MANILA – Newly-installed chief Bernadette Romulo-Puyat of the Department of Tourism (DOT) is in total disbelief after discovering fund “irregularities” in the projects implemented by her predecessors.
“It’s so shocking because I’m discovering something new everyday. And it’s saddening because large sums of money are involved here,” a teary-eyed Puyat said in an aired interview with ABS-CBN on May 18.
“Not just Php 1 million or Php 2 million, but hundreds of millions,” Puyat said, who was appointed the department’s secretary on May 8.
Puyat took over the agency following former DOT Secretary Wanda Teo’s resignation on May 7.
Teo was entangled in a controversy over the department’s Php 60 million advertisement contract with People’s Television 4 (PTV-4).
The Commission on Audit in April 2018 questioned Teo’s DOT-sponsored ad payments to Bitag Media, a company owned by her brothers Ben and Erwin Tulfo in state-owned PTV-4.
Secretary Puyat on May 17 suspended the department’s food initiative “Buhay Carinderia” project, led by Tourism Promotions Board (TPB) and TPB chief Cesar Montano, for allegedly “skipping” a public bidding process.
“I will wait for Commission on Audit to reply, but until then I will not proceed with the Buhay Carinderia,” Puyat was quoted as saying in an ABS-CBN News report.
In the same report, Puyat is said to have called out Montano for his 90 percent disbursement of payments to the project organizer that amounted to Php 80 million even before “Buhay Carinderia”‘s launch.
“I’m not saying that he’s wrong. What I am saying is since I am not the chair, I am more comfortable that there is a bidding for everything,” she added.
The tourism secretary said she had a “cordial” meeting with Montano, saying the 55-year old actor had “acted in good faith.”
“To be fair, he agreed to stop [all] projects,” said the secretary.
7 days after Puyat’s appointment, business writer Boo Chanco called out Montano and “anomalies” in the project’s TPB-sponsored funds, in a column titled “Berna must clean tourism” published in the Philippine Star on May 14.
On the same day when Puyat made the remarks, she requested Commission on Audit (COA) chairman Michael Aguinaldo to investigate the pending TPB-led project as well as other DOT programs that are to be implemented this year.
In a radio interview by GMA-owned dzBB, Montano placed the blame on former Tourism secretary Wanda Teo. “The TPB extended our reservation,” he said.
“We informed Secretary Teo that the disbursement was too fast, and we didn’t need to pay them immediately,” he said.
Cesar Montano said it was Teo who gave the green light to pay the marketing agency Marylindbert International Php 80 million. “She’s the chairman, she’s the boss,” he added.
Inquirer.net reported the checks bearing the signatures of Montano and Teo showing TPB payments on the following dates:
March 19 (Php 13.44 million)
March 20 (Php 31.36 million)
April 17 (Php 35.84 million)
Marylindbert International is currently owned by Erlinda Legaspi, who also organized the video series project “Buhay Carinderia,” formerly known as “Carinderia Fiesta” that aimed to boost Filipino eateries.
‘Not hosting Miss U 2018’
In an interview with dzMM on May 18, Puyat said the country will not be hosting the Miss Universe pageant this year, saying she wants to improve other DOT culinary and agri-tourism inclined projects.
“We just had a Miss Universe here. Maybe it would be best to wait for now. I think there are other projects that we can implement other than Miss Universe,” she said.
“There are other ways to promote tourism… but there might be other projects we can try like Madrid Fusion. Because not only has this helped our culinary tourism but also our agricultural sector,” she added.
On her first day in office on May 15, the DOT secretary ordered the tourism department’s undersecretaries and assistant secretaries to submit their courtesy resignations.
“I also asked for the [courtesy] resignations of all the usecs and the asecs. But of course, it does not mean that they will be out of DOT,” she was quoted as saying in a report by CNN Philippines.
However, undersecretary Benito Bengzon jr. will be retained in the department. Puyat is also eyeing to tap Bengzon as the new DOT spokesperson, reported a Philippine Star article dated May 17.
Puyat has served as Department of Agriculture (DA) undersecretary for administration, agribusiness and marketing, and regional engagement since July 2017.
She also served as DA undersecretary for special concerns during the previous administration. (Joel Cristobal/LuzonTimes)