Thursday, May 7, 2009


According to Wikipedia, the word highwayman came to be in the 1600s. The term is mainly applied to robbers who travelled on horses, as opposed to those who robbed on foot. Mounted robbers were widely considered to be socially superior to those who walked. Slang names for them included “knights of the road” and “gentlemen of the road”. Such robbers operated in Great Britain and Ireland from the Elizabethan period until the early 19th century. In the mid- to late 19th-century American West, highwaymen were known as road agents. In the same time period in Australia, they were known as bushrangers.

Literature has its share of highwaymen, one of them immortalized in Alfred Noyes’ narrative poem “The Highwayman” which we studied in school. I remember Bess, the landlord’s daughter, whom the highwayman wooed. And then “…they shot him down in the highway,/Down like a dog in the highway,/And he lay in his blood in the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat.”

The highwayman is on my mind as I read the latest investigative report of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) on the roads and highways projects of the Arroyo administration. The report was written by Malou Mangahas, Karol Ilagan and Tita C. Valderrama.

PCIJ reports that according to the Department of Public Works and Highways’ (DPWH) online registry at least four congressmen and a governor have personal and family interests in companies that secured multi-million-peso civil-works contracts over the last seven years.

When PCIJ asked these officials about possible conflict of interest, they all replied that, indeed, they have interests in the companies, but that contracts were awarded before they took their oaths of office. One said he had divested, two said they had relinquished their roles in the companies but did not say how.

The Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials (RA 6713) prescribes that “a public official or employee shall avoid conflicts of interest at all times.” PCIJ says there are no divestment records or deeds of assignments filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Department of Trade and Industry.

PCIJ did a two-month scrutiny of the online database of the DPWH, and found out that the total value of civil-works contracts the department awarded from 2000 to 2008 reached a staggering P138.5 billion. And yet, PCIJ points out, “a big proportion of these projects did not result in new roads. Instead, over half of the 27,535 contracts awarded during the period involved the regraveling, repair, maintenance, or improvement of barangay and local roads.”

And while DPWH secretary Hermogenes Ebdane Jr. says that “infrastructure investment has been recognized as a critical pillar in economic development and poverty alleviation under the administration of Pres. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo”, PCIJ counters that these projects did little to reduce poverty incidence in the eight of 10 provinces that got the biggest value of contracts.

Here’s more: “In truth, the rush to roll out multiple projects might have been driven by a combination of political considerations and personal concerns for profit-making. One congressman, for instance, points out that regraveling is often done on farm-to-market roads and repeated almost on a yearly basis because ‘this is the easiest thing to do to make money. The contractor puts gravel on a road, and when heavy rains pour, the gravel is washed away, and you are back to having dirt road again that needs regraveling.’”

The PCIJ reviewed the DPWH contracts database as a follow-up to the Jan. 2009 report of the World Bank’s anti-corruption unit, the Department of Institutional Integrity, which established the collusion and corruption in WB-funded road projects implemented by the DPWH. PCIJ also did corroborating checks with other agencies.

A total of 27,535 contracts were posted on the DPWH website, but it excluded pork barrel projects and other lump-sum project funds lodged with the DPWH for implementation. But Ebdane told PCIJ there’s more that are on listed on line, and that from 2004 to 2008 alone, “a total of P185.341 billion has been allocated covering 92,737 projects” under DPWH.

But the DPWH website data yield enough information, says PCIJ, such as the names of the top 10 companies that bagged the biggest value of contracts. PCIJ presumed that contractors that received from P2 billion to P5 billion worth of DPWH projects over the last seven years would be registered as corporations. PCIJ found out that four contractors in the top 10 list operate only as sole-proprietorship entities.

Even more surprising is that a single clan from Batangas owns and controls two companies in the DPWH’s top 10 list. “Perseverance,” the clan stated, is the key. PCIJ made visits to the companies’ offices and saw that it was in a gas station. Other top 10 companies had offices in residential areas.

PCIJ found Philippine Contractors Accreditation Board (PCAB) data to be confusing. In the DPWH database, companies that ranked 3 to 10 supposedly had General Engineering AAA category, having obtained the track record and minimum “1,150 minimum overall credit points” required, but, it turned out, some of them are only in the B and A category.

There’s more. Check out the PCIJ website.

Picture the highwayman. “And still on a winter's night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,/When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,/When the road is a gypsy's ribbon looping the purple moor,/The highwayman comes riding--/Riding--riding--/The highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.”