Lagayan, Abra: ‘Big-time corruption in a small town’

The Inbox

By Luz Rimban, VERA Files

Two prominent members of a powerful political family in Abra are facing plunder charges for allegedly embezzling more than P130 million in municipal funds, in what a whistleblower has called "big-time corruption in a small town."

Named in a complaint-affidavit are former Abra congresswoman Cecilia Seares-Luna and her eldest son Jendricks. Cecilia served as mayor of Lagayan town from 1998 to 2007, when she ran for Abra's lone congressional seat. Jendricks succeeded her as mayor in 2007, ran for barangay captain in October 2010 and is now president of Lagayan's Association of Barangay Captains.

Jendricks allegedly continues to control the town, whose current mayor, Cecilia's 82-year-old aunt Purificacion Paingan, was likewise accused of dereliction of duty purportedly for allowing him "to take over the helm of the municipality and continue his plunder of the town coffers" as ABC president.

The complainant is Bernadine Joson, the Lunas' erstwhile trusted lieutenant who served as Lagayan's municipal planning and development officer from 1998 until a few months ago.

In her complaint-affidavit, Joson described Lagayan as "a story of how key members of a political family in a small far-flung, underdeveloped town in Abra, over a period of a little more than a decade, in the absence of a viable system of checks and balances, has been raiding and plundering the town's coffers."

She said Lagayan's experience reflects in varying degrees what is happening in many small and remote towns where local government officials act as overlords who do whatever they want to constituents living in fear and ignorance.

Contacted by phone, Jendricks said, "Pabayaan mo siyang mag-file (Let her file the case)." He challenged Joson to prove her allegations or he will file his own charges against her.

Jendricks described Joson as "sour grapes" who was dragging him into her rift with the municipal treasurer. He added that he is now "just a barangay captain" busy focusing on his businesses in Manila."

Also accused of graft and corruption are Lara Haya Luna, Lagayan vice mayor and youngest daughter of Cecilia, a nursing student who spends most of her time in Manila.

Joson's complaint said Lara never presided over a meeting of the Sangguniang Bayan, which is part of her duties as vice mayor and sanggunian chair. The Lagayan council met only four times since it was constituted in July 2010.

Also named "conspirators" of the Lunas are municipal engineer Osborne Dolaoen, municipal accountant Meno Dickenson and municipal treasurer Marissa Donato, Cecilia's second cousin.

Lagayan is a fifth-class town with a population of just over 4,000 spread out in only five barangays located in northwestern Abra bordering Ilocos Norte. Yet its huge land area of 215 square kilometers entitles it to substantial Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) from the national government.

The province's records show that Lagayan received P32 million in IRA in 2009, ranking eighth out of Abra's 27 towns.

Joson said she decided to come out because she "cannot keep on hearing no evil and seeing no evil," which included the Lunas' supposed underpayment of salaries and benefits to municipal employees, payment of ghost employees and projects, and the non-existent offices and operations despite provisions for maintenance and other operating expenses (MOOE) listed in the approved budget.

She also said everyone in Lagayan, especially municipal employees, live in fear of the Lunas who reportedly maintain a private army.

Several positions in Lagayan remain unfilled, including those of the health officer, social welfare officer, agriculturist and budget officer. Yet, the Lunas have been spending the funds allocated for these positions and offices, Joson said in her complaint.

"This was possible because during this period and until now, key members of the family and their cronies controlled key offices of the local government, including the Sangguniang Bayan," she said.

Joson alleged that from 2003 to 2006, when Cecilia was mayor, the town was unable to account for at least P56.3 million in municipal funds. The bulk of this amount, some P40 million, was money intended for development projects that were never implemented. Nearly P8 million came from underpayment of employee salaries and benefits, while another P8 million from savings from vacant positions.

"Wala akong ginagawang ganun (I did no such thing)," Cecilia said in a phone interview.

She also said that when Jendricks was mayor from 2007 to 2010, he pocketed some P75 million in municipal funds, P30 million of which came from underpayment of employee salaries, ghost operations expenses, and the nonpayment of clothing allowances of P3,000 per year per employee.

Joson added that Jendricks pocketed P33.4 million in funds for development projects that never materialized but were approved and appropriated for in the Annual Investment Plan.

Another P11.4 million in savings from vacant positions and underpayment of salaries for 52 municipal employees could not be accounted for, she said.

Jendricks said municipal records would dispute the allegations being made by Joson, whom he accused of having run off with her own "accountabilities." He accused Joson of carting away computers and laptops, and that she left without a proper turnover.

He also accused Joson of forging the signatures of town officials in a resolution she sent to the Department of Finance's Bureau of Local Finance. He described Joson as someone who had accumulated salary loans from the Land Bank, making her fellow employees sign her loans as co-makers and leaving them to pay her obligations.

The Commission on Audit, in its report on Lagayan for 2008 and 2009, has taken note of the questionable financial practices of town officials, such as purchasing supplies and materials without public bidding, disbursing funds without documentation, and implementing projects despite the absence of an Annual Procurement Plan (APP).

In its 2009 audit report, the COA said, "The municipality implemented projects by administration and purchased supplies and materials with a total cost of P8,961,828.00 and paid equipment rentals totaling P1,361,126.00 without public bidding."

"Fund disbursement of P7,851,001.50 from January to December 2009 lacked complete documentation" in violation of the Local Government Code and the Government Auditing Code of the Philippines, the COA also said.

Despite the absence of an APP, the town bought goods costing P3,021,066.76 and implemented projects amounting to P13,068,957.62. "It was the practice of the municipality to procure supplies and materials on a need basis and resort to emergency purchase whenever supplies were needed," in violation of the procurement law or Republic Act No. 9184," the COA said.

The COA noted that the projects the town reported as accomplishments in 2008 and 2009 could not be inspected because the program of work, contract, purchase orders and order required documents were not submitted.

In her complaint, Joson said the Lunas did not even spare funds intended for the employees' contributions to the Government Service Insurance System. The COA reports showed that the town had been delinquent in paying the annual GSIS premiums of about P260,000 from 2007 to 2009.

Jendricks denied the allegation. "Sobra sobra nga (much, much more)," he said of the payments made to the GSIS in behalf of its employees.

The Lunas are today considered one of Abra's most feared and influential families. In the capital Bangued, Cecilia's third son, Ryan, is mayor while her nephew Allan Seares is vice mayor. Her youngest daughter Lara Haya is the vice mayor of Lagayan, a position previously held by Cecilia sixth child, Hans, who was vice mayor to Jendricks from 2007 to 2010.

In the 2010 elections, three of Cecilia's sons were running for mayor of different Abra towns: oldest son Jendricks for Lagayan, second son Cromwell for Tineg, and third son Ryan for Bangued. Cecilia herself ran for re-election as representative.

In March 2010, as the campaign for local elections was getting underway, Cromwell and 50 heavily armed guards appeared at the kindergarten graduation of Tineg Central School in Barangay Agsimao. The town is Abra's most remote, but the one with the biggest IRA.

In a handwritten affidavit, eyewitnesses said children, old men and women wailed, while everyone else ran for cover as the men fired their M-14, M-16 and M-203 rifles indiscriminately at the crowd.

Because of criticism of having three brothers running for public office, Joson said Jendricks withdrew his candidacy for mayor of Lagayan. The Lunas fielded Cecilia's 82-year-old aunt, Purificacion Paingan, in his stead. She won, as did Ryan for Bangued mayor. Cromwell and Cecilia, however, lost their bids.

In October 2010, Jendricks successfully ran for barangay captain of Poblacion in Lagayan and was later elected head of the Association of Barangay Captains, a position that allows him to sit in the municipal council. He is also a director of the Abra Electric Cooperative.

In her affidavit, Joson said Jendricks blamed his mother's resounding defeat on two towns—La Paz and Danglas—whose voters rejected her in the 2010 elections.

On his orders, Joson said, she inserted in the town's Annual Investment Plan for 2011 the amount of P1.5 million for a river diversion project, which blocked the flow of the Tineg River from Lagayan to the two towns as well as to Dolores and diverted the water to another town.

Joson said Jendricks used the funds for the rental of a backhoe and a grader, purchases of gasoline and salaries of drivers. "No one could stop him, because he deployed around 100 of his armed goons to guard the diversion," she said.

"The result of the diversion was catastrophic to the municipalities downstream: rice just planted on middens along the river's banks withered, and fishponds and fish pens dried up. In just two months (Dec. 12, 2010—Jan. 16, 2011), agriculture in the three municipalities sustained an estimated P50 million in losses," said the complaint.

Tension gripped Abra, forcing Gov. Eustaquio Bersamin to call in the Army because Jendricks would not be pacified and stopped from his river diversion plan. More than 100 riot policemen from Manila were sent to Abra to restore order, and make Jendricks agree to restore the river to its normal flow.

Cecilia has said in media interviews that she used to be a contractor for the Department of Public Works and Highways at the time that her mother, Anita Seares, was mayor of Lagayan. In 1998, Cecilia herself ran for the post and won by just one vote.  She tells reporters she sells beauty products and even became an agent of the insurance company Philamlife while she was mayor.

By the time her first term as mayor ended in 2001, she had become a wealthy woman, reporting assets of more than P19 million and liabilities of P13 million, for a total net worth of P6 million.

Her 2001 Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth shows she owned four pieces of real estate then. Two of them were acquired after she became mayor in 1998: a house in Quezon City supposedly acquired through a P6.9 million loan in 1999 and a low-cost housing unit bought purportedly through a P375,000 loan—her SALN does not say where—in 2000.

The SALN shows she acquired two cars—a Toyota Altis car and a Kia Pregio van—for P1.65 million in 2000.

By 2007, Cecilia's net worth had grown to P22.4 million. Her SALN listed 10 pieces of property. These include seven pieces acquired from 1984 to 1999—two residential properties in Quezon City and the rest pasture, forestland and riceland in Abra—and which she omitted to declare in 2001.

Cecilia's 2007 SALN also listed 11 vehicles: six trucks, a Mistubishi Lancer, Mitsubishi GSR, Ford Linx, Ford Trekker and a "Ford 4x4." Three of the six trucks were acquired from 1995 to 1997. But like her some of her real property, Cecilia did not declare them in 2001.

By 2008, Cecilia had added a Ford Expedition, Forest Everest and Ford Widetrac to her fleet of vehicles, and her reported net worth had risen to P25.87 million.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. VERA is Latin for "true.")