As far back as three years ago when he was still a senator, President Benigno Aquino III denounced what he said was a “racket” perpetrated by unscrupulous lawmakers, in collusion with middlemen, to illegally profit from their multimillion pork barrel funds using as conduits corrupt state farm agencies.
Mr. Aquino cited in particular the National Agribusiness Corp. (Nabcor) and its subsidiary, the ZNAC Rubber Estate Corp. (ZREC).
The ZREC, organized in 1984, operates a 400-hectare rubber plantation in Zamboanga Sibugay. The land is owned by Zamboanga del Norte Agricultural College (ZNAC) and is used by ZREC under a usufruct agreement for 50 years.
In December 2009, during the final voting for the Arroyo administration’s 2010 budget, the then Senator Aquino cited the alleged irregularities uncovered by the Commission on Audit (COA) involving the funneling of lawmakers’ priority development assistance funds (PDAF) to the Nabcor and ZREC in rejecting the proposed P1.54 trillion budget for 2010.
“There were also projects with budgets that were depleted by almost P60 million due to administrative costs charged by the Nabcor for transferring funds first to the [ZREC] instead of transferring it directly to the regional offices,” Mr. Aquino said in 2009.
Explanation for ‘no’ vote
Furthermore, despite the COA’s recommendation to discontinue the practice of circuitous and unnecessary transfer of funds sourced from the regular budget and the PDAF, the Department of Agriculture (DA) still transferred a total of almost P2 billion to the Nabcor in 2008, Mr. Aquino said in his speech explaining his vote against the proposed 2010 national budget.
“In the same year, the DA transferred P340 million to ZNAC Rubber Estates Corp., whose officers were officials of the DA,” he said.
The then Senator Aquino was joined by Senators Panfilo Lacson and Mar Roxas in voting against the proposed 2010 budget.
Mr. Aquino was vindicated last week when a COA report on the use, or misuse, of the PDAF, revealed that ZREC had been designated as the recipient of a combined P201 million of pork barrel funds from Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla Jr., and former Buhay Rep. Rene Velarde.
It was revealed that ZREC had released P194.97 million o f the funds in several tranches from 2009 to 2010 to a bogus nongovernment organization (NGO), Pangkabuhayan Foundation Inc. (PFI).
Marked for dissolution
In his speech explaining his “no” vote against the 2010 budget, then Senator Aquino noted that the P340 million allocated by the government to ZREC in 2008 was sourced from the pork barrel funds of lawmakers.
He questioned why the Arroyo government was allocating P340 million in 2008 to a corporation which had been recommended for dissolution since December 2003. The DA claimed that it had not received any notice from the Department of Finance that ZREC was being dissolved.
“Why and how could funds have been allocated to a corporation subject for dissolution? Since we are talking about P340 million of the taxpayers’ money, we cannot simply dismiss suspicions of duplicity and corruption,” he said, citing the COA report that the budget planners that year had apparently ignored.
In 2010, ZREC was included on a list of 36 “underperforming” government-owned and -controlled corporations that Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez recommended for abolition in a bill that he filed in the House.
Mr. Aquino also questioned why a DA official, like former Agriculture Undersecretary Jocelyn Bolante, the alleged mastermind of the P748-million alleged fertilizer fund scam, was appointed to an executive position in ZREC when government officials are not allowed to serve in a government-owned and -controlled corporations.
“Isn’t it highly irregular for officers of a government corporation to be also officers of the department which transferred funds to the corporation they owned? This gives rise to questions of impartiality,” he said.
Syndicate of NGOs
Also on Friday, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said she would want to know how Enrile, Estrada and Revilla came to be chosen by those behind the funneling of their pork barrel funds to an allegedly bogus NGO.
“If they say that their signatures were forged, how come these three senators were chosen out of the 23 senators?” Santiago told reporters while discussing the latest controversy to hit the Senate.
Santiago said she had heard reports of a syndicate of supposed NGOs offering their services to lawmakers promising millions of pesos as a kickback for legislators who would allow their PDAF to fund the projects of these questionable groups.
The senator said the National Bureau of Investigation should be called in to look into the alleged forgeries to determine whether they were indeed fake signatures.
Enrile has denied knowing ZREC or PFI that allegedly received more than P70 million from his PDAF in 2009 and 2010.
He said he never nominated ZREC and PFI as the implementors of the livelihood projects funded by his pork barrel.
Enrile confirmed the findings of the COA that the NGO had submitted documents that had superimposed signatures of certain members of his staff.
Estrada has confirmed that part of his pork barrel went to PFI and has called for an investigation into the NGO if it was indeed bogus. He said it was the DA that had accredited PFI.
Revilla confirmed that he had allocated funds from his PDAF for livelihood projects in Basilan province. He wanted the DA to explain how his PDAF went to a supposedly bogus NGO.
The PDAF, a known source of kickbacks for lawmakers, funds pet projects of members of Congress. A senator is entitled to P200 million in PDAF every year, while a congressional representative receives P70 million. With a report from Norman Bordadora