After getting her marching orders from President Duterte to review all Department of Tourism (DOT) contracts and check whether everything had gone through the proper
bidding process, Tourism Secretary-designate Bernadette Fatima Romulo Puyat wasted no time in ordering the suspension of the “Buhay Carinderia” program of actor and Tourism Promotions Board (TPB) COO Cesar Montano. The TPB is the marketing arm of the tourism department.
The tourism chief said she already informed Montano that she is stopping the government food tourism program, after hearing his explanation about the controversial P80-million Buhay Carinderia project. In an interview with the BusinessMirror, Romulo Puyat said: “I will be writing our resident auditor at the DOT and the Commission on Audit [COA] central office to audit the Buhay Carinderia project and other projects of the TPB.”
Montano was appointed to his post via presidential directive, instead of being nominated by the Tourism Congress as provided by law. His appointment in December 2016 had been questioned by industry stakeholders, especially in the wake of allegations of financial irregularities and charges of nepotism. Montano didn’t submit his resignation letter, but the tourism chief said “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 them to elect the new COO.”
The Buhay Carinderia project was formally launched at the Rizal Park Hotel (formerly the Army Navy Club) last April 11, with the aim of raising the profile of carinderia (street cafés) and street food in the Philippines and in other countries. The project got controversial after published reports (not in the BusinessMirror) alleged that the TPB has released checks, signed by Montano and former Tourism Secretary Wanda Corazon T. Teo, amounting to P80 million, in full payment for the Buhay Carinderia project in March and April, before the project actually started.
In an earlier interview, Romulo Puyat asked “why was Montano issuing checks when the project hasn’t even started yet? And did the project go through proper bidding?” The tourism chief said she wanted to know the details of the budget and objectives of the program and make sure that it went through the proper process. She said: “I cannot implement a project that was not transparent or did not go through the proper process.”
Sen. Nancy S. Binay earlier filed Senate Resolution 326, calling for a probe into the allegations of TPB employees against Montano. In her resolution, the senator noted the 24 irregularities and indiscretions allegedly committed by the TPB chief: P11.2-million concert in January, where Montano performed with his nieces; the hiring of his own staff including a stuntman, personal assistant, family friend and relatives with salaries ranging from P14,000 to P48,000; misuse of DOT funds by demanding reimbursements of expenses; vacations during supposed official business trips.
Montano has denied the allegations made by TPB employees in a complaint submitted to the Presidential Action Center. “The allegations made against the Office of the COO, through a complaint filed anonymously, are baseless and untrue,” he said.
Montano also said the controversial Buhay Carinderia project is above board. However, in line with the President’s desire to wipe out the curse of corruption in the government, and following his “one whiff of corruption and you’re out” warning to government employees, the DOT and the COA must make public the audit of the P80-million Buhay Carinderia and other projects of the TPB. Romulo Puyat also needs to show her resolve to stamp out corruption at the DOT.