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Controversy surrounds DPWH appointments in Bicol

By Manuel T. Ugalde

The recent retirement of Construction Division Chief Eleanor Areola has ignited a heated debate within the Bicol public works and highways sector. Eleanor Areola, aged 61 and hailing from Camarines Sur, retired early last January due to health reasons.

Despite outperforming five other engineers in tests and ratings for the chief construction division post in 2016, she was overlooked by two subsequent regional directors, defying the DPWH Management Committee’s recommendation.

The DPWH in Bicol has a controversial history, having made headlines over a decade ago when a casual construction division employee lost P200,000 in cash from her drawer during a flag-raising ceremony.

The office was labeled a haven for insider-contractors, including casual workers. Officials allegedly prevented the employee from reporting the theft to the police, aiming to mitigate the DPWH’s reputation as one of the most corrupt agencies, according to the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission. Her drawer was found destroyed when she returned to her office minutes after the flag-raising ceremony.

Adding fuel to the fire, the latest controversy centers around the recent appointments of four engineers, including the husband of recently retired assistant regional director Malou Lacuna, as chief construction division. While unconfirmed, reports suggest that a powerful party-list representative in Bicol may have influenced Alex Lacuna’s appointment.

The Bicol region has been embroiled in controversy surrounding both a delayed P500 million road improvement project and recent appointments within the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH). Here are the key details:

In 2012, the highly controversial road improvement project in Masbate, valued at P500 million, faced significant delays.

Despite demands for contract rescission, the awarded contractor, Yakal Construction from Cebu City, continued to receive extensions until 2015.

Reports highlighted issues of manpower shortages, financial concerns, and alleged padded claims.

Former public affairs chief Romeo Esplana filed a complaint with the Ombudsman against Alex Lacuna, director Reynaldo Tagudando, and Undersecretary Romeo Momo.

Former legal officer Oliver Rodolfo confirmed the case filed by Esplana in 2015 but noted that it has since been dismissed.

The regional construction division post is considered lucrative due to substantial regular funds allocated to the regions and special projects from congressmen and senators.

Former Albay 3rd district engineer Godofredo Beltran vacated his post in 2001, returned as assistant construction chief, and eventually became the chief construction division until his retirement in 2016.

Interestingly, the salary grade of a district engineer is higher than that of a division chief.

According to the latest department order, District engineering offices handle projects costing P150 million and below. Regional offices manage projects up to P500 million.

However, the current setup often congests the regional office with contracts, including special projects from across the six provinces, even if the project cost falls within the district engineering category.

Regional director Virgilio Eduarte explained that some projects exceeding the district ceiling are channelled to the region based on a memorandum order from the secretary, influenced by lawmakers’ requests.

The DPWH-Bicol continues to grapple with controversies, leaving questions about transparency and project management.

Recent appointments within the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) in Bicol have stirred debate, with some controversial decisions coming to light.

Engineer Alex Lacuna was appointed as chief construction division. Regional director Eduarte clarified that the appointment was based on Lacuna’s qualifications and competence, not due to his relationship with retired assistant regional director Malou Lacuna. All four latest appointees have risen through the ranks.

Former construction chief Godofredo Beltran was succeeded by Cornelio Relativo, who was initially appointed by regional director Reynaldo Tagudando in 2016.

Despite management committee recommendations, Eleanor Areola, Albay 2nd assistant district engineer, was overlooked for the construction division post.

Danilo Versola, a Davao-based director, continued to retain Relativo as officer in charge (OIC) until his retirement in August 2018. Versola’s absenteeism and lack of attendance at mandatory flag-raising ceremonies raised concerns. Prior to his retirement, Versola allocated P2 billion in calamity funds for maintenance projects.

Relativo’s construction division oversaw the implementation of these funds, covering projects in Albay 2nd district and Sorsogon. Secretary Mark Villar later transferred Relativo to the central office, allowing Eleanor Areola to finally assume the role of construction division chief under regional director Eduarte.

The DPWH-Bicol continues to grapple with controversies, leaving questions about transparency and decision-making.


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