Libel complaints vs. media fuel Senate probe on Malampaya sale

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 7) — Senate Committee on Energy chairman Sherwin Gatchalian on Tuesday said the filing of libel complaints against several journalists and media entities only gives lawmakers all the more reason to scrutinize the controversial buyout of the Malampaya gas field.

"Suppressing the media will not erase the issue of corruption and the issue of impropriety. It will just aggravate the doubt and also the anger," Gatchalian told CNN Philippines in a phone interview.

"We will continue to hold hearings despite itong (these) seven libel cases... and we will continue to exercise our oversight function," he added.

In an online media interview Tuesday morning, Senator Risa Hontiveros called on Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi and businessman Dennis Uy to cooperate with the Senate probe instead of suing media outfits for reports on the graft complaint filed against them.

Cusi, Uy, and 24 others are facing graft raps for the sale of Chevron's 45% share in Malampaya to Uy's Udenna Corporation in 2019. Former Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC) president Eduardo Mañalac said the government effectively forfeited up to ₱138 billion in profits from Malampaya.

Shell Exploration BV also sold its shares in Malampaya, giving Udenna a 90% controlling stake. The remaining 10% is maintained by the state through the PNOC Exploration Corporation (PNOC-EC).

"Ang mensahe ko rin kina Secretary Cusi and Mr. Dennis Uy: Bawiin na sana itong libel case laban sa media, at tulungan na lang ang Senado sa imbestigasyon ng issue na ito (My message to Secretary Cusi and Mr. Dennis Uy: Withdraw the libel complaints against the media and just help the Senate in investigating the issue)," Hontiveros said.

She called it an "act of harassment."

"Secretary Cusi should stop devoting so much energy going after people who are only looking for the truth," she added.

CNN Philippines has requested comments from Cusi and Uy.

Gatchalian's committee has held hearings on the Malampaya project, but Hontiveros said a "deeper" legislative inquiry is needed - zeroing in on the Chevron-Udenna deal, as well as the award to Udenna of service contracts covering Recto Bank.

In her resolution filed Nov. 18, Hontiveros called for a Senate investigation on the "propriety of allowing a single private entity (Udenna) to control almost all of the nation's strategic fossil energy assets in the West Philippine Sea."

"Nananawagan ako sa mga kasamahan ko sa Senado na isulong ang imbestigasyon sa pagbili ng Udenna sa shares ng Malampaya Project," Hontiveros said. "Dahil kung may anomalya dito, magmumukhang barya lang yung ₱11.5 billion na transaksyon ng Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp."

[Translation: I am calling on my colleagues in the Senate to push forward the investigation on Udenna's buyout of shares in the Malampaya Project. It's because if there's an anomaly here, Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp.'s ₱11.5 billion transactions would pale in comparison.]

Gatchalian said Hontiveros' resolution has been tackled in the past three hearings on issues surrounding Malampaya, and will be discussed further in another hearing next Wednesday.

"We are confident that we have enough information already to render a decision on how to move forward and also to render a conclusion on what happened," Gatchalian said.

The senator reiterated that the Department of Energy's evaluation of the Chevron-Udenna deal was "defective" and therefore its approval should be rescinded. He said government officials should be held accountable, but did not want to preempt the committee findings.

"Based on my analysis hindi tama yung ginawa nilang evaluation (the evaluation they did was not right). That placed us in a very big risk because kung yung operator, bagong operator (if the new operator), which is Udenna is not qualified, ang kawawa diyan tayo (we are at a disadvantage). Because we will be the one experiencing brownouts, we will be the one experiencing problems with Malampaya," he warned.

During a hearing on the DOE's 2022 budget in October, Cusi said the state-run PNOC-EC studied the implications of buying Chevron's majority stake in Malampaya, but decided it was too risky.

He also reiterated that the DOE scrutinized the Chevron-Udenna deal to ensure the country's energy security is not compromised. Udenna has stood by the legality of the deal.