Analysis by Raïssa Robles
This was how President Rodrigo Duterte defended his closest aide Christopher Lawrence Tesoro Go who has been accused—unfairly, the president says—of intervening in the choice of supplier for the combat management system (CMS) of the navy’s two new frigates.
In his January 16 press conference, Duterte yelled and castigated Rappler for its story published earlier that day entitled Bong Go intervenes in P15.5-B project to acquire PH warships by Carmela Fonbuena.
You can watch the video of Duterte yelling at the end of this piece.
Actually, the Philippine Daily Inquirer had beaten Rappler to the story by one day. On the night of January 15, 2018, Inquirer came out with the story, Palace had special interest in Navy’s selection of weapons system supplier by Nikko Dizon.
On January 16, Duterte went ballistic over the Rappler story. He pointedly told Rappler’s Malacañang Palace reporter Pia Ranada at the start of his press con that night:
“Questions? Rappler? Your articles are rife with innuendos and pregnant with falsity. We do not intervene in the affairs of the Armed Forces.
We are just an office that receives complaints or papers for reference and we transmit them to the proper agency. We do not get any money. We are not interested in that. Para sa kaalaman ninyo, you can stop your suspicious mind from roaming somewhere else. But since you are a fake news outlet then I am not surprised that your articles are also fake.
We can debate now. Tell me where is our lies and I’ll tell you where are yours. Anybody?
I am asking you, where are your sense of values going?”
Duterte referred to Rappler as a “fake news outlet” because the day before, on January 15, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission had canceled Rappler’s registration papers, in effect revoking its license to operate. The SEC said Rappler was really owned and controlled by foreign investors, in violation of a Constitution prohibition.
Duterte must have known the frigates story was about to come out because Rappler got Bong Go’s side and printed this in the same story.
Go told Rappler palace reporter Pia Ranada:
“I have not intervened in the procurement of DND of its computer system for its ships. I have not participated nor intervened, directly or indirectly, in the transactions of DND.”
Challenged by Duterte to ask a question, Ranada said:
“Okay, sir. Sir, earlier in your speech, you said that the issue on the SEC ruling against Rappler is not an issue of press freedom. But at the same time, during your speech, you were giving comments about the media and about Rappler and Inquirer na sumusobra na kami [we’re getting to be too much]. So what does that mean, sir? You say that this is not attack on media. But you also have attacks on media in your speech following…”
At this point, the official transcript of the press briefing noted that due to “overlapping voices” it could not transcribe who was saying what.
Then the official transcript went on, this time quoting Duterte saying that his special aide Bong Go was far richer than him. In fact, Bong Go was “a billionaire”.
“Let me give you an example. Huwag na tayong lumayo. [Let’s not go too far.] Your inquisitive mind goes beyond its normal proportion. Bong, ayan o.
You know, I’ll just… Tingnan ninyo ‘yung — a daily dose of your medicine. Bong Go intervenes in the 15 billion… Who gave you an idea he can intervene? Where is his signature? Where is your statement? And where is your — even a point of reference? Dumadaan… Ang dami …but look at…”
Then Duterte made a surprising revelation:
“Alam mo, hindi ako mag-yabang pero bilyonaryo ‘to, sa totoo lang. Punta kayong Davao, tanungin niyo kung sino ‘yan. Itong mga ganito…[You know, I’m not bragging but the fact is, Go is a billionaire. Go to Davao. Find out who he is….]
It seems to appear na intervening because of what? Money? The things that you are telling here never happened. ‘Pag magtanggap kami ng ganun, ipasa namin doon sa proper [If we receive papers like these, we send it to the proper..]. if it’s the Justice department, it goes to the Justice department. If the subject matter here is about transportation, it goes to Tugade.”
Is Bong Go really a bilionaire?
Reporters have no idea if he is.
Because Bong Go’s net worth nor SALN (Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth) have never been released by Malacañang Palace.
Did Bong Go really intervene in this deal?
Nothing ties him to the deal except that post-it-note that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had attached to the “white paper” given to him inside the palace dissing one supplier and praising the other, which Lorenzana then routed to Philippine Navy chief Ronald Mercado.
Lorenzana told the Navy’s flag officer-in-command:
“Ronald, This was given to me by Bong Go. Go over it and prepare a report/rebuttal to be submitted to the Pres.”
Lorenzana’s note was dated over a year ago – on January 12, 2017.
Four days after Rappler published its report, the Department of National Defense (DND) came out with a statement that Lorenzana had made a mistake.
“The Secretary of National Defense is confirming that no intervention or interference by Sec. Bong Go happened. The document that the SND alluded to have been given to him by Sec. Bong Go was handed to him at the Palace, so he assumed that it came from Sec. Go, the Special Assistant to the President and Chief of the Presidential Management Staff (PMS). It should be noted that the one of the tasks of the PMS includes the official routing and endorsement of documents to government agencies concerned, for appropriate action.
There was neither hint nor guidance from the Palace or from Sec. Bong Go to influence the implementation of the project.“
Two curious things about these revelations
First, going by the DND statement it seems that for one year Sec. Lorenzana had mistakenly assumed that the white paper had come from Bong Go.
Second, both the DND and Duterte had stressed that one of the tasks of the Presidential Management Staff—an office under Bong Go—was to receive papers and forward them to the proper government agency.
As Duterte told Rappler’s Pia Ranada,
“We are just an office that receives complaints or papers for reference and we transmit them to the proper agency. We do not get any money. We are not interested in that. Para sa kaalaman ninyo, you can stop your suspicious mind from roaming somewhere else. But since you are a fake news outlet then I am not surprised that your articles are also fake.”
Duterte is right. A reporter’s mind is naturally suspicious. We always look for deviations from the norm.
And there are two deviations from the norm that stand out in this particular case.
First, if the PMS or any other Palace unit had received the white paper that was later forwarded to Lorenzana, why was there no stamp, bar code and signature on the document showing it had been officially received by that palace unit?
Reporters like myself were made aware of the importance of that official stamp and bar code because of previous incidents where documents had surfaced ostensibly from the presidential palace. The PMS had disowned these documents due to the absence of the stamp and the bar code.
And second, usually, there would have been a cover letter or at least a marginal note from a palace official saying where a document is to be forwarded. In this case, there is none.
Only Lorenzana’s note gave away the fact that someone in Malacanang Palace had handed him the white paper. Whoever gave it to Lorenzana must have been trustworthy since he had accepted and forwarded it even though it was neither stamped “received” nor even signed.
AND THEN, someone else waited an entire year to leak the white paper with Lorenzana’s note to the press.
Lorenzana hasn’t said who gave it to him. But he said it wasn’t Bong Go.
Frankly, our curiosity would not have been aroused if the navy chief had not been sacked so unceremoniously just before Christmas last month over the same deal. To be sacked just before Christmas is pretty serious.
Did this sacking prompt someone to release the document?
As for Duterte’s defense that Bong Go doesn’t care for any under-the-table deals because he’s already very rich – well, that kind of argument has been contradicted by Duterte himself.
Duterte has repeatedly accused “the elite” – who are presumably very rich – of engaging in various anomalies to defraud the government.