Justice official inhibits from water concession agreement review amid conflict of interest allegations

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 13 2019 07:04 PM | Updated as of Dec 13 2019 08:24 PM

Justice Undersecretary Emmeline Aglipay-Villar with husband Public Works Secretary Mark Villar. From Emmeline Aglipay-Villar's Facebook page

MANILA – A Department of Justice (DOJ) official has inhibited from the agency's review of government's water concession agreements with distributors Maynilad and Manila Water amid alleged conflict of interest owing to her ties to a water utility firm.

In a memorandum submitted to Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra Friday, Justice Undersecretary Emmeline Aglipay-Villar said she was inhibiting to remove doubts on the credibility of the DOJ’s contract review.

“To eliminate any cloud of doubt on the impartiality of the Department’s review and renegotiation of the water concession agreements with the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System that my affinity to the owners of the PrimeWater Infrastructure Corp. has brought, I am inhibiting from any involvement in the Department’s review and renegotiation of the said agreements,” she said.

PrimeWater Infrastructure Corp. is a water utility firm owned by the family of her husband, Public Works Secretary Mark Villar. It is touted as a possible player to replace Maynilad and Manila Water when their concession agreements expire in 2022.

The justice official on Thursday denied allegations of conflict of interest, reiterating that the DOJ conducted a “disinterested review of the concession agreements.”

Guevarra vouched for his colleague, insisting that her involvement was only because her assignment at the DOJ was to oversee the work of the Office of the Government Corporate Counsel and the Office of the Chief State Counsel, which he asked to review the concession agreements.

“The cabinet discussion on the concession agreements was spurred solely by the water crisis and not by any premeditated intent to bring in a supposedly new concessionaire,” he said Thursday.

The Villars’ closeness to President Rodrigo Duterte and the President’s recent remarks praising the Villars for their hard work while lambasting the owners of Manila Water and Maynilad have led to speculation he was favoring his allies, a claim which Malacañang has denied.

But on Friday morning, Guevarra himself said he has asked the undersecretary to inhibit.

“I requested Usec. Villar to inhibit herself na lang to dispel suspicions that the DOJ contract review may not be completely objective due to an alleged possible conflict of interest,” he said in a text message.

“It's unfair to Usec. Villar who has always acted with professionality, but the circumstances call for it. One thing I can say, any good lawyer will come to the same findings and conclusion,” he added.