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Thinking about pork

Can Asians think? Evasive statements  from parties implicated in the alleged pork barrel scam recalled the book of Kishore Mhabubani, former Singapore ambassador to the United Nations and now dean of the LKY School of Public Policy. The alleged scammers apparently believe that Filipinos cannot think.

Responding to allegations that she distributed to fictitious beneficiary organizations grants from the Priority Development Assistance Funds entrusted to senators and congressmen, Janet Lim-Napoles denied any wrongdoing. JLN Corp., she claimed, had been doing business for many years, unblemished by any suspicion of fraud.

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Lim-Napoles never addressed the basic questions even the casual reader would like answered: What is the business of JLN Corp.? What product or services does it offer clients? How does it make a profit? She must explain her company’s business model in a clear and credible way. A long business record is by itself no proof of virtue; a crook can successfully operate for a long time without being caught.

From the media accounts, the business appears to operate in the following manner. The company sets up nongovernment organizations to support propoor and priority government development programs that can be funded through the PDAF. It then secures funding support from legislators, who each receives a share of the PDAF budget (P200 million/year for the senators and P70 million/year for the congressmen).

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NGOs compete for a share of a large but still limited pie. The challenge for Lim-Napoles and her staff is to market the projects of their NGOs to the politicians as superior to those offered by the others. One strategy is to get supporting endorsements of their projects from officials of local government units.

Implementation of development projects is a function of the executive branch. The responsibility of Congress is to evaluate the proposed programs of executive agencies and determine the budget they should receive. Wide discretion in deciding what projects to support with PDAF funds gives the members of Congress a role in implementation.

The rationale for the PDAF follows from the presumption that the elected politicians know the urgent needs of their constituencies and should have some means of responding quickly to them. The backlog in development projects, the perennial shortage of funds, and the bureaucratic requirements that lead to delays in executive action buttress the case for the PDAF.

The politicians are clearly key to whatever business Lim-Napoles is operating. Those implicated in the alleged scam, such as Senators Lito Lapid, Ramon Revilla Jr., Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Gregorio Honasan and Vicente Sotto, are not neophyte politicians. They are supposed to be intimately familiar with the challenges facing their constituencies. Why should they need the services of Lim-Napoles?

Surely, in a country where more than a third of the population live below the poverty line and where thousands of NGOs are working to help the poor, politicians should not lack creditable NGOs and meritorious projects to fund. What makes the NGOs of JLN Corp. more deserving of support?

JLN’s political clients have a lot to explain. So far, the explanations have not been persuasive, but indicate the defensive lines the politicians are preparing:  1) The allegations constitute black propaganda against “presidentiables.” 2) We were responding to urgent, priority requests from local government officials. 3) Our trusted staff cleared the projects before we gave our approval. 4) Other executive government agencies are responsible for monitoring implementation and stopping fraud.

The first response is a pathetic evasion of the issue, as religious leaders have noted. The second requires investigation, as some LGUs are disputing claims that they initiated the request. The third requires us to trust congressional staff on the mere say-so of their bosses, who can later conveniently throw them overboard. The fourth slides past the prior, prejudicial question: the decision of the congressman or senator to favor JLN NGOs with their PDAF.

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The truth about the alleged pork barrel scam does not require expert rocket science research. It begins and can end with the basic question on the character of the NGOs organized by JLN Corp. LGU officials have reported that even when their PDAF requests are granted, they have to deal with the NGOs recommended by the legislators. What was the track record that recommended the JLN NGOs? What was their PDAF performance?

Congress has control of the purse. Its members are accountable to the public for their stewardship of the PDAF. The casual, careless, and, possibly, corrupt handling of the PDAF program has brought disrepute to the entire institution.

Debates on whether to continue or scrap the PDAF should take place, but should not distract from the task of getting to the bottom of the JLN business. The thorough investigation of the issue will inform the debates and indicate policy direction. This, and sanctions for the guilty, will be necessary to rebuild public trust.

Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected]) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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TAGS: Business Matters, Edilberto C. de Jesus, Graft and Corruption, Janet Lim-Napoles, opinion, PDAF, pork barrel, Priority Development Assistance Fund
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