ESPRESSO MORNINGS

By Joe Zaldarriaga

Public trust

One wouldn’t normally expect a highly science-based government agency to make headlines over corruption. When it comes to cases of wrongdoing in public office, government agencies that deal with highly technical fields such as research and the sciences don’t often come to mind.

So when news of the dismissal of Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) director Demosthenes Escoto came out, it came as quite a surprise–a shock even.

News reports stated that the Ombudsman dismissed Escoto after he was found guilty of grave misconduct over the procurement of transmitters and transceivers in 2018 for the Integrated Marine Environment Monitoring System Project Phase II or the PHILO project. The PHILO project was designed to boost the government’s monitoring capability of the country’s marine resources in a bid to fight illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities in our territorial waters.

To contextualize the case, the PHILO project was supposed to be funded by a loan from the French government which required that bidders be French suppliers. The winning bidder, SRT-France, however, was later found to be ineligible since it has no manufacturing or engineering facilities in France and was simply a subsidiary of SRT-UK–which, as the name suggests, is located in the United Kingdom.

Instead of calling for another round of bidding to meet the requirements of the French loan, Escoto, as chair of the bids and awards committee, terminated the contract. The French loan offer was eventually withdrawn and in 2018, SRT-UK bagged the contract following another round of bidding with financing of the project moved to the Philippine government.

A complaint was filed against Escoto and other officials, prompting an investigation into the matter. Escoto was found to have committed grave misconduct as chair of the bids and awards committee, having given “unwarranted benefit” to SRT-France and its parent SRT-UK in what state prosecutors described as an “anomalous scheme.”

His co-accused, former Agriculture Assistant Secretary Hansel Didulo, was meanwhile cleared by the Ombudsman for lack of substantial evidence.

Following Escoto’s dismissal, Agriculture Secretary Francisco Tiu Laurel assigned Isidro Velayo Jr. as officer-in-charge of BFAR to keep the agency’s operations ongoing–a rapid response to address the leadership vacuum in the agency. The BFAR is under the Department of Agriculture.

With Escoto’s dismissal, he forfeits his retirement benefits and is perpetually disqualified from holding public office. He, however, can still appeal the decision.

This case serves as a reminder to all public officials that caution is highly essential to protect public funds, and that everyone in public office should be extremely vigilant in awarding contracts. After all, government contracts should always be to the benefit of the Filipino people.

The Ombudsman’s decision shows the gravity the graft buster places in addressing corruption within the government’s ranks–a move worth lauding as it serves as a reassurance to taxpaying Filipinos that their hard-earned contributions are protected and valued.

Beyond delivering the service required from those in office, government officials must bear the qualities of honesty and integrity. No one in public office should be exempted.

For those in public office or are thinking about joining the government, this simply serves as a lesson.

While significant progress has been made in the fight against corruption, much is still left to be done. Time and time again it has been said that a public office is a public trust–and this goes out to everyone in government, regardless of the rank or position one may hold.

I call on our public officials to be more circumspect in their government dealings and bear in mind that in the end, it is the Filipino people who will benefit or suffer from their decisions.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the foregoing article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Philippine News Agency (PNA) or any other office under the Presidential Communications Office.

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About the Columnist

Image of Joe Zaldarriaga

Joe Zaldarriaga is a veteran, award-winning communicator immersed in public service within and beyond the energy sector. He has more than 30 years of experience serving the country’s biggest electric distribution utility and is involved in a number of public service functions, as member of various committees on public safety, power supply security and electrification. Concurrently, he is a prominent figure in the Philippine communications industry, as Chairman and Past President of the US-based International Association of Business Communicators Philippines (IABC PH). He is also an awardee of the University of Manila’s Medallion of Honor (Dr. Mariano V. delos Santos Memorial) and a Scroll of Commendation, a testament to his celebrated years in public service exemplified by outstanding communications.

Joe also shares his opinion and outlook on relevant national and consumer issues as a columnist in several prominent publications and is now venturing into new media via hosting a new vlog called Cup of Joe. Previously, Joe was a reporter and desk editor of a Broadcasting Company and the former auditor of the Defense Press Corps of the Philippines. A true green Lasalian, he finished with a degree in Asian Studies specializing in the Japan Studies program at De La Salle University, Manila, where he also spent his entire education.