(Concluded from Monday)
CANBERRA—President Aquino has responded to the snowballing public demand for the abolition of the pork barrel system, with a resounding hedge.
Addressing the issue for the first time, the President told the media on Monday that the clamor to scrap the Priority Development Assistance Fund was premised on the assumption that it was being misused in its entirety.
“As in everything else, there are good uses, and bad uses,” he said after a speech at the first congress on the Filipino language at Ateneo de Manila University. “Perhaps the right thing to do is to apply the appropriate punishment for the misuse, but support its good use especially in communities outside the National Capital Region.” He meant the rural areas, home to millions of Filipinos, who are the intended beneficiaries of the livelihood projects funded by the PDAF and who are now the victims of the alleged misuse of P10 billion of this fund over the past 10 years.
The President said he had directed Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to file a “strong case” against Janet Lim-Napoles, the alleged mastermind of the scheme that channeled the money from the pork barrel and other state institutions, including those under the executive branch, to supposed nongovernment organizations controlled by Napoles. This large-scale pilferage of public funds was pulled off with the complicity of congressional and executive officials, including lawmakers in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
But how can the Department of Justice build a “strong case” against Napoles when she has disappeared? With her disappearance, the efforts of the government to pin down criminal responsibility for this hijacking of public funds has been directed toward the members of Congress named in the affidavits submitted by whistle-blowers who had previously served as Napoles’ accomplices. It is a course that is certain to provoke a fierce conflict between the executive branch and the legislature, whose members implicated in the fund diversion are now up in arms, feeling that they are being used as scapegoats in a witch-hunt in lieu of Napoles.
In defending the retention of the PDAF, the President implicitly argued that it is a necessary evil. He said it has many “good uses,” adding that the Commission on Audit, in its report released last Friday, had distinguished between its good and bad aspects. “If we scrap it, then we presume that the national government knows all our needs and attends to these all the time, and I believe that’s a little far-fetched,” he said.
The problem with this argument is that we are not told who will decide on what is the good use and bad use of the PDAF. Is it Congress, which appropriates the money for the national budget, or the executive branch? Other questions arise: What will replace the pork barrel as the mechanism for providing for the needs of the rural districts in terms of livelihood projects? Do the agencies of the executive branch have a better track record in handling the distribution of this fund? After all, after members have identified the projects where their pork barrel allocations should go, it is the President who authorizes the release of the PDAF. A close scrutiny of the COA report shows that neither the executive branch nor the legislators are with clean hands. So, the President has no basis to play God on who is misusing or abusing the pork barrel. The Office of the President has its own “pork” in the national budget to distribute as patronage—and its pork is relatively huge compared to the P70 million for each congressman and P200 million for each senator.
A number of agencies of the executive branch have been penetrated by fake NGOs siphoning money off the fund.
According to the COA report, only 10-20 percent of the P6.156 billion released was used for livelihood projects, as most of them were “ghost” deliveries.
The audit found a wide range of irregularities from excessive grants of pork barrel to select legislators to the release of billions of pesos in government funds to unverified NGOs. According to COA Chair Grace Pulido-Tan, the audit team found that P6.156 billion in pork funds from 12 senators and 180 congressmen were channeled to 82 NGOs, some of which were of dubious existence. Some of these have been linked to Napoles.
The audit covered P101.6 billion in pork barrel releases. But Tan said the COA could only audit P32 billion because the Department of Budget and Management had been unable to provide records of its schedule of disbursements to projects. Because of this difficulty, it was clear that at least P1 billion was lost to “leakage.”
Other findings: Implementing agencies in the executive branch simply transferred the funds to the favored NGOs of the legislators even without appropriate paperwork or verification. Many of the NGOs were not chosen through competitive bidding, merely through the endorsements of legislators.
To top it all, about P123 million of public funds was used by the NGOs to pay the salaries of their employees.