A week after President Rodrigo Duterte delivered his fifth State of the Nation Address and promised that “the long arm of the law” would catch up with “profiteers, over-pricers and corrupt felons” stealing government funds meant for the Covid-19 response, residents and concerned groups from Tabuk City have urged the President to suspend their mayor in order to prevent the further misuse of city funds aimed at containing the Covid-19 outbreak in the Kalinga capital.
In an open letter addressed to the Chief Executive, the groups and individuals living in Tabuk City––public market stall owners and vendors, as well as citizens who collectively refer to themselves as Oplan Salacnib––appealed to the President “to help us address a pressing issue that threatens the lives of Tabuk City's 103,912 residents: graft in the use of financial resources meant to fund the city's efforts to prevent the spread of Covid-19.”
Oplan Salacnib is composed of professionals, business owners, priests and pastors of religious groups, and concerned citizens of Tabuk City. “Salacnib” means “to protect” in Ilocano.
The groups urged the President to step in and put a stop to “the irresponsible misuse of government funds and the brazen corruption happening in Tabuk City Hall under Mayor Darwin C. Estrañero.”
“To date, our city does not have enough COVID-19 isolation and treatment facilities and is utterly unprepared for a COVID-19 outbreak despite the 93.5 million pesos in Bayanihan Funds that it has received from the national government, and in spite of the availability of around 50 million pesos from the city coffers at the start of the pandemic up to end of the second quarter of the year,” they revealed in their open letter, posted in their Facebook Page, “Oplan Salacnib.”
According to the authors of the open letter, “by our estimates, our local chief executive, Mayor Estrañero, has misappropriated over 100 million pesos’ worth of government funds––funds that have been used to procure overpriced equipment such as thermal scanners.”
“While the NBI and the PNP-CIDG have arrested sellers elsewhere of thermal scanners that were overpriced at 6,000 to 8,000 pesos per device since the start of the ECQ in March 2020, under the management of Mayor Estrañero, Tabuk City has purchased more than 100 thermal scanners at 12,000 pesos each,” explained the groups.
The groups’ members pointed out that House Minority Leader Bienvenido “Benny” Abante “hit the nail on the head when he said that ‘these acts of corruption are not just acts of theft; they cripple government Covid-19 response efforts.’”
The multisectoral groups lamented that Tabuk City’s Bayanihan Fund should have been spent upgrading the healthcare facilities of the city as there are no hospitals in Tabuk City or in the province of Kalinga that can treat moderate to severe COVID-19 cases.
Instead, they alleged that “most of the funds were spent on overpriced and irregularly procured relief packs, overpriced medical supplies, and overpriced personal protective equipment (PPE).”
“We submit that due process dictates that every public official accused of crimes should be considered innocent until proven guilty. Time, unfortunately, is not on our side, and while the wheels of justice slowly turn, lives are at risk,” the group emphasized.
The Tabuk City residents said they were concerned given the rapid increases in the number of COVID-19 cases in Tabuk City and in the province of Kalinga. In two weeks, the confirmed cases in the province of Kalinga have jumped from eight to 30 cases.
“Mr. President, in the face of overwhelming evidence and given the need to keep the people of Tabuk City safe, we believe it is time for the national government to step in and intervene as these acts of corruption compromise life-saving measures against the COVID-19 virus and endanger the lives of our citizens,” they added.
“Lives are at stake, Mr. President, and we need your help.
We appeal to you to direct the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) to preventively suspend Mayor Estrañero in order for authorities to investigate these allegations of corruption and to ensure that the city's remaining funds are properly mobilized for Covid-19 response,” they appealed.
In his SONA, the President said “the financial and material assistance of the government to the unemployed, the sick and the destitute running into billions of pesos, are not spared from corruption and ineptitude. Even the donations from well-meaning private persons are skimmed before reaching their intended beneficiaries. It is like snatching food from the mouths of babes.”