Business leaders on Sunday joined religious groups and civil society in clamoring for the abolition of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel of lawmakers, saying it is prone to corruption.
The Makati Business Club (MBC) said the pork barrel scandal involving the release of millions of pesos to bogus organizations shows just how vulnerable the PDAF is to manipulation and corruption.
“While the PDAF may directly address local needs, it has nonetheless provided opportunities for corruption to take root and even blossom in various levels of our society,” the MBC said in a statement that was also signed by the Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference (BBC) for Human Development, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines-National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice, and Peace (CBCP-NASSA), Citizens’ Congress for Good Governance (C2G2), and Transparency and Accountability Network (TAN).
However, Palace deputy spokesman Abigail Valte said President Benigno Aquino 3rd remains firm in his stand that lawmakers should continue to receive their PDAF.
Valte said this was the impression she got the last time she discussed the matter with the President.
However, she said Palace officials have yet to bring up the recent discovery of a bigger anomaly by the Commission on Audit (COA) with Aquino.
COA Chairman Grace Pulido Tan revealed over the weekend that at least 12 senators and 180 congressmen earmarked P6 billion of pork barrel funds to 82 questionable non-government organizations, including those allegedly formed by Janet Napoles, from 2007 to 2009. ”Perhaps this is something that we can discuss with the President. We haven’t had the opportunity to discuss it with him again in light of the recent findings of the COA and siguro it’s something that we can raise with him,” Valte said.
The MBC, CBCP and other groups said they were dismayed by the “repeated mishandling of the PDAF” by elected representatives who are expected to be the exemplars of complete adherence with the law and whose primary function is to craft new laws.
“We condemn this systemic diversion of public funds for private aggrandizement, much more into phantom organizations,” they said. “We fervently believe in the Constitutional principle that public office is a public trust, and that these entrusted funds should be used with utmost prudence.”
They called for an impartial and comprehensive investigation into the scandal and urged those linked to it, whether private citizen or public official, to submit themselves to a probe.
“We ask that those found to have been involved be held accountable to the law’s fullest extent,” they said.
The groups also urged the government to strengthen existing safeguards to ensure the judicious use of all public funds that finance or subsidize minor and big-ticket projects.
To build a “culture of integrity” in government institutions, the groups stressed the need to immediately enact the Freedom of Information Bill into law.
“We believe that this landmark legislation, coupled with ongoing efforts at promoting good governance, will be an effective deterrent to abuses perpetrated by the corrupt,” they said.
The President earlier ruled out the abolition of the pork barrel system, saying it was meant as a way to help to those most in need. Asked if the COA audit had focused mainly on the opposition, Valte said, “Let’s go through the entire report. We go where the evidence will take us. So that is very clear for us at that juncture.”
”The bulk of releases that have been given, some of them have very minimal involvement of the NGOs. If you look at the list of releases that is up on the DBM website, the implementing agencies are mostly agencies of the national government,” Valte said.
She promised stricter accreditation and monitoring of NGOs to prevent another pork barrel scandal.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development, she said, will “make sure really that these NGOs do the work that they represent themselves to be involved in.”
The Department of Agriculture likewise “will be tightening their policies on releasing funds to NGOs as identified by legislators,” Valte added.
Meanwhile, she said it was up to the Office of the Ombudsman to take any action on the COA findings.
”We will defer to the Ombudsman, to the independent constitutional commission that it is, because we do not also want to be accused of pressuring any independent agency into acting a certain a way,” she said.
Senate President Franklin M. Drilon called for a speedy investigation of the alleged misuse of the PDAF.
“I call on government investigating bodies to speed up the probe into this pork barrel scam and ensure as well the speedy judicial process. The government must show resolve in addressing this issue so that the public will realize that we are taking appropriate and swift actions to get to the bottom of the controversy,” Drilon said in a statement.
He called on the COA, Ombudsman and the Department of Justice to coordinate in looking into the misuse of the PDAF.
“We need to finish the investigation so that those who are allegedly involved will be presented the opportunities to defend themselves and clear their names before an impartial and credible investigative body and appropriate judicial forum,” Drilon said.
“Because of the audit report, we are all under cloud of doubt. Even if our names were not in the report, the people have the tendency to generalize and suspect us to be doing illegal in the use of our pork barrel,” he pointed out.
WITH A REPORT FROM JEFFERSON ANTIPORDA