Despite the scandal stemming from the investigation of a racket involving P10 billion in pork, Quezon City Rep. Feliciano Belmonte will not let go of the much-maligned program just yet.
Expected to be elected again as Speaker of the House of Representatives in the 16th Congress, Belmonte told reporters on Monday that the pork barrel, officially called Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), had many safeguards that could be implemented to ensure that funds were spent properly.
There are areas in the country that do not get enough funds from the national budget and will benefit from the lawmakers’ pork, Belmonte said.
But Belmonte also said that he wanted the House to look at all the documents and data that the authorities had on the alleged pork scam so that it could determine if it should proceed with an investigation.
“Whether this is true or not true, there is a need to keep on tightening the rules to make sure the uses (of pork) really benefit the people,” Belmonte said.
“[T]he issue of everybody knows where it’s spent, and the issue of accountability… these are the ends we would like to do,” he said.
He added that he was in favor of the “100 percent” scrutiny of the PDAF to see how it is used, of the House periodically upgrading or improving the ways to spend the money, and of making the whole thing open to the public.
Sen. Franklin Drilon has proposed the abolition of the pork barrel amid allegations that lawmakers had channeled their allocations to fictitious projects through bogus NGOs.
Many of the representatives linked to the pork scam are no longer members of the House.
One incumbent on the list of lawmakers allegedly involved is Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, who denied having had any dealings with the group allegedly behind the scam.
Rodriguez said on Monday that he never had any dealings with JLN Corp. or its owner, Janet Lim-Napoles, or any of her representatives.
He said his pork went to the Technology Livelihood Resources Center for livelihood projects, which were implemented in his district. The projects include soap and jewelry making, he said.
“The use of my funds is an open book. It has been given and it has been implemented,” he said.
Rodriguez said he favored the investigation of the pork scam.
Belmonte said the Department of Budget and Management was already tightening the rules for the pork barrel’s use. For instance, lawmakers can only choose to fund projects listed on a menu prepared by the department, he said.
Support for abolition
But ACT Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio said it was high time for Congress to abolish the pork barrel, but acknowledged the abolition would be difficult, as there would surely be strong opposition in the House.
Still, he said, the extent of the magnitude of the alleged scam is a good argument for abolishing the pork barrel.
“This P10-billion PDAF scam makes the notorious P700-million fertilizer fund scandal during the Arroyo administration look like petty thievery. The magnitude of the alleged plunder involving JLN Corp. and a large number of legislators in both chambers of Congress has outraged the nation and shown that the PDAF is a corrupting mechanism that is beyond repair,” Tinio said in a statement.
Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda) Director General Joel Villanueva, formerly a party-list representative, said he did not get a single cent of his pork allocation during the Arroyo administration so he could not have been involved in the alleged scam.
Villanueva urged the National Bureau of Investigation to dig deeper to find out who forged his signature in the documents that implicated him.
Villanueva was Cibac representative for nine years until 2010, when he was appointed by President Aquino to head Tesda.
According to the NBI probe, 28 lawmakers—five senators and 23 representatives—allegedly authorized dummy NGOs put up by Napoles to use their pork allocations for phantom projects over the last 10 years.
Abono party-list Rep. Conrado Estrella III on Monday admitted meeting Napoles, but he denied having taken part in any of her projects.
Estrella, s former representative of Pangasinan’s sixth district, said he was introduced to Napoles only recently, and met her on at least two occasions.
“But I have no association with her. I see her sometimes and we just exchange hellos. I did not know that she was associated with the foundations mentioned in the papers,” he said.
Estrella said he did not release his pork allocation to any NGO, adding that it was government agencies that implemented his projects.
COA report questioned
He said that three years ago, he questioned a Commission on Audit (COA) report that indicated he had endorsed certain foundations as project implementers.
“I didn’t endorse any foundation. I dealt directly with the agency. Why should I deal with the foundation when I knew the secretary, I knew the undersecretaries themselves? I knew them personally and I had the personality to deal with them,” Estrella said.
“I looked at the signatures in the papers given by COA and the signatures were not mine. I did not endorse [the projects]. My signatures were forged,” he said.
A list furnished the Inquirer indicated that Estrella released some P97 million in 2009 and 2010 to various NGOs to implement projects in the towns in Pangasinan’s sixth district.
The NGOs, however, turned out to be bogus and the money ended in the bank account of JLN Corp.
Estrella said the signature of his brother, Robert Raymund, then representative of Abono, was also forged. Robert Raymund reportedly channeled P41 million to bogus NGOs.
In Baguio City, former Benguet Rep. Samuel Dangwa had a similar story.
“I deny getting money to finance the projects now being linked to Napoles,” he said by telephone on Monday.
Dangwa represented Benguet for nine consecutive years, ending his final term in 2010.
Like Estrella, Dangwa said he was also asked by the COA to validate at least five fund requests that supposedly carried his signatures.
“I looked at the documents and they were not my signatures. They were forgeries. Whoever signed them did not even try to copy my signature. They were someone else’s signature,” he said.
“I can’t recall whether the COA requests were made in 2011 or 2012, but I did not respond to them myself. My executive assistant offered to fix the problem for me. I am now looking for my employee. I trusted him,” Dangwa said.
Dangwa declined to name his assistant, saying he lost contact with the aide when his term ended.
Dangwa said he did not know the NGOs that supposedly received his congressional funds.
The Inquirer reported that the People’s Organization for Progress and Development Foundation Inc. (POPDF) and the Countrywide Agri and Rural Economic Development Foundation Inc. were supported by Dangwa’s pork barrel.
But Dangwa acknowledged that his pork barrel had been used to augment farming needs in his province.
Benguet produces most of the vegetables sold in Metro Manila.
Dangwa said he had never met Napoles.
In Quezon province, former Mulanay Mayor Prudencio Maxino was surprised when told that his town had been the alleged recipient of a P10-million project from Agri and Economic Performance for Farmers Inc.
“It’s my first time to hear the name of that NGO,” Maxino said by the phone.
He said the local government during his term had no project funded by the supposed NGO.
“Most of our projects were funded by Kalahi (Kalahi-CIDSS, or Kapit-Bisig Laban sa Kahirapan-Comprehensive and Integrated Delivery of Social Services),” Maxino said.—With reports from Dona Z. Pazzibugan in Manila; Gabriel Cardinoza, Yolanda Sotelo and Vincent Cabreza, Inquirer Northern Luzon; and Delfin T. Mallari Jr., Inquirer Southern Luzon
Originally posted at 6:26 p.m. | July 15, 2013