to point out that those are the unions—hindi po sila sumali sa transport strike na ginawa nila kahapon. And they are continuing to dialogue with the DOE [Department of Energy] and working on solutions katulad po nitong expected subsidy.
Sa totoo lang, Raymond, iyong mga bus companies, ayon kay Secretary Almendras, ay nagsasabi na baka hindi na daw nila kailangan ng ganoong klaseng subsidy dahil binigyan naman sila ng fare increase. So, I would urge you to remember that PISTON does not represent all of the unions, all of the transport unions, and that we do have a continuing dialogue with those who wish to dialogue with us.
Guinto: Sir, si Presidente kahapon, he discussed na puwedeng i-revisit if we can grant wage increase even before mag-lapse iyong one year moratorium in July. Sir, how urgent do you think is a wage increase? And what’s a reasonable adjustment kasi iyong Bangko Sentral said na, doon sa inflation forecast nila for this year, they factored in a 25-peso per day increase?
CARANDANG: Well, if the Bangko Sentral’s inflation forecast factors that in, then I would assume that at least the BSP believes that that would be reasonable. We acknowledge that the increase in oil prices is making things harder for people, and we are open to discussing these matters. But ultimately, this will be a process that would be undertaken by the wage boards in consultation with labor and management, and the decision will be made by them ultimately. Pero given the situation, I think it’s important for us to be open to all kinds of options. Alam mo naman ang mangyayari dito, Joel, ‘no? Labor will say we need this much; management will say they can’t afford it. And in the end, they will meet somewhere in the middle. So, we hope that that process will also begin to the satisfaction of both sides.
Guinto: Sir, walang initiative from the Palace to get these discussions going before July?
CARANDANG: At this point, sabi ni Pangulong Aquino pinag-aaralan pa natin iyan, ano? Wala pa po akong naririnig na inputs or comments from DOLE [Department of Labor and Employment] at this point, so we’re still in the stage where we’re still looking into it.
Guinto: Sir, one more point, kasi some consumer groups have raised concerns na iyong partnership between PLDT [Philippine Long Distance Telecommunications] and Digitel would adversely affect consumers. Do you think this is something that regulators should look into before they approve iyong deal between PLDT and Digitel?
CARANDANG: Well, there’s no law right now, Joel, that prevents this merger from happening. And this is the market doing what it does resolving this question. Certainly, the concerns of the consumers will be taken into account by regulators like the NTC [National Telecommunications Commission]. But at this point, we’d probably have to look into that more before we can recommend any course of action.
Guinto: Sir, do you share iyong concern na baka because PLDT will be controlling essentially iyong SUN [Cellular]—baka iyong mga unlimited calls will be affected?
CARANDANG: Yes, that’s certainly a concern. But let’s see how they will deal with it. Let’s not prejudge what the merger’s impact will be, but certainly that is something that we would be concerned about on behalf of consumers.
Ina Andolong [RPN 9]: Good morning, sir. Sir, hindi po ba kino-consider ngayon ‘yung wage hike given the lower consumer confidence reported by the BSP?
CARANDANG: Katulad nga ng sinabi ni President Aquino, pinag-aaralan natin ngayon, but it’s not a decision that we want to make unilaterally—you have to consult management, you have you consult labor, you have to consult the stakeholders before you can really make a decision on that.
Andolong: Sir, do we expect the consumer confidence level to rise in the coming quarters, and are we mainly attributing this to external factors, like the report says?
CARANDANG: Yes, Ina, we do attribute it mostly to external factors. Kung ikaw, ordinaryong tao, naririnig mo ‘yung balita na nangyayari sa Middle East at ‘yung sa Japan, talagang mababahala ka, and that will make you a little bit cautious.
We are still quantifying the impact of all of these events on the economy. As NEDA [National Economic Development Authority] Director General Cayetano Paderanga said last week, we are now reviewing our economic growth targets for this year. So certainly, it’s understandable. Whether or not consumer confidence will improve in the coming months, is really going to be dependent on what happens in those places—in the Middle East, in North Africa, in Japan, how they deal with the nuclear crises there in the wake of the tsunami. What happens there will probably determine also to a large extent the level of consumer confidence.
Andolong: Sir, last na lang—but isa rin po ‘yung high commodity prices for the reasons? What can we expect in the coming months, sir? Do we expect to stabilize in the coming months?
CARANDANG: Ina, kung hindi dahil sa pagtaas ng presyo ng langis, we wouldn’t really              be seeing this problem. And you know how unpredictable oil prices are. Most analysts will tell you that they expect oil prices to remain high, maybe even rise. So to the extent that that will have an impact on consumer prices, we’re also watching that. But ‘yun, para sa akin, ‘yun ‘yung pinaka-determinant of commodity prices at this point, assuming that there is no manipulation, ‘yung magiging impact ng pagtaas ng presyo ng langis.
Claire Delfin [GMA 7]: Sir, good morning. Sir, on the fuel subsidy, can you give us more specifics about it? When is the target for implementation, and it is really three pesos per liter?
CARANDANG: We don’t know what the exact numbers will be at this point. DBM [Department of Budget and Management] has to get back to us and tell us how much of the savings we are generating can be used for the subsidies. Secretary Almendras likes to call it an assistance program rather than a subsidy. So out of respect for Rene, I will call it an assistance program.  Pero ‘yun nga, tinitignan ng DBM kung magkano ba ang puwede nilang ilabas para dito. There are estimates of between 400 to 500—I’ve even heard 600million. So we’re firming up those numbers.  As to the mechanics, that’s still being worked out. Nabanggit nga ni Pangulong Aquino that we’re thinking of issuing Smart cards to legitimate transport operators para doon nila makuha ‘yung assistance kung ano man ‘yung magiging assistance per liter level. ‘Pag binalikan na tayo ng DBM at na-iron out ng DOE ‘yung mga detalye, we will provide them to you. I also remember Secretary Almendras saying that they hope to get this in place within two to three weeks.
Delfin: Sir, some economists are actually saying that giving out this assistance program is more of a political move because it’s not seen as sustainable, and, eventually, in the long run, the transport sector will just resort to asking a fare hike?
CARANDANG: I agree with you [that] it’s not sustainable. We never meant this to be sustainable. But given the high fuel prices and given the possible impact that this will have on ordinary people, we felt that we have to take some action. We are studying longer term actions, which we are not at liberty to reveal right now, with regard to dealing with the volatility in fuel prices. But yes, it is a temporary solution. Hindi po natin sinasabing permanenteng solusyon ito doon sa pagtaas ng presyo ng langis.
Delfin: Sir, on going back to the case of Deputy Ombudsman Gonzales, nakita din po ba  sa imbestigasyon ‘yung sinasabing bribery attempt umano na ginawa niya doon sa hostage taker?
CARANDANG: Wala akong nakikitang reference sa alleged bribery dito sa statement na ni-release ni Secretary [Paquito] Ochoa. Ang nakalagay lang dito—and I will quote it –“The delay in the resolution of Mendoza’s appeal  that spanned nine months constituted a flagrant disregard of the Office of the Ombudsman’s rules and procedures, which provide that a motion for reconsideration must be acted upon within five days from the submission of the document.” The OP [Office of the President] said that there was substantial evidence to prove that Gonzales committed gross misconduct for showing undue interest in taking over the administrative case filed against Mendoza, which was then pending. Pero wala pong specific na sinabi kung bakit ganon ang naging action ni Gonzales.
Delfin: So, it’s effective immediately sir, the dismissal and…
CARANDANG: As I understand it, yes.
Delfin: So it also means that all his benefits will be forfeited? I assume he’s going to be retiring…
CARANDANG: Well, I guess whatever the law requires will be fulfilled. Whether that means forfeitures of his benefits, then if that’s what the law says, then that’s what will be done.
Delfin: Sir, pahabol lang. Our news desk has gathered this news report saying the US supports the Philippines over China executions. And the report quoted Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia saying that “This is something that we will want to support our Filipino friends on.” And it also quoted Representative Ed Royce, who said that “The radical disparity of the death penalty here when the people organizing it get off scot free is riveting.” Is this definitely a welcome development for the Philippines over that support?
CARANDANG: I don’t know what they mean by support. The three have been executed. We’ve made our representations as a country that does not have a death penalty that was refused, so I guess we’ll just leave it at that.
Delfin: But you would not like to be thankful of that show of support?
CARANDANG: I haven’t seen the actual statement, at this point. So, I wouldn’t be able to comment.
Francis Rivera [UNTV]: Sir, follow up lang doon kay Emilio Gonzales III. Why do you think po na umabot ng seven months bago naglabas ng decision for dismissal ‘yung Malacañang?
CARANDANG: I’m not sure. I think he also questioned—he challenged also the authority of the OP to charge him. So there had to be some legal hurdles that had to be overcome before we reached this decision.
Rivera: Sir, do you think ‘yung seven months parang napakatagal para mailabas ‘yung full decision ng Palace regarding sa desisyon?
CARANDANG: Some of the factors were beyond our control. As I said, Mr. Gonzales questioned the authority of the OP. That had to be resolved before we could take action. The investigation had to be thorough. It’s hard to say whether that took too long or not. But given the context of our judicial system, in general, I don’t know if we can say that it took too long.
Jaime Quinto [DZIQ]: Sir, just a follow up, sabi po ninyo ‘yung parang decision is based on the IIRC Report, may ganoon ba?
CARANDANG: That was the basis for the investigation.
Quinto: Sir, ano po in particular lang doon?
CARANDANG: ‘Yun nga ‘yung sinasabi ng Office of the President that it took him so long to act on the motion of Mendoza when the procedures really require a response within a certain period of time. There’s also a reference to him showing unusual interest in handling the case.
Norman Boradora [Philippine Daily Inquirer]: Sir, speaking of the Office of the Ombudsman, is there any development regarding the House’s and the Senate’s, perhaps, complaints against Special Prosecutor Wendel Sulit?
CARANDANG: ‘Yun nga, we sent a show cause memo and we are waiting for the process to complete itself before we take actions.
Bordadora: Sir, has she filed a reply already?
CARANDANG: Sorry, Norman, I’m not aware if she filed a reply but whether she filed a reply or not, the process will go forward. So, it will be better if she did file a reply.
Weng Dela Fuente [Net 25]: Sir, the DFA [Department of Foreign Affairs] said that another Filipino is in death row in China, and no reprieve din daw. Would the government exert effort to seek a commutation of sentence for this Filipino?
CARANDANG: Yes, I think consistent with the position that the administration has taken, bilang isang bansa na walang death penalty, we would make representations to countries that do have a death penalty if they could commute to life sentence the sentences of Filipinos who will face the death penalty particularly, as the case that you brought up is in China. At alam n’yo, ang China naman ay they are very reasonable when it comes to their laws. We had had a number of cases reviewed, and just within their jurisdictions. We’ve given their review of certain cases. Death sentences had already been commuted for a number of Filipinos there. I guess it’s really subject to their review. If they see the level of evidence is very strong, then you can see that they will push through with it. If they see that there is some way to question the level of evidence, then they are also willing to commute sentences.
May I add this, and I think you might have this already, this was a press release from the DFA, and I’m quoting the press release right now.
“Seventy-three Filipinos facing drug trafficking charges in China were saved from death row when they were meted death penalties with two year reprieves, which, in Philippine legal parlance, is equivalent to life imprisonment. Each of them was assisted by legal counsel from the Philippine Consulate.”
So it will depend on the Chinese courts’ appreciation of the facts and of the case. And in some cases, they will, and, in some cases, they have not.
Jun Lingkoran [DZMM]: Good morning, sir. Good morning, fellow journalists. Is it possible to include in the fuel subsidy program the marginalized like fishermen and farmers?
CARANDANG: Wala pa kaming pinag-uusapang ganoon, Jun.  Ang sinabi ni Secretary Almendras is this assistance program is really being targeted towards public utility operators who are getting hit by the high fuel prices.  In the case of  fishermen,  they also  incur costs doon sa kanilang mga barko  dahil that’s fueled by the same fuel that ’s going up.  But there are no restrictions on the increase  of the price that they can sell their produce. Hindi katulad dito sa transport sector na mahigpit ang regulasyon, at hindi sila basta-basta puwedeng magtaas ng fares.  So, I think it’s a different case altogether.
Lingkoran: Sir, follow up question. How much po ba iyong government surplus or savings as of this moment?
CARANDANG: Well, I don’t know the exact  figure. At katulad ng sinabi ko kanina, tinitingnan ngayon ng DBM kung magkano doon sa savings ang puwede nating ilaan para dito sa assistance program na ito.  But we’re talking in the neighborhood of 400, 500, maybe even 600 million.  So, I would think that the savings would be more than that.
Tinaza: Sir, I think tatlo pang Pinoy doon sa Thailand na nahulihan naman ng shabu. … masyado raw tayong naglalagay sa kahihiyan nang dahil sa mga drug mules na ito?
CARANDANG: Hindi.  Hindi lang naman Filipino ang nahahatulan ng ganyang klaseng sentensiya.   It just that that’s what comes to our attention here in the Philippines.  But, you know, there are nationals who get busted for drugs all over the world. I don’t think anybody, I don’t think the Thai government, I don’t think the Chinese government, I don’t think  anybody sees that as a reflection of our country and  our countrymen.  These are still isolated cases, and it happens with people all around the world.
Tinaza: Sir, any special directive, or did the  Bureau of Immigration already submit a report on paano nakalusot iyong mga drug mules?
CARANDANG: Hindi pa. Hindi pa nila sina-submit iyong report.
Rivera: Sir, iyong reaksiyon lang po ng Palace doon sa parang public idea ngayon na lumalabas na parang unfair doon sa  maraming OFWS na legitimate, iyon pong naging benefits nitong mga drug mules na nasentensiyahan sa China, sir?
CARANDANG: Oh, we’ve always said that we respect Chinese law, and Chinese law found them guilty of crimes. And our position has always been—as I’ve said, I hope I am not repeating myself  too much—as a country that has no death penalty, we simply ask for a commutation of the sentences. We would do that for people who  are on death row as a matter of course.  Hindi natin sinasabi na hindi sila guilty; hindi natin kino-question ang findings ng Chinese  government doon.
So, I understand the  point of  view of certain people. And certainly, it’s not just a question of whether they were victims or whether they were people who deserved assistance. It’s a very nuance question that, I think, sometimes gets lost in the public discourse. So, naiintindihan po natin iyong opinion ng iba na  sinasabi na hindi dapat sila tratuhin na parang  bayani. At the same time, as with anybody, when somebody in your family is killed or executed, we as Filipinos will sympathize with the families. Wala naman tayong sinasabi na may kasalanan iyong mga pamilya nila.  So, to the extent that we can show compassion to the families, then  we will do that.
Rivera: Sir, but iyong benefits parang focused daw sa kanila na ibigay kaagad, pero mas marami naman talagang OFW na hindi naman nakaka-receive kagaya iyong mga college grant, iyong mga educational transfer for the children.
CARANDANG: I think this was a special case. This was given much attention by the media and by the public, and we were acting in response to some of the opinions that were raised during the course of this whole episode.
Dela Fuente: Sir, a PDEA [Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency] undercover said that more than a thousand drug mules are operating.  Hindi ho ba iyon cause of concern  for the government? And this agent said that the execution did not stop these drug mules from doing what they are doing.
CARANDANG: Yes. It’s really a big problem worldwide—drug trafficking. And as the President said yesterday, tinututukan natin ito. And we hope that the PDEA can also continue in their efforts to stop drug trafficking.