House panel recommends raps vs ex-DICT exec over free internet program
MANILA, Philippines — The House committee on good governance and public accountability recommended Tuesday the filing of charges against former Department of Information and Communications (DICT) Undersecretary Eliseo Rio over alleged negligence in the implementation of the free internet program.
In its report, the committee recommended that appropriate charges be filed against Rio for violations of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act and the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees over the alleged irregularities in the implementation of the Free Public Internet Access Program (FPIAP).
The committee said that the partnership between the DICT and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to implement the program was “not the best option.”
Rio was the signatory to the DICT-UNDP financing agreement.
Partnership with UNDP
According to the committee, the DICT committed nonfeasance when it transferred the management of and funds for the Pipol Konek Project— which is one of the aspects of the FPIAP—to the UNDP.
Further, the committee said that the DICT committed misfeasance when it entered into the financing agreement with the UNDP for the implementation of the FPIAP, when the DICT could have resorted to procurement on its own.
For context, in 2018, the DICT and the UNDP entered into a financing agreement aimed at rolling out free wi-fi sites at selected locations to benefit remote communities.
The DICT did not take part in the bidding and selection of UNDP’s suppliers and service providers. Speedcast, an Australian company, was the winning bidder for the first two phases of the program while PLDT Inc. was the awardee for the third phase.
Rio, in the committee report, stressed the legality of the DICT-UNDP agreement, saying it was based on the Standard Basic Assistance Agreement (SBAA) between the UNDP and the Philippine government.
Citing Clause 1, Article II of the SBAA, Rio sad that assistance “maybe made available but the UNDP to the Government” upon request consisting, among others, of “services of advisory experts and consultants,” “equipment and supplies,” and “any other forms of assistance or form of execution, which may be agreed upon by the Government and UNDP.”
The House committee, however, said that SBAA was permissive and that the DICT should have followed the Free Internet Access in Public Places Act.
“The committee acknowledges the assistance rendered by the UNDP to the Philippine government in several of its programs. However, it should be noted that the SBAA is permissive, that the DICT is not obliged to seek UNDP assistance to conduct the procurement for the PFIAP,” the committee said.
The committee said that under the Free Internet Access in Public Places Act, the DICT should have “undertaken the creation, establishment, installation, maintenance, and operation of infrastructure, equipment, systems, platforms, applications, and such other FPIAP requirements necessary to effectively provide free internet access in public spaces throughout the country.”
“Needless to say, these mandates require the active participation of the DICT to ensure that the law is effectively and efficiently implemented,” the committee said.
The committee said that by transferring the implementation of the Pipil Konek Project to UNDP, including the procurement of the services of the contractor, the DICT “lost its authority over the contractor and its operation.”
Why blame me?
According to Rio, the Commission on Audit’s (COA) report back in 2019 had already flagged the DICT regarding the transfer of funds to the UNDP.
Rio said they have already explained it to COA, which was “satisfied” with their response.
“The [COA] was questioning why DICT transferred that amount to UNDP and why we did not do it ourselves. We explained that being a new department, we need the expertise of the UNDP… We were able to explain it [to COA],” Rio said.
“There was no action after our explanation to COA. There was no further action which usually takes the form of notice of suspension or further, a notice of disallowance. That was just a notice that we explained properly,” he added.
Rio questioned why shortcomings on the program were being blamed on him when he already left the department in 2020. Rio, nonetheless, said he is ready to face the charges that will be lodged against him.
The program has experienced several setbacks such as Speedcast filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, undervaluation on shipments of telecommunications equipment, and issues on site selection for the wi-fi spots.