Nueva Viscaya Governor Luisa Lloren Cuaresma and several other officials of her province face graft charges for allegedly keeping an Australian mining firm from doing a local project, causing it to lose US$65,000 for every day that it has not been allowed to operate.
The complaint was filed last month at the Office of the Ombudsman by the OceanaGold, which is doing the Didipio Gold Copper Project.
The Ombudsman approved the filing of charges of grave coercion and graft on July 12, with Cuaresma and the following as accused:
– Provincial Board members Edu Balgos and Francisco Tolentino
– Danny Ramos of the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office
– Senior Inspector Iringan of the Nueva Viscaya Police and several other policemen
– Nueva Viscaya provincial guards
OceanaGold is the holder of one of the first two approved Financial or Technical Assistance Agreement (FTAA) in the Philippines, according Gil Maglanque, assistant general manager of OceanaGold.
The FTAA covers 900 hectares in Kasibu and Nagtipunan in Nueva Viscaya and Cabarroguis in Quirino province. It was approved in June 20, 1994.
According to the complaint, Governor Cuaresma issued several cease and decease orders (CDO) against the Didipio project, which OceanaGold claims lacked legal basis.
The first CDO was allegedly because the mining firm was quarrying a river without sand and gravel permits from the provincial government.
OceanaGold, admitted Maglanque, was then extracting sand and gravel for exclusive use in its operations. But he said: “The governor issued the CDO without issuing them any tax assessment for such alleged quarrying and without any proof that their firm has not paid assessment.”
Worse, Maglanque explained, “she issued the CDO without filing appropriate tax collection suit with the appropriate court as provided by the LGC (Local government Code).”
In December, the firm replaced its quarrying contractor, who then applied for permits from the provincial government.
But Cuaresma again issued another CDO in April this year “without indicating any basis.”
“She did not again issue any tax assessment and proof that we have not paid any tax,” Maglanque said.
On April 24, OceanaGold sought the opinion of Environment Secretary Lito Atienza.
“As FTAA contractor, (OceanaGold) has the right to extract materials within the FTAA area without the need of a permit,” Atienza replied in a letter.
But again, on May 1, also this year, the Nueva Viscaya PENRO reportedly attempted to serve another CDO, but was refused by OceanaGold insisting there was no legal basis.
Again on May 6, Cuaresma went to the mining site to stop its operations.The governor was accompanied by vice Governor Jose Gambito and Board member Balgos and all heads of offices of the provincial government.
On May 11, the firm resume operations on getting clearances from the Bureau of Mines and Geosciences Bureau and the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources.
The next day, however, the governor and her group allegedly returned with fully armed men and policemen aboard a convoy of vehicles.
The group, the complaint said, “forcibly entered by threatening and intimidating the armed guards.”
Two days later, Nueva Viscaya officials with armed provincial guards and policemen entered the project site without permission from the mining firm.
This even as Atienza had repeated to OceanaGold that “Cuaresma committed violations of the graft and corrupt practices law by issuing the patently illegal and ineffective CDOs.”
The Didipio project is slated to be commissioned in February 2009.
OceanaGold believes that the “underlying reason behind the coercion was that we are not giving in to the Governor’s unwarranted demand,” said Maglanque.
In the complaint, Balgos, the Board member, was quoted by witnesses to have told OceanaGold employees that if only the firm paid Cuaresma there would have not been problems.