Saturday, June 26, 2010

LTO and NTC–two rotten agencies

Among several government offices that managed to lose the public’s trust over the past nine years under the Arroyo administration, the Land Transportation Office (LTO) and the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC)—both under the Department of Transportation and Communications—stand out quite prominently.

We point this out in the hope that the incoming P-Noy administration was sincere when it promised to minimize, if not totally stamp out, corruption in the entire bureaucracy. The LTO and the NTC are among the many offices that sorely need to undergo a comprehensive performance review. In plain language, these agencies have become so dirty as to require a lot of hard scrubbing.

The NTC first gained notoriety as the key agency that was to implement the Arroyo administration’s aborted multi-billion-peso ZTE-NBN broadband deal, which called for the supply of atrociously overpriced hardware equipment for the new technology from China . Foiled but undeterred by the cancellation of the grossly disadvantageous ZTE-NBN deal, the NTC’s corrupt commissioners tried another tack to cash in on the broadband technology.

This time, it seized broadband frequencies from their original franchisees or assignees by administratively ordering the reversion of all unused frequencies (worth several billions of pesos) to the state. The purpose of the administrative order was to give the NTC commissioners a free hand in brokering the sale of those frequencies to the cash-rich telecoms firms during the waning days of the Arroyo administration.

The whole scheme, however, like the ZTE-NBN deal before it, was soon exposed. Now embroiled in a slew of lawsuits filed by the aggrieved original assignees, the NTC commissioners—one of them said to be a “bagman” of a prominent “gentleman” close to the administration—now fear the day when they would inevitably be named respondents for certain violations of the antigraft law.

The LTO, for its part, stands out as a class by itself, but is by no means any cleaner than the NTC. Here is an agency that has abdicated much of its key functions to a private company called Stradcom. The extent to which this private company—headed by Cesar Quiambao, said to be fronting for Indonesian business interests—has held sway in the LTO has shocked and dismayed companies involved in motor-vehicle insurance and those that have set up Private Emission Testing Centers, or PETCs.

Stradcom now directly collects from the motoring public fees for computer services and premiums for the mandatory third-party liability (TPL) insurance coverage of motor vehicles. How and why this was allowed to come about is openly talked about by grumbling LTO employees and officials who themselves don’t fully understand what the hell is going on at the LTO.

The Stradcom first came into the scene nearly 12 years ago under a build-operate-own contract to computerize the record-keeping of the LTO’s registration and licensing functions. What remains unclear to this day is exactly when its 10-year contract took effect, and when it was supposed to formally expire. What is so unclear as to be mysterious is by what legal basis it continues to operate in the LTO when its 10-year contract “should have expired by October of 2009, at the very latest, by the wildest stretch on the imagination.”

The above quotation, by the way, was culled from a remark made to me only the other day by an LTO insider who, like many other LTO employees and middle-level officials, are disgusted at how the LTO seems to have “given away practically everything to Stradcom.” The same insider even wryly remarked that “at the rate we are going, we might as well call this agency the STO [or Stradcom Transportation Office] instead of LTO.”

The only thing that is clear is that Stradcom still lords it over as the LTO’s “official gatekeeper” to all the data concerning the registration of motor vehicles and the licenses of all Filipino drivers. It must have been this crucial “gatekeeper” role that enabled this company to secure its hammerlock embrace on the agency.

What’s really sad is that under a computerized setup, one would expect the incidence of vehicle thefts and illegal vehicle registration to be minimized. LTO insiders, however, swear that the unholy partnership with Stradcom has only made matters worse. Car thefts or carjacking cases and illegal registrations have become more rampant than ever before. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to hear about multiple registrations and duplicate plates.

The “unholy” partnership between the DOTC-LTO and Stradcom has only made it a lot easier to, say, register a Porsche smuggled into the country through Port Irene. That is, if you pay a certain fixed price to any Stradcom operator who has the password or access to the computers. A host of other shenanigans that have anything to do with LTO records have become easily “doable,” provided you talk to the right Stradcom people.

No wonder people have started calling the motor-vehicle agency the “Stradcom Transportation Office.”

Whoever would be named Transportation and Communications secretary must keep a special watch on these two agencies—the NTC and LTO --- which, by far, are probably the worst of the agencies under that department. But what’s this I hear that at the NTC, an incumbent commissioner is angling to stay on the job by virtue of his college credentials as an Ateneo graduate? Probably just idle talk.

At any rate, my next focus would be on the LTO after I have gathered all the delicious dope and the documents that would inevitably show what a huge mess the Stradcom has converted the LTO into under its lucrative and seemingly open-ended contract with the DOTC and LTO.

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