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Department of Tourism (DoT) Secretary Bernadette “Berna” Romulo-Puyat may be amiss of President Rodrigo Duterte’s marching order to cleanse the department of corrupt officials when he appointed her to replace scandal-wracked Wanda Teo last May over the airing of Philippine tourism commercials in her brothers’ TV show.

Launching an audit probe on the conflict-of-interest TV commercial that cost DoT P60 million and canceling the anomalous P320-million Buhay Carinderia Redefined (BCR) project of the Tourism Promotion Board (TPB) and the P120 million per year Madrid Fusion Manila (MFM) culinary roadshows are just the first steps in ridding the DoT of grafters and “commissioners.”

Puyat is duty-bound to hold accountable those who had more fun in spending away DoT money in useless and non-bidded projects that benefited only the contractors and agency fixers who facilitated approval of projects by higher-ups in exchange for kickbacks. The DoT and the Ombudsman should initiate the filing of criminal and graft charges against Teo, former TPB chief operating officer actor Cesar Montano and his personal assistant, Marylindbert International president Linda Legaspi and co-organizers of the equally anomalous MFM, former DoT chief Ramon Jimenez and even celebrity vlogger and restaurateur Erwan Heusaff.

To date, all payments, advanced or otherwise, made by the DoT for the canceled extravagant and illegal projects have not been returned nor refunded to the agency. Puyat cannot just let millions in taxpayers’ money go to the pockets of DoT racketeers. Even if these people already returned the project and talent fees that they didn’t deserve getting, it doesn’t absolve them from violating the government procurement law.

Montano quit two weeks after Teo resigned in May when the Commission on Audit (CoA) learned that the BCR did not pass through public bidding and the P80 million budget for the first of four phases of the project was advanced to Marylindbert under Legaspi weeks before it was launched on 11 April and before completion of the project in December. Three LandBank checks were issued to the contractor: 19 March 2018 in the amount of more than P13.44 million, 20 March 2018 in the amount of P31.36 million and 17 April 2018 in the amount of P35.84 million.

Montano never questioned the cost nor breakdown of the P80 million BCR budget, of which P60 million was for consultant fees with P19.7 million for miscellaneous expenses, P150,000 for 10 crates of tinapa (smoked fish), P75,000 for 10 crates of kangkong (water spinach), P42,000 for 1,000 kilos of NFA rice and P50,000 for 10 crates of banana. Any lowly carinderia cook can prepare a meal of fried tinapa, adobong kangkong, ordinary rice and banana cue without charging millions for such work.

The actor was not only negligent in not raising a red flag on the overpriced BCR and the haste by which the contractor was paid. He is also liable for illegally spending P4.1 million for junkets during his short-lived TPB stint. Montano’s excessive travels were illegal because his private secretary and executive assistant traveled and spent more than he did in trips abroad, according to CoA.

Meanwhile, Heusaff was paid P1 million in talent fee for the service of vlogging local eateries as part of the BCR project before it was canceled. Moreover, he was a bad choice to promote carinderia menu as he and wife Anne Curtis Smith chose to get married in New Zealand last year and serve Kiwi cuisine instead of Pinoy delicacies at their reception. Puyat said Heusaff helped promote Filipino food in the trade shows of the Department of Agriculture when she was still undersecretary there, but his services were free. So, why pay him so much when he can volunteer again and promote himself?

Before leaving TPB to venture into movie directing, Montano washed his hands over the BCR anomaly by pointing to Teo as the one who asked TPB to fund the project that is not only redundant to the MFM started by Teo’s predecessor but also violated the government procurement law.

MFM was the brainchild of Jimenez during the Aquino administration. He signed a five-year contract with Madrid Fusion organizers in Spain that cost DoT P600 million. The contract was given without public bidding, CoA found out.

Before his term ended, Jimenez reportedly extended the MFM contract by two more years which Teo had to honor until Puyat canceled last week the fourth edition scheduled for next year because of lack of funds. DoT spent P40 million as share in holding each MFM event that promoted Spanish cuisine at the same time. That money could have been used to organize an exclusively Filipino culinary roadshow abroad.

There’s a more serious issue than the midnight extension of the MFM contract. Based on CoA’s audit, Jimenez and his team failed to account for the P240 million he gave for the holding of the 2014 and 2015 MFM events. Also, CoA alleged that he never submitted liquidation reports of the DoT’s P160 million subsidy since 2015.

It is unthinkable for a government agency like the DoT to be corruption-ridden. But with the gastronomalous BCR and MFM, the agency is suddenly in the league of the Bureau of Customs, Department of Public Works and Highways and the Bureau of Internal Revenue in terms of notoriety. DoT’s practice of cooking up projects as a modus to siphon off the agency’s multibillion peso annual budget and satiate greedy officials may have been going on for as long as pork barrel scam queen Janet Lim Napoles had been faking congressional projects in cahoots with kickback-hungry legislators during the Arroyo administration.

Clearly, there are gluttons inside the DoT who are eating away its funds and no one inside cares to blow the whistle. Puyat must have the initiative to contain some DoT officials’ voracious appetite for corruption.

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