Casting a wider net
Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, the incoming president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, has issued a pastoral letter on the currently “hot” issue of the misuse of the Priority Development Assistance Fund by certain legislators.
The PDAF, for those who only tuned in now, consists of money provided for congresspersons and senators to “identify” priority projects from a menu provided by specific departments. The thinking behind the practice, I assume, is that legislators, by virtue of their being politicians and representatives of the folks in their districts and constituencies, know the latter’s particular needs and are in a position to recommend the needed projects. Also, the PDAF allows legislators to respond to requests for help from the public, allowing them to repay political debts and dispense favors.
But not for nothing is the PDAF better known by another nickname: pork barrel. For too many legislators, over the years, have treated the money as their own trough from which to feed—enriching themselves and securing the funding for their next campaign.
Over the years, mechanisms have been devised to limit the damage that pork-hungry legislators could wreak. Supposedly, they do not even have the power to handle the money themselves, their participation limited to identifying their priority projects and requesting the departments concerned—with their mediation—to provide the necessary funds. But as the saying goes: kung may gusot, may lusot—literally, where there’s a wrinkle, there’s a way out. These ways out have ranged from having a list of “pet” contractors who agree to arrangements for funneling commissions to the legislators, to contracting an agent (for instance, JLN Group of Companies whose “pork barrel” facilitation is now being looked into by the National Bureau of Investigation) who packages proposed projects, including the use of fictitious NGOs as beneficiaries.
Despite efforts to curb abuse of the PDAF system, scandals continue to haunt the entire stinking pork mess. Though agencies like the Commission on Audit are tasked to oversee the proper use of the funds, the truth is that legislators have a way of flexing muscle, with the connivance of the oversight agencies and even the local governments hosting the projects. The executive branch, after all, still needs legislative support for priority legislation. No wonder P-Noy in his last State of the Nation Address made no mention of the latest pork barrel scandal and still included allocations for the PDAF in the budget Malacañang submitted to Congress.
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Now back to Archbishop Soc. While he made the usual calls for reform, including the need for Congress to junk pork and concentrate instead on passing laws, his statement is made more remarkable by widening the “circle of blame” beyond that of the legislators and their cohorts.
For one, he said that before the public “rush[es] to pass judgment on our legislators who avail [themselves] of the pork barrel, it would be opportune for us citizens to search our souls and ask ‘What have I done to contribute to this?’”
“In reality,” said the archbishop, “we ordinary citizens partake of the bounty of the ‘discretionary funds’ by asking our government officials to help our personal needs, family concerns, barangay projects or even Church fiestas.” He suggests—and good luck to him—that we “make it our rule of life” when dealing with politicians not to ask for money from them: “Walang hihingi!” was his suggested slogan. “Every time we ask our politicians for monetary help, we tempt them to dig into the pork barrel coffers or jueteng chests to accommodate our request,” he said.
“Walang hihingi!” was likewise Archbishop Soc’s suggested “mantra” for Church-based organizations and institutions, noting that the Church or its officials “contribute to the corruption by grabbing a piece of the pie through our solicitations from government officials—from candles to basketball uniforms to bags of cement to government bulldozers. We tempt public officials to get money from jueteng or the pork barrel in order to accommodate us. Walang hihingi!”
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This is astonishing, indeed, as Archbishop Soc has chosen not just to narrowly focus on the failings of politicians—even if these failings are, indeed, glaring and scandalous—but also to cast a wider net to include ordinary citizens as well as Church officials whose own fiscal conduct has not been exactly open and aboveboard.
“We who are stewards of the material goods of the Church must be transparent in our fundraising projects,” he said. “We must prepare our accounting reports of how Church funds are disbursed insuring all the time that the principle of accountability is observed. When we are less than transparent in our accounting, we hurt the truth. Ang sinungaling ay kapatid ng magnanakaw (The liar is a sibling of the thief).”
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Fueling the public outrage over the pork barrel scandal are photos posted on social media outlets showing a daughter of Janet Lim Napoles, who founded JLN and is widely believed to be the “architect” of the alleged P10-billion scam, in designer dresses and shoes and posing with her brand-new Porsche.
In her defense, Napoles admitted to a TV interviewer that the photos were authentic but that the luxury goods her daughter flaunts were bought “with our own money, through our own businesses. Not a peso of government money was used.”
Lower those eyebrows. The Bureau of Internal Revenue, through Commissioner Kim Henares, has said it has put the Napoles family under its scrutiny, but their protestations of earning an honest buck are belied by their daughter’s braggadocio.