President Aquino on Tuesday acknowledged flaws in the Department of Agriculture’s release of P89.2 million from the pork barrel of eight congressmen to an alleged dummy agency and said saying sorry was not enough.
For the first time, the President was reacting to allegations that P10 billion in Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) of lawmakers had been channeled to ghost projects of bogus nongovernment organizations (NGOs) allegedly controlled by businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles over the past decade.
Aquino told reporters he had reminded Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala and Budget Secretary Florencio Abad that his administration had been warned about irregularities in the release of PDAF funds.
“We saw this. This was pointed out to us,” he said.
“There are doubts over these transactions. We can’t just say sorry. How can we have stricter rules to prevent this kind of situation, if this really happened?” he added, without elaborating.
The President said he expected Alcala and Abad to come up with new measures to prevent the recurrence of these questionable funneling of pork barrel and other public funds if indeed they continued to thrive.
He did not deny certain flaws in the PDAF, or pork barrel, allocation. He said the allegations linking Alcala to the release of P89.2 million to a bogus NGO would be part of the inquiry by the National Bureau of Investigation into the alleged Napoles racket.
Aquino, however, noted that the amount released under Alcala’s watch was peanuts compared to the P728-million fertilizer scam in 2004 under the Arroyo administration.
Certainty of punishment
“You yourself said it’s P90 million. Compare that to the fertilizer scam, how big is the difference? And the fertilizer scam is just the tip of the iceberg—there’s more,” he said in an ambush interview on Subic Bay, where he presided over the arrival ceremony for the Navy’s new warship, BRP Ramon Alcaraz.
The President shrugged off suggestions that allies of the administration and Cabinet members would be spared from the NBI inquiry.
“I said that in my Sona (State of the Nation Address). Wherever the evidence leads us, wherever we could obtain evidence, we will follow wherever the evidence points us. We will not file weak cases—it is important that the evidence is strong—so that whoever is at fault (would be aware of the) certainty of punishment,” said Aquino.
All the allegations cropping up related to the pork barrel scam, including the P89.2 million released by the agriculture department to Kaupdanan para sa Mangunguma Foundation, an NGO allegedly controlled by Napoles, for 11 projects of eight House members in the past Congress, would be covered in the NBI probe.
“All will be included,” the President said. “We have been stricter, and that’s true. Many have been affected by the stricter process (of accreditation of NGOs and releasing of public funds).”
He disclosed that his administration had streamlined the list of NGOs to be accredited as recipients of pork barrel besides the tightened accreditation of NGOs by the agriculture department.
“We have seen a big decline (in the number of accredited NGOs),” he said. “We can’t really say that the (process) would be perfect. We can’t just say that there’s a zero opportunity for crooks to take advantage of, etcetera,” he said.
“But between Secretary Alcala and Secretary Abad, I told them to explain the steps that have been undertaken from the time that we started office,” he said, explaining that Alcala would be “demonstrating” the changes he had instituted thus far.
Comparing the situation between the past leadership in the department and the current one under Alcala, “there is a very marked difference in opportunities for potential … misuse of public funds.”
Asked if he had explicitly told Alcala to explain initial reports linking him to the misuse of PDAF funds, Aquino said: “No, that’s why, he’s coming out this week. He will explain all of the steps that I have undertaken from the time that we started.”
Question of priorities
The President stressed that Alcala’s primary function was to improve agriculture and food security.
“We should understand that all of them (Cabinet members and agency heads)—when we see problems or potential problems—they are ordered to look into these (problems). But we can’t focus on all these at the same time, but one at a time, isn’t that so? So prioritization is needed,” he said.
“Let me repeat this. The record, I think, will speak for itself. If you contrast the (past anomalous transactions) that had been allowed to (escape scrutiny) versus the ones that prospered this time, there’s a … dramatic (improvement),” he said, citing the P728-million fertilizer scam.
“That’s initial (amount), right? Then there’s Part 2, Part 3, etcetera, (to the fertilizer scam). What (the agriculture department) is now being accused of is, so far, P90 (million),” he said, but thought that the amount involved was only P19 million—not P90 million.
“Well, that’s news to me—the P90 (million). Initially, only P19 (million) was being questioned. But I’ll ask him (Alcala) to look at the list of (releases to NGOs). But still, practically, (we’re only talking of about) 10 percent of what used to (go into questionable releases), or just one transaction from a series of transactions,” Aquino said.