Agriculture Secretary Proceso J. Alcala on Wednesday relieved his controversial assistant secretary, Ophelia P. Agawin, of her duties accrediting nongovernment organizations (NGOs) amid an internal investigation of allegations pork barrel funds were channeled into Janet Lim-Napoles’ ghost projects.
Alcala, under orders from President Aquino to look into allegations by whistle-blowers of shenanigans, told reporters he was still awaiting Agawin’s explanation on why the Department of Agriculture (DA) was being implicated in illicit activities of bogus NGOs.
In a TV news interview on Monday, Agawin said that based on the DA’s procedures, Kaupdanan para sa Mangunguma Foundation Inc. (KMFI), was a duly accredited NGO. Kaupdanan was reportedly one of the 20 NGOs set up by Napoles.
Alcala said that P83.2 million had been allotted to KMFI, not P89.2 million as reported earlier in the media. Of the amount, P38.25 million had been released and should now be accounted for.
“We have written them about this. If they can’t liquidate the funds, there will be no more additional releases,” Alcala told reporters. “That is also what I have explained to President Aquino.” He said a check for an unspecified amount had been written out to KMFI, but was being withheld.
“I would be out of my mind if we would release more funds to this NGO without taking precautions,” Alcala said. “They have to prove that they are truly legitimate and that what they have already received has been fully liquidated.”
Alcala said Agawin had been replaced as head of the accreditation panel to ensure that she would not have undue influence on the ongoing investigation.
“We have not ascertained whether she is indeed involved (in the pork barrel scam) but she will no longer handle the approval of new NGOs and projects that may come in,” he added.
“In the spirit of transparency, we have appointed Assistant Secretary Edilberto de Luna, effective August 2, as interim chair of the committee for the accreditation of NGOs and peoples organizations,” said the department’s spokesperson, Salvador Salacup.
Agawin, however, will continue to perform her tasks as assistant secretary for finance, Salacup added. A week has passed since Alcala issued a memo asking Agawin for an explanation.
Alcala, himself a former congressman, said the DA under the Aquino administration had initially refrained from implementing PDAF-funded projects.
“It took us 25 months—until August 2012—before we allowed the DA to again be a conduit of PDAF releases,” Alcala said. “That means the administration is not interested in PDAF going through the DA.”
“But during a budget deliberation, we were told in Congress that we could not refuse,” he said. “Even the DBM (Department of Budget and Management) told us that we have to line up programs.”
Six former employees said Napoles had fleeced the government of some P10 billion over the last 10 years through dummy NGOs. Napoles has denied any wrongdoing.
Salacup said the department’s internal audit service (IAS) was looking into the alleged channeling of funds from lawmakers’ Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), or pork barrel, through “the alleged fictitious NGOs.”
“The IAS is conducting a more in-depth study into the fund releases and the liquidation reports submitted by NGOs that implemented PDAF projects,” he said.
The IAS is expected to submit by Thursday an initial audit report on the NGO accreditation process and compliance.
Promoted to Asec
A Palace official told the Inquirer that Alcala was ordered to submit a formal explanation to the President after the latter learned of the suspicious presence of Agawin in the DA.
Agawin, the public accountant at the heart of an alleged P432-million fertilizer fund scam in 2003 under the Arroyo presidency, was quietly absorbed by Alcala when he was appointed secretary in 2010.
The scam, which later ballooned to P728-million, was allegedly engineered by then Agriculture Undersecretary Jocelyn “Joc-joc” Bolante.
Agawin was subsequently cleared in that case and has since been promoted assistant secretary for finance in the DA.
Agawin’s name has returned to public consciousness when pork barrel scam whistle-blower Merlina P. Suñas tagged her as a conduit and gatekeeper of a web of fake of NGOs sanctioned to accept state money for livelihood projects for the last two years.
Alcala said that in accepting PDAF-funded projects, the DA had set up “stringent measures and safeguards.” These include the preaccreditation of NGOs and the release of funds in four installments for projects worth more than P300,000, instead of a lump sum release.
Of 26 DA-accredited NGOs, seven are involved in PDAF-funded projects and all seven are now being audited. This involves ocular inspections.
Alcala said that he had submitted his report to President Aquino on the pork barrel fund releases of eight House representatives to Kaupdanan for 11 livelihood projects.
“Just give the President time to read (the report),” Alcala said in an ambush interview at SMX Convention Center in Pasay City, where he and Aquino led the opening ceremonies of the “Livestock Philippines 2013” Expo and Conference.
Alcala said his report would show that it was “not in DA’s interest to have (state funds) pass through it” only to end up in unintended hands.
Alcala said he believed he still had the trust of the President. He complained that news reports on the alleged scam had been “very twisted” and suspected that some personalities with “bad intentions” were behind what appeared to be a smear campaign “against the DA and me.”
The President said on Tuesday there were flaws in releases of pork allocations and that allegations implicating Alcala were being looked into by the National Bureau of Investigation.
Precursor of fertilizer scam
Agawin and Bolante were among 11 DA officials and businessmen who were sued by the late Marlene Esperat in 2003 for buying overpriced fertilizer without any bidding from Philippine Phosphate Fertilizer Corp. (Philphos) worth P432 million.
The two and their codefendants—former Agriculture Secretaries Luis Lorenzo Jr. and Arthur Yap; DA officials Edmund Sana, Ibarra Poliquit, Belinda Gonzales, Eduardo Garcia; and businessmen Jesus Varela, Benjamin Tabios and Pepito Alvarez of Philphos—were absolved by the Ombudsman in 2008.
The scam was believed to be the precursor of the P728-million fertilizer fund scandal that also involved Bolante and Napoles, whose Jo-Chris Trading (named after her daughter Jo-Christine) was the second-biggest supplier of the liquid fertilizer distributed to allies of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2004.