Tourism Secretary Berna Puyat suspends Cesar Montano's projects pending COA review

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 17) — Newly-appointed Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said Thursday that she has suspended all projects of the Tourism Promotions Board (TPB) headed by Cesar Montano pending a review she asked the Commission on Audit (COA) to conduct.

Puyat officially took over the post on Monday after Wanda Teo resigned. Teo had been embroiled in a controversy over the Department of Tourism's P60 million television ad placement that went to a show produced by her brothers in state-run station PTV-4.

She said she has requested the COA to investigate all projects of the department.

Montano agreed to the shelving of his projects, including the controversial "Buhay Carinderia... Redefined" program that did not go through proper bidding, Puyat added.

"I wrote COA Chairman (Michael) Aguinaldo asking him to review 'Buhay Carinderia.' We can discuss the program, but I think this is already up to the Commission on Audit... In the meantime, we will not continue with the project until the COA gives their findings," she told CNN Philippines.

The secretary said she found out that the "Buhay Carinderia" project did not go through bidding, rather through a sponsorship, adding this is a common practice in TPB.

"Walang bidding pero may sponsorship. Ako kasi mas komportable ako na may bidding," she said.

Puyat said the first tranche of payment — P80 million of P320 million — was already received by the organizer and proponent of "Buhay Carinderia," a project that aims to promote local eateries.

The tourism secretary said TPB paid P80 million to Erlinda Legaspi, the President and CEO of Marylindbert International. The marketing organization in 2011 initiated "Carinderia Fiesta." This year, TPB partnered with the organization to stage "Buhay Carinderia... Redefined."

"Parang hindi lang naman exclusive ang street food sa isang organization. Maybe she has a patent pero mas komportable ako na may transparency, nabibigyan ng pagkakataon ang lahat," Puyat said.

Puyat, also the chairperson of the TPB, said this is not the proper process. She even compared TPB's process to the bidding practice of Department of Agriculture where she served for over a decade.

"Since I am now the Chair, gusto ko may bidding. Gusto ko lahat transparent. Hindi ako komportable na ibibigay ang first tranche na P80 million sa isang tao lang," she said in a media briefing.

Puyat added, "As the Chair, I think I have the right to change the process. Pera ng bayan 'yan. P80 million is P80 million."

She also questioned why the first tranche of payment was fully paid while the project has not been finished yet.

Puyat also said she is not comfortable carrying out a program even if the contract was signed by her predecessor, resigned Secretary Teo.

"Kahit ang kontrata ay signed before my time, kapag may duda ako, mas komportable ako na transparent lahat, may bidding. Ito medyo hindi ako sure because of the way it works," she said.

Despite questions about the processing of the project's papers, Puyat defended Montano's role in TPB, the marketing and promotions arm of the Department of Tourism.

"I believe he did everything in good faith, but this is up to the COA," she said.

The Tourism Secretary also addressed the reports Montano rushed his commitment as a keynote speaker in an event in New York City to watch Broadway musical "Hamilton."

Puyat said Montano explained he was there during the entire event, but during his speech he noticed the crowd was getting restless, which prompted him to make a joke.

"Kaya lang maikli kasi napansin niya na 'yung audience medyo bored na. He was there for a long time. Sabi niya nagbiro na lang siya na, 'Uy, may Hamilton tickets ako.'"

She said Montano seemed sincere with his explanation.

Puyat said she didn't ask for Montano to submit a courtesy resignation — like what she did for her assistant secretaries and undersecretaries — because he is in a holdover capacity and is set to vacate his post by June.

Plans for 'Buhay Carinderia'

The "Buhay Carinderia... Redefined" project was given a P320 million budget for a nine-month stint.

Legazpi, during the program's launch on April 11, said she was the one who approached Montano.

"I am glad that when I knocked at the door for Tourism Promotions Board Chief Operating Officer, Mr. Cesar Montano, he saw how the advocacy can be an opportunity to not only promote our own Filipino food but be an avenue for livelihood," she said, as written in the program's press release.

It was supposed to scour the whole country for the best local eateries and chefs in the country. Culinary experts were set to go to 15 provinces in Northern Luzon to look for carinderia chefs who prepare the best dishes. The local culinary experts were supposed to have an event in Vigan in June to mentor chosen students in the area; it will also give an opportunity to sell local produce.

The same framework was also supposed to be done in Central Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. It was set to stage its biggest culinary expo in November where all the regional bests will be showcased.

Aside from the programs under "Buhay Carinderia," TPB also tapped food video blogger, restauranteur and chef Erwan Heussaff to be its content creator.

"I may not be a Filipino food expert yet, there are so many dishes that I still need to discover, but I'm curious to keep learning and I am a staunch advocate of our culinary culture," he said in April.