A leader of the influential Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) on Tuesday urged President Benigno Aquino 3rd to scrap the so-called “pork barrel” or priority development assistance funds (PDAF) of lawmakers because it is one of the root causes of corruption in the country.
Executive Secretary Fr. Edu Gariguez of the CBCP-National Secretariat for Social Action (NASSA) made the call as the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) probes the alleged P10-billion scam involving several senators and members of the House of Representatives’ PDAF.
“It should already be scrapped. It has long been established as source of big time corruption,” the prelate stressed.
“This is one of the challenges that P-Noy [Aquino] must touch in his State of the Nation Address [SONA]. This controversy calls for drastic measures and it should come from the Executive Department,” he added.
Benhur Luy, the whistleblower in the PDAF scam, claimed that former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and senators Ramon Revilla Jr., Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Gregorio Honasan agreed to release funds over the years to bogus non-government organizations (NGOs) supposedly in exchange for a “cut.”
He likewise said that more than 20 lawmakers from the House released their PDAF to the same organizations.
He pointed to businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles as the brains behind the scheme. Revilla reportedly released more than P1 billion over 10 years, while Enrile gave P641 million.
Estrada reportedly released P585 million for Napoles’ JLN Group of Companies while Marcos and Honasan, respectively, released P100 million and P15 million, to dummy NGOs.
Gariguez also said that he supports the call of Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago urging the senators linked to the scam to go on leave and to face the issue squarely.
“I agree. They should reasonably explain whether they have received cuts or not. They should give the people a logical explanation,” he said in Filipino.
Also on Tuesday, Sen. Loren Legarda said she supports the abolition of “pork” funds if the majority would push for it but right now, she said that there should be some limitations or regulations in the release of money.
She likewise supported the proposal of Sen. Franklin Drilon to scrap PDAF or at least put a limitation in the use of their pork barrel.
“I am in favor of the abolition of PDAF if agreed upon by majority and becomes a ruling or procedure,” Legarda said during the Bulong Pulungan news forum.
If it will not be totally scrapped, Legarda said PDAF should be used for medical assistance and scholarships grants.
Legarda likewise expressed belief that senators are not capable of being involved in corruption concerning the use of their pork barrel.
“What we read is really unbelievable. A senator does not hold any money,” she added.
She explained that senators have to request the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to release their pork barrel fund to a local government unit (LGU) or government agency that will implement their identified projects.
“It is a long process. The fund goes directly to the LGUs or government agencies subject to the Commission on Audit procedure,” she added.
Earlier, Drilon said that if the proposal to abolish the PDAF failed, lawmakers should set limitations on where the funds can be used effectively to prevent possible misuse of the allotment.
“The reality is we cannot abolish it [PDAF] so let us limit the use,” said Drilon in an interview.
He explained that if members of Congress will place their PDAF on government hospitals, they can be assured that only their constituents who seek medical services will be benefitted.
In Malacañang, officials gave assurances that the probe being conducted by the NBI will be “thorough and impartial.”
Palace deputy spokesman Abigail Valte, however, refused to comment further, saying that “it is important for us to allow the investigation to take its course and for the investigation to answer the questions that are necessary.”
Valte said the President is “always very strict” when it comes to these kind of allegations.
”This is something that he has repeated to us—that government should never accuse without evidence and that we should never proffer accusations without proof,” she said.
On Gariguez’s proposal, Valte said that there has been no discussion yet about the abolition of the pork barrel funds for legislators.
”That’s something that we were not able to discuss with him but we will raise it with him at the next possible opportunity,” she said.
However, Valte said Drilon originally proposed to abolish the funds but “has already withdrawn that particular proposal and now he is proposing that the menu of projects that can be funded through the PDAF should be limited.”
“So we’ll work with Congress on that,” the Palace official added.
At the same time, Valte belied Revilla’s allegation that the Aquino government is behind the “demolition job” against certain lawmakers.
Revilla earlier said he had already been warned by “someone in Malacanang” that he will be “targeted” in a smear campaign due to his plan to run for higher office in the next election.
Valte said that the Aquino administration has no time for such moves but Revilla insisted he had received information that he would be the object of a witch-hunt by the administration.
The Palace official, however, dared the senator to name those behind the alleged black propaganda.
At the Lower House, veteran lawmakers Rolando Andaya Jr. of Camarines Sur, Feliciano Belmonte, Jr. of Quezon City and Victor Ortega of La Union called for a stricter monitoring and audit of PDAF releases.
Andaya, a former Secretary of the Department of Budget and Management, admitted that lawmakers rely on the Commission on Audit (COA) to account for their PDAF spending.
“I am a congressman and my constituency is defined. It would be easy for me to know how it is implemented. The person [congressman]can do accounting, but the government accounting is not the concern of the lawmakers’ office. That is not his duty, but he/she can always do their audit [independent of COA],” Andaya said in an interview.
A COA audit report on PDAF spending of lawmakers will only be released one to two years after the PDAF was distributed.
“COA takes care of the accountability side,” Andaya added.
Ortega, one of the lawmakers implicated in the P10-billion mess, said he did not see the need of putting up a mechanism where he can monitor where his PDAF is being spent because he has never shortchanged his constituents.
“I have been in Congress for six terms, since 1987, and not a single person complained that they did not receive the assistance [from my PDAF]that I gave them. My PDAF directly goes to the beneficiaries. If there is a certain project, let us say joint with the Rotary Club, I do not give the money to the Rotary Club. I hand it over to the beneficiaries,” Ortega said in a separate interview.
Like Andaya, Belmonte said that at the end of the day, the buck stops with the lawmaker.
“Lawmakers need to scrutinize the way their PDAF is spent. I encourage my colleagues to post the proceeds of their PDAF online so that their constituents can make them accountable of what they promised to build for them, such as classrooms,” Belmonte said in a separate talk.
Andaya maintained that PDAF is not bad because it is a great equalizer and its menu has been calibrated over the years considering public opinion.
Benefit of doubt
Meanwhile, OFW Family Club party-list Rep. Roy Señeres has vouched for the innocence of Napoles.
Señeres, who served as the Philippine Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates during the Arroyo administration, has Napoles’ daughter, Jo Christine, as one of his party-list’s members.
“We have to give Janet the benefit of the doubt. So many stones have already been cast at her. I’m not ready to cast another stone. We have to presume that she is innocent until proven otherwise,” Señeres, a lawyer, told reporters.
He noted what while Jo Christine gave OFW Family Club tickets for the repatriation of distressed Overseas Filipino Workers and campaigned for the party-list’s election in Congress, her mother Janet was never involved in the affairs of the OFW Family Club.
“Janet is not part of the OFW FC party-list. She has not donated to our campaign, not even a single centavo. I did not solicit from her, and she did not give me any money. If she offered to give me money during the campaign, I might have considered accepting it, but there was not even an offer,” Señeres pointed out.
The younger Napoles may become a member of Congress if the Commission on Elections (Comelec) will rule that OFW Family Club party-list Rep. Johnny Revilla is disqualified from being a lawmaker because of his American citizenship.
“The mother of Christine is right now only being tried by publicity. There is no formal case filed against her in any court of law. If we want to be true to our basic legal principles, we are supposed to presume that a person is innocent until proven otherwise,” Señeres pointed out.
WITH REPORTS FROM RITCHIE A. HORARIO AND JEFFERSON ANTIPORDA