IT’S the people’s money.”
This was repeatedly stressed by Tourism Secretary-designate Bernadette Fatima Romulo Puyat at a news conference on Thursday, as she ordered the conduct of bidding for all tourism projects, even those implemented by government-owned and -controlled corporations (GOCCs) under the Department of Tourism (DOT).
She said she was “uncomfortable” that large sums of money were released by the Tourism Promotions Board, for the Buhay Carinderia project, which didn’t undergo any bidding. The first phase of the project, which should have started in June and ended in December, cost the TPB P80 million. The TPB is the marketing arm of the DOT.
Documents obtained by the BusinessMirror showed three separate checks for said project were issued on March 19, 2018 (P13.44 million); March 20, 2018 (P31.36 million); and April 17, 2018 (P35.84 million), to Marylindbert International Inc., an event organizer that supposedly owns the rights and trademark for Buhay Carinderia (formerly Carinderia Fiesta). The event supposedly has been in existence since 2011. The checks were signed by former Tourism Secretary Wanda Corazon T. Teo and TPB COO Cesar Montano.
The new tourism chief also stressed that all TPB projects for the year are effectively put on hold as she has asked the Commission on Audit (COA) to step in and examine all TPB projects. She met with Montano on Wednesday evening at her friend’s house, and asked him to explain the Buhay Carinderia project, as well as his reported two-minute speech at a government-sponsored tourism event in New York, before attending the Broadway musical, Hamilton. (See, “COA asked to scrutinize TPB projects,” in the BusinessMirror online, May 17, 2018.)
At that meeting, Montano submitted a letter, “requesting your good office for a joint review of all the TPB’s projects and events lined up for the year 2018 and 2019.” In response, Romulo Puyat wrote him on Thursday, telling him to submit a list of projects for the year.
“I will wait for the COA to reply, but for now, definitely we won’t proceed with Buhay Carinderia,” the DOT chief said. “I will ask them [COA] to determine if it’s the right process [that no bidding was conducted, and checks were released for the project that hadn’t even started].”
Montano didn’t submit his resignation letter, Romulo Puyat said, “but we discussed it [his resignation]. Anyway, he’s already on a holdover capacity. I leave it up to the Tourism Congress to submit names for consideration for the TPB Board, and for the new COO.” Montano was appointed in December 2016, and his term of office expired in June 2017.
Romulo Puyat said, “I’ve been doing food events also at the DA [Department of Agriculture]. I don’t think Ms. Linda Legaspi [owner of Marylindbert] is the only one who can do street-food events. There are other organizers who can do the same project. I am just not comfortable with projects that didn’t undergo bidding.”
Montano explained, however, that the project was a “sponsorship,” and as such didn’t have to go through the bidding process.
“He said this was being done even before. And he consulted with his lawyer at the TPB, who assured him the check payments to Marylindbert were aboveboard,” Romulo Puyat said.
The TPB formally launched Buhay Carinderia on April 11, at the Rizal Park Hotel (formerly the Army Navy Club), with the aim of raising the profile of carinderia (street cafés) and street food in the eyes of Filipinos and the world. (See, “TPB to bring lowly ‘carinderia’ food to the world,” in the BusinessMirror, April 12, 2018.)
Romulo Puyat said she met Montano for about two hours, and described him as “very, very cooperative. I found him very humble…very earnest, and truthful. He was open to the DOT reviewing the TPB projects.”
Meanwhile, she said she was getting Arturo P. Boncato Jr. as undersecretary for Tourism Regulation Coordination and Resource Generation, a post recently held by Alma Rita C. Jimenez. The latter was among those who submitted their courtesy resignations to the DOT chief. “I only met him [Boncato] last Friday, but his credentials are impressive. He was regional director [of Davao], then became assistant secretary under [former Tourism Secretary Ramon] Jimenez,” Romulo Puyat said.
She also announced that Undersecretary for Tourism Development Planning Benito C. Bengzon Jr. will be the DOT’s new spokesman. A career executive service officer, Bengzon has been with the DOT for some 33 years, she said. “I believe the spokesman should be someone with experience, and Bong has been with the department forever.” She stressed, “even if he was not a career official, I would have retained him.” Both men, she said, were held in high regard by most people she spoke with.
Under the Tourism Act of 2009, the DOT is allowed to have three undersecretaries, with each undersecretary assigned an assistant secretary. The only remaining post is Undersecretary for Special Concerns and Administration, currently held by Marco M. Bautista who has also tendered his courtesy resignation.