Criminal, admin charges filed vs current, former MARINA officials on issuance of permits to foreign dredgers

BY

Criminal and administrative complaints have been filed before the Office of the Ombudsman (OMB) on Tuesday, July 9, against Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) Administrator Sonia B. Malaluan and four other persons for alleged illegal Special Permits (SPs) issued to foreign dredgers.

Also charged were former MARINA administrator Hernani Fabia, former chief of sStaff of the Office of the Administrator Jabeth Dacanay, MARINA National Capital Region (NCR) Director Marc Pascua, and MARINA Domestic Shipping Office Director Rowena Hubilla.

On the criminal complaint, they were charged with violations of Section 3(e) of Republic Act No. 3019, the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, and RA No. 7080, the Plunder Law.

The complainant, United Filipino Seafarers Chairman Nelson P. Ramirez, also asked the OMB to hold them liable on administrative charges of grave misconduct, grave abuse of authority, and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of service.

The charges arose from the issuance and renewal of SPs for foreign dredgers that are "predominantly Chinese" beyond the maximum two-year period specified in MARINA Circular No. 2011-04 from 2022 until their departure.

The complaint alleged that the circular stipulates that SPs for foreign vessels can only be granted for a period of up to two years if no local ships are available.

It said that to enable this extension, Malaluan and Hubilla reportedly caused the issuance of MARINA Advisory No. 2024-25, which tackled the extension of validity of existing SPs for the temporary utilization of foreign-registered ships within the national territory.

"In the best interest of the service and to effectively cope with the robust investment climate in the country resulting to an influx of specialized foreign vessels operating on numerous government-approved projects, the validity of existing SPs... for the utilization of foreign-registered ships within the national territory shall be extended," the advisory stated.  Among other conditions, the advisory stipulated a condition that the contract duration of the government project for which the ship is being utilized is more than two years.

In his complaint, Ramirez alleged that highly specialized ships are primarily involved in petroleum exploration and operations, such as seismic survey vessels, drilling rigs, and other similar vessels. 

He claimed that dredgers are not classified as highly specialized vessels, and yet, Hubilla and Malaluan reclassified them "without clear basis, to justify the unlawful extension of SPs."

"Assuming for the sake of argument that dredgers are specialized vessels, they should have collected the shortfall of P300,000 every month from the 11 holders of special permits for 24 months because, under MC 2017-02, the required fee is P600,000, whereas under MC 2011-04, it is only P300,000 or a total of P79,200,000, otherwise, this translate to an advantage or benefit granted to the owners of the foreign vessels," the complaint also alleged. 

It also alleged that the issuance of MARINA of an SP to a foreign-registered highly specialized ship comes with the condition that there are "no readily available and suitable Philippine registered ships operating within the national territory." 

However, the complaint pointed out that there are Philippine-registered dredgers on record.

"Despite the availability of Philippine-flagged vessels, which are manned by Filipino crew and capable of performing the necessary tasks, the respondents have failed to prioritize these local vessels, undermining the development of the Philippine maritime industry," the complaint alleged. 

The OMB was told that the renewal or extension of these SPs by MARINA-NCR is illegal because of the "absence of any legal basis" for such extensions. 

Since these vessels continue to operate within Philippine waters beyond the maximum two-year period, the complaint alleged that the respondents should have exacted a payment of P3 million penalty per vessel instead of "rewarding" them with an extension.

The the complaint stated that at P3 million per vessel the total amount of penalties should be P66 million which reached the threshold for plunder. 

"The failure to collect these penalties provided undue financial benefits to the vessel owners, which may have been shared with the conspiring public officials," it alleged.