Mark Villar's wife keeps hands off water deals probe

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Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra (L) and Undersecretary Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (R)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 13) — Justice Undersecretary Emmeline Aglipay-Villar, daughter-in-law of businessman Manny Villar who owns a water company, said she will keep her hands off an ongoing review on distribution contracts with Maynilad and Manila Water after she was told to do so.

Aglipay-Villar formally said she will stay out of the ongoing probe of the Department of Justice on the supposed onerous contracts signed by the government with the two private concessionaires in 1997.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said he asked Aglipay-Villar, wife of Manny's son Public Works Secretary Mark Villar, to inhibit from the probe to avoid controversy.

"I requested USec. Villar to inhibit herself na lang to dispel suspicions that the DOJ contract review may not be completely objective due to an alleged possible conflict of interest," Guevarra told reporters.

Aglipay-Villar was representative of DIWA party-list when President Rodrigo Duterte appointed her to the Executive post in July 2018.

"It's unfair to USec. Villar who has always acted with professionality, but the circumstances call for it," Guevarra said, adding that "any good lawyer will come to the same findings and conclusion."

Aglipay-Villar officially inhibited from the review process on Friday through a memorandum sent to Guevarra's office "to eliminate any cloud of doubt on the impartiality of the Department's review," acknowledging her "affinity to the owners of PrimeWater Infrastructure Corp."

Duterte ordered a review of the decades-old supply deals with the Ayala and Pangilinan-led utility firms after he was enraged with the ruling of an international tribunal demanding the government to cover losses incurred by Manila Water and Maynilad due to rejected water rate hike petitions.

READ: Manila Water, MPIC stocks plunge amid uncertain deal with gov't

Guevarra's plea came after rumors that the Metro Manila concessionaires are being pressured to give undue advantage to Duterte's allies, including the Villar family, so that they can snag bigger deals through their water subsidiary PrimeWater Infrastructure Corp.

PrimeWater has signed several supply deals with local water districts, although for smaller service areas compared to Metro Manila. The company said it is currently serving over 500,000 homes with over 300 million liters of water per day across 124 towns and cities in the Philippines.

Last Thursday, Duterte attended the birthday celebration and opening of a new commercial property of Manny Villar in Las Piñas.

The Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System has cancelled its board resoution on the contract extensions for Manila Water and Maynilad until 2037, cutting short their service to 2022. Guevarra has said that several provisions in the decades-old contract were found to be disadvantageous to the government due to profit guarantees granted to the concessionaires.

READ: Gov't won't be paying Maynilad, Manila Water

In particular, Duterte became furious over a provision which allowed the two utility companies to recover their losses from regulatory actions by asking the national government to pay for the amount. Both Maynilad and Manila Water said they will not collect the cumulative ₱10.8-billion refund anymore after the President's long rant, which has stretched for two weeks now. Malacañang confirmed receipt of the formal letters of the two firms saying they are open to "revisit" and amend portions of their existing contracts.