Whistle-blower ties Arroyo to fertilizer fund scam
MANILA, Philippines―Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez threw diligence out the window when her office recommended the filing of plunder charges against key players of the P728-million fertilizer fund scam but included whistle-blower Jose Barredo, Malacañang said Wednesday.
Barredo, who has protested the Ombudsman’s recommendation to charge him with plunder, said he executed on April 19 a sworn statement detailing how funds were diverted to different pockets and alleging that the conspiracy went all the way up to Malacañang.
Barredo said Wednesday night that he based his statement that Malacañang was involved in the scheme on his own observation.
He said that runners like him were told to talk only with allies of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and that those who transferred to the opposition were deprived of the funds.
He said he received his instructions from Marites Aytona, the one who was talking with then Agriculture Undersecretary Jocelyn “Joc-joc” Bolante, considered the point man in the scam.
Sharing of funds
Barredo said he was issuing a sworn statement to clarify his earlier testimony.
He alleged that the funds for the purchase of fertilizer were divided as follows: 30 percent for either the lawmakers, governors or mayors; 25 percent for officials of the Department of Agriculture; 25 percent for the runners; and 20 percent for Feshan Philippines Inc.
He said lower-level runners like him did not get a share in the 25 percent that went to runners.
Barredo said he became a runner in 2004, and was assigned to handle Bulacan and Region 6. He earned P10,000 a month.
Runners wait for orders from agriculture officials who gave the signal when there were already funds to buy farm inputs and implements for local government units or congressional districts.
Barredo said that when funds became available, the runner would go to the politician to get him or her to enter into a deal. The official would be made to sign a memorandum of agreement, which would eventually be brought to the office of Bolante.
Up to Malacañang
Bolante had the authority to expedite the inputs and implement programs based on a memorandum from former Agriculture Secretary Luis Lorenzo, according to Barredo.
“All runners know that the conspiracy goes up to the highest level at the Department of Agriculture and beyond, up to Malacañang, because the instruction to all runners is that the only ones who could benefit from the conspiracy are the allies of the President for the May 2004 elections,” Barredo said in the sworn statement.
He also said the fertilizer bought from Feshan was overpriced. It only cost P350 per liter at the market, but the government paid P1,500 per one-liter bottle. He noted that 90 percent of the bottle’s content was water, and only 10 percent was fertilizer.
No due diligence
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said it was “clear’’ that the Office of the Ombudsman “did not look into the Senate committee report properly” as the report did not recommend that Barredo be charged.
Lacierda said the Ombudsman also charged someone who had already died, something he attributed to the long delay in reviewing the case.
“Clearly, it shows that some things just fell through the cracks, and they failed to observe diligence when they filed the information,” he told reporters.
The spokesperson of Gutierrez, Tomas Syquia, said the plunder charge was recommended against Barredo because the evidence showed he was involved in the fund scam, but he could still turn state witness.
Barredo, a confessed “runner” in the scam, said he made the affidavit in case it was needed in the impeachment trial of Gutierrez, which included charges that she had sat on the fertilizer fund case.
He made the sworn statement while he was waiting for the formal filing of the plunder charge against him. He said he did not intend to be silent about the scandal, although he was about to be charged for it.
Barredo said turning state witness was an option he was looking at. He earlier said that he thought he had been granted immunity when he agreed to testify at Senate hearings on the alleged diversion of the fertilizer fund to the presidential campaign of Arroyo in 2004.
Barredo, in his sworn statement, named the politicians he had dealt with as a runner as then Bulacan Rep. Reylina Nicolas, Bulacan Mayor Elpidio Castillo, Bulacan Mayor Ramon Pagdanganan, Aklan Gov. Florencio Miraflores, Kalibo Mayor Reymar Rebaldo, Capiz Gov. Vicente Bermejo; then Capiz Rep. Fredinel Castro, Iloilo Rep. Oscar Garin, Calinog Mayor Alex Centena, Lambunao Mayor Ignacio Ramirez, Maasin Mayor Mariano Malones, Guimaras Rep. Edgar Espinosa, Bacolod Rep. Monico Puentevella, Negros Occidental Gov. Alfredo Marañon Jr., Negros Occidental Rep. Alfredo Marañon III and Negros Occidental Rep. Jose Lacson.
He said the funds meant for Castro, the Marañons and Lacson were recalled because they moved to the opposition.
Former Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr. expressed surprise at Barredo’s inclusion in the charges, saying that the Senate did not recommend him as among the people to be indicted. Magsaysay chaired the agriculture committee that looked into the scam in 2005-2006.
While the Office of the Ombudsman has great respect for the Senate’s findings, it is not required to follow it to the letter, according to Syquia.
The Ombudsman based its recommendation to file charges on the report of its own investigators, he said.
“Being a separate office, [the Office of the Ombudsman] is not necessarily bound by the findings of the Senate, although we have a lot of respect for it and it has become a basis of a lot of investigations. In Barredo’s case, the fact-finding team further investigated the people involved, including Barredo,” Syquia said.
He also noted that Barredo, through his own statements, had admitted participation in the scheme.
He said Barredo also did not apply for immunity when the Office of the Ombudsman was evaluating the case. The chance to do this had lapsed, but Barredo could apply to be a state witness.
To be a state witness, Barredo would have to be the least guilty, Syquia said. The prosecutors would also have to evaluate the evidence. But the final say on whether he would become a state witness rests with the court, he said.
Former Solicitor General Frank Chavez has agreed to represent Barredo and vowed to question the Ombudsman’s recommendation to file plunder charges against him.
“I will enter my appearance as a counsel and ask for a reinvestigation as far as Barredo is concerned,” Chavez, now a private practitioner, said in an interview.
No probable cause
Chavez, the plaintiff in a 2004 plunder case against Arroyo stemming from the fertilizer scam and a witness at the Senate inquiry, said there was no probable cause to charge Barredo with plunder.
“He was just a runner and the amount involved in the dispatches he made as a runner is a pittance and does not even reach the threshold limit of P50 million,’’ he said. “In the hierarchy of responsibility, he is at the lowest rung.”
Barredo said he made the affidavit so that it could be used in the Senate, in case he would be unable to appear there during the impeachment trial of Gutierrez. Earlier, he said he had heard talk that he would be required to appear as a witness at the impeachment trial, but no formal arrangements have been made.
Barredo wondered whether he was ordered charged because of talk that he might be asked to testify at Gutierrez’s trial.
Syquia said Barredo’s possible participation in the impeachment trial would not hurt his chances of applying to be a state witness.
“There’s nothing personal here… The Ombudsman has nothing against him,” he said. With a report from TJ Burgonio