Friday, January 16, 2015

Morales should file graft raps over DOTC’s ‘kotong’ plates

IT’S about time Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales exercised the motu propio (i.e. on its own initiative) investigative powers of her office and filed graft charges against officials of the Land Transportation Office (LTO) and its mother agency, the Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC), for its latest extortion racket: the “kotong” license plates. It is an illegal taxation scheme by government agencies acting beyond their powers and authority.
Right before the Christmas holidays, the LTO’s chief, Assistant Secretary Alfonso Tan Jr., came out with a half-page advertisement in some daily broadsheets (not the Times) announcing that beginning January 1, 2015, all motorists renewing their vehicle registration will be required to pay an additional P450 for the replacement of old license plates with the so-called “standardized” plates.
LTO says the mass cancellation of some 10-million motor vehicle plates is in line with DOTC’s “Motor Vehicle Plate Standardization” program. Aside from the color change, the new standardized plates supposedly contains modern security features such as tamper-proof bolts that will permanently attach the plates to the vehicle, reflectorized sheeting for long-range and wide-angled visibility, and a “third-plate” sticker to display license plate numbers on windshields that leaves a trace when torn off.
“These new plates will help improve road safety by curbing illegal practices such as tanggal-plaka or plate removal and switching, which is prevalent in carnapping and colorum operations. They will help enforcers catch criminals, and enhance safety for the public,” Transportation Secretary Jun Abaya said.
Abaya’s claim, however, has been already debunked by our Times reporter Jefferson Antiporda who revealed a few months ago that owners of brand-new vehicles bearing the new alphanumeric plate of three letters and four numbers are actually more prone to carnap because the new license plates are not yet listed in the main database of the LTO.
The LTO database contains all information about registered vehicles in the country, including the details on the type of vehicle, its registered owner, the date it was last registered with the agency and a statement if a particular vehicle is in the so-called pending alarm list. The pending alarm list shows if a vehicle has been used in a crime or has been stolen.
But Antiporda’s sources said the new security features touted by Abaya are useless because the LTO is still groping on how to include such features in its database. Apparently, the system used by LTO’s current information technology (IT) provider Stradcom is only compatible with the old type of plates or the six-character plates (three letters and three numbers).
In order for the new license plates to be incorporated in the existing system, Stradcom needs to update the system’s software program. The problem is Stradcom’s contract with DOTC expired last February 2013.
Curiously, almost two years later, the DOTC has yet to choose a new IT provider to take over from Stradcom. In the meantime, the DOTC has indefinitely extended Stradcom’s contract until the new information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure contract is awarded to the winning bidder.
Although three bidders have submitted their bids more than six months ago, the DOTC has not awarded the contract until now. Why the delay? Are they averse to canceling Stradcom’s contract? Or are some DOTC officials \trying to negotiate a deal with the bidders?
What’s quite dubious though is that despite these IT issues, Abaya insisted on pushing through with the “kotong” plates program, which is expected to generate some P4.5-billion in fees. Abaya says the P450 fee will be split between DOTC which will get P70 as administration fee and the manufacturer (Dutch-Filipino consortium PPI-JKG) which will get P380.
Obviously, the license plate fee being collected from vehicle owners for the new license plates is actually a “tax” and not a fee because its purpose is to raise revenue for DOTC and the manufacturer, and “is designed to raise substantially more than the cost” of the license plate. The fact that the fees go to the National Treasury, as Abaya argues, does not change its nature as a tax. But the DOTC has no power to tax. That power lies with Congress alone.
Abaya has not only usurped the power of Congress but also caused undue injury to motor vehicle owners and given the manufacturer PPI-JKG an unwarranted benefit and advantage – an offense punishable under the anti-graft law.
It is also well-settled legal principle that rules created by administrative agencies like the DOTC only have a prospective effect, meaning, it can only be applied in the future. DOTC’s new license plate program should therefore apply only to brand-new vehicles registered after the rules were issued in 2014.
Besides, what standardization is Abaya talking about when not all motor vehicles will be given the new seven-character alphanumeric plate? Why should DOTC charge motorists twice for the same six-character plates they’ve registered and paid for previously?

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