SEN. Miriam Defensor Santiago on Monday urged President Benigno Aquino 3rd to immediately act on the alleged irregular use of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel of several lawmakers. She also called on the senators linked to the scam to go on leave.
Santiago said President Aquino should appoint a panel of prosecutors that will lead the investigation.
She said that although the Department of Justice (DOJ) has jurisdiction to investigate members of Congress, it is headed by a Cabinet member who has yet to be confirmed by the powerful Commission on Appointments (CA) composed of members of the legislative department.
Santiago was referring to Justice Secretary Leila De Lima, whose appointment has been bypassed by the CA several times.
She said the Senate committee on ethics and privileges can investigate the five Senators implicated in the P10-billion PDAF scam, but there are certain social constraints which could impede the panel from coming up with a sound decision.
Santiago also ruled out the Office of the Ombudsman because the agency, under the law that created it, has no jurisdiction over members of the Senate.
“So my proposal is the President must act now, must appoint a special panel of prosecutors and this panel must be given 30 days to issue a resolution on the matter,” she said.
The feisty lawmaker suggested that the panel should be composed of former members of the judiciary who have no personal or political interests and with a reputation for integrity.
Santiago gave two names of possible members of the panel—former Supreme Court justices Ameurfina Melencio-Herrera and Flerida Ruth Pineda-Romero.
Herrera served as Supreme Court justice from 1979 to 1992 and is now 91 years old. Romero assumed office in 1991 until 1999 and is 83.
Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Ramon Revilla Jr, Jinggoy Estrada, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and Gregorio Honasan were the five senators mentioned by a whistleblower who allegedly agreed to release funds to non-government organizations (NGOs) supposedly in exchange for a “cut”.
According to the report, Revilla released more than P1 billion over 10 years. Enrile was second with P641 million, followed by Estrada who released P585 million of his PDAF.
Marcos and Honasan released P100 million and P15 million, respectively, to dummy NGOs.
Santiago, a former judge, said that although every person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, the fact that there is a whistleblower who issued a sworn affidavit and believed to have documents that could support his claim could show the existence of a prima facie case.
“The presumption of innocence does not prevent our government from investigating the complaint as long as there is prima facie evidence,” she added.
The President, she said, should act on the issue decisively and with determination and “let the axe fall where it may.”
Santiago urged her colleagues to go on leave as a courtesy to the Filipino public and in order for the investigation to proceed unhampered.
Revilla vehemently denied the allegations and claimed that the controversy was the handiwork of Malacañang.
“I have already been warned by someone in Malacañang that I will be targeted. This controversy has been engineered by the administration for only one purpose – to demolish the opposition, especially those who enjoy the popular support of our people,” Revilla said in a statement.
He lamented that some senators are being faulted despite the fact that the so-called whistleblowers have admitted that they forged and falsified documents to carry out their scheme.
Revilla welcomed the probe being conducted by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), noting that the allocation of their PDAF is subject to government rules and regulations.
He also pointed out that even if the claims are true, the lawmakers should be considered as the victims and not as wrongdoers because the release of funds is solely handled by the implementing agencies and the Executive branch.
“Suspiciously, only non-allies of the administration are being dragged into this controversy. They should also look into the transaction of others even the allies of this administration,” he said.
Marcos said he is willing to cooperate fully in the investigation.
“With regards to allegations or insinuations by some quarters reported in the media, I can only repeat that I don’t know Ms. (Janet Lim) Napoles. I have never spoken to her and so I have had no personal dealings with her,” he said.
Napoles has been pointed to as the person who hatched the scam.
Honasan rejected Santiago’s call that the senators linked to the scam quit, saying that any request for leave of absence, resignation or inhibition must only be considered after the NBI has released the initial results of its investigation.
He said that the records of their special allotment release order (SARO) from the Department of Budget should also made public so that their names will be cleared.
Honasan said the issue must be resolved through the proper process and not through trial by publicity.
Sen. Francis Escudero on Monday filed a resolution directing the blue ribbon committee to conduct an inquiry into the scam.
Escudero said that a full-blown Senate investigation would show to the people that the chamber does not have sacred cows or an “old boys club”.
“It has become a painful misconception that the PDAF is a cash allocation given to congressmen and senators with unlimited discretion to disburse and spend with neither constraints nor accountability,” he said.
But in reality, Escudero said, legislators do not handle the funds nor implement the projects and their participation is limited to the designation of beneficiaries and identification of projects.
Sen. Franklin Drilon believes the Senate is not the right agency to make an inquiry because it will not look good if the chamber investigates its own members.
Drilon said the public may doubt the result of the investigation.
“I have confidence in Secretary De Lima. What is more critical to me is the confidence of the President because regardless of whether she is confirmed or not, depends on the confidence of the President,” he said.
Drilon on Monday also proposed to put a limitation in the use of their PDAF.
”The reality is, there would be some who legitimately need PDAF. I think, the reality is let us limit the use of the PDAF to certain activities,” Drilon said.
The senator, who is being groomed as the next Senate president, said medical assistance and educational scholarships are among the legitimate activities that need to be supported by the PDAF.
”I’m not saying the reports are true but to avoid this kind of negative reports, if we cannot abolish PDAF, let us limit its use,” he said.
At least 28 legislators, including five senators, have been linked to the alleged pork barrel scheme devised by Napoles.
Drilon said he himself accepts PDAF but he made it sure that his P200-million pork barrel every year went to the right recipients through proper channels.
He added that there is nothing with the Senate rule which would compel the involved senators to go on leave.
”Remember these are just media reports at this stage,” Drilon said.
Technical Director General Joel Villanueva on Monday also denied any knowledge on the pork barrel scam.
“During the impeachment years, I don’t recall receiving a single cent from the Arroyo administration to CIBAC party-list,” he told reporters.
Villanueva was a party-list representative of Citizens’ Battle Against Corruption (CIBAC) during the 12th, 13th and 14th Congress.
He denied that this pork barrel funds worth P4.3 million were coursed through a dummy—NGO Masaganang Ani para sa Magsasaka Foundation Inc. owned by Napoles.
According to the documents provided by the whistle-blowers, Villanueva released P3 million and P1.3 million on November 9, 2007.
“They already admitted they are forging signatures so I hope the authorities will dig deeper and hold liable those who will be proven guilty,” Villanueva said.
De Lima said the whistle-blower, Benhur Luy, and members of his family can be admitted into the Witness Protection Program (WPP).
‘I have made that offer to them through a lawyer because it was them who forged the signatures,” De Lima said.
She said Luy rejected her offer.
However, because of the heat generated by the series of the exposes in leading newspapers, De Lima again advised the witness to be placed under WPP as soon as possible.
In a motion for reconsideration before the DOJ through his counsel Levido Baligod, Luy said the agency erred in throwing out the complaint against Napoles and her brother Reynaldo Lim, both of JLN Group of Companies.
The DOJ, in a resolution dated June 10, 2013, dismissed for lack of probable cause the complaint filed by the NBI and Arturo Luy, Gerturdes Luy, Annabelle Luy-Reario and Benhur against Reynald and Janet.
Last March, NBI agents reported that they rescued Benhur after he was allegedly held captive for more than three months by Reynald and Janet in their condominium unit at Pacific Plaza Tower, Bonifacio Global City in Taguig City.
Reynald was supposedly arrested without warrant and was brought to Saint Luke’s Hospital due to chest pains.
In the ruling, the DOJ found that Benhur was not detained against his will.
The DOJ took into account the testimony of the security officers of the Pacific Plaza Towers Condominium who took the CCTV footage showing that Benhur refused to go with the NBI agents.
WITH REPORTS FROM JOMAR CANLAS AND PNA