House leaving it to DOJ to investigate pork barrel scam

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Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. File Photo

MANILA, Philippines — Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. doesn’t want the House of Representatives to touch with a 10-foot pole the alleged misuse of P10 billion in pork barrel funds of five senators and 23 House members over the past 10 years.

“No. Gugulo lang (It will just get messy). (Justice) Secretary (Leila) de Lima assured me that they are on top of it and expediting it,” said Belmonte, referring to the National Bureau of Investigation’s probe of allegations by six whistle-blowers that Janet Lim Napoles formed a network of fake NGOs to loot taxpayers’ money in conspiracy with lawmakers, their key staff members and certain government personnel.

In affidavits submitted to the NBI, the whistle-blowers, led by Benhur Luy, a relative and former employee of Napoles, claimed that up to 60 percent of the funds funneled into bogus NGOs and nonexistent projects represented kickbacks of lawmakers. The rest went to Napoles and her group.

Belmonte said that after the justice department’s investigation, the House “will evaluate the findings and decide if more is needed.” The NBI is under the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Belmonte’s stand runs counter to calls made by Minority Leader Ronnie Zamora for the House to look into the scam involving the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), the official name of the pork barrel.

“The magnitude and the destructive effects of the PDAF scam must not be swept into oblivion, as the issue is destroying the trust that members of the Philippine Congress should enjoy from the people they represent,” the minority bloc said in House Resolution No. 160.

Senate President Franklin Drilon took a position similar to Belmonte’s last week as he noted that agencies like the NBI would be in a better position to handle the case than a self-examination in which, based on the view of the majority of senators, the results would not be trusted by the public.

Sen. Francis Escudero filed a resolution calling for a Senate probe of the scam, but his colleagues shot it down.

Senate Majority Leader Alan Cayetano said a probe would be “problematic” and “senators and congressmen (might) fight among themselves.”

In explaining why the House was not keen on investigating the scam, Belmonte said “the original list is made up mostly of people who are no longer in the House and those who are still members are at the bottom of the list.”

He said most of the 23 House members cited in the Philippine Daily Inquirer series on PDAF misuse had “exited” before he took over as Speaker in the 15th Congress.

“I never even heard of some of them. Some of them are even dead. To be fair, this administration has been limiting the menu since 2011,” Belmonte said.

The 23 representatives were Rizalina Seachon-Lanete, Conrado M. Estrella III, Edgar L. Valdez, Rodolfo G. Plaza, Erwin L. Chiongbian, Samuel M. Dangwa, Robert Raymund Estrella, Manuel C. Ortega, Constantino G. Jaraula, Mark Douglas C. Cagas IV, Arthur Pinggoy Jr.

Federico S. Sandoval II, Victor Francisco C. Ortega, Arrel R. Olaño, Salacnib F. Batarina, Rodolfo G. Valencia, Antonio M. Serapio, Isidro E. Real Jr., Rozzano Rufino B. Biazon, Joel J. Vilanueva, Rufus B. Rodriguez, Ernesto A. Nieva and Amado S. Bagatsing.

The five senators were Ramon Revilla Jr., Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Gregorio Honasan II.

Belmonte said that of the P70 million in PDAF allotted yearly for a member of the House, “only P30 million is soft (projects) and could be downloaded by the agencies involved to NGOs” while the P40 million was for “hard” projects “in one’s own district.”

“It is hard to commit corruption in hard projects and there are virtually no ghost projects,” he said.

Each senator is allotted P200 million in PDAF yearly.

Members of the House prosecution team in the impeachment trial in 2012 of then Chief Justice Renato Corona expressed support for Belmonte’s stand.

Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr. said he had “no problem” investigating the pork barrel scam. “But I think the House leadership is currently weighing the pros and cons of investigating the issue at this time considering that there are already some government agencies like the DOJ and the NBI investigating the issue.”

“Since, the name of some House members were mentioned, an investigation by the House may not be perceived to be fair and impartial,” Tupas said in a text message.

Marikina Rep. Miro Quimbo, spokesperson of the House impeachment team, said: “Congress cannot escape investigating itself if it wants the people to restore their trust in the institution. The NBI’s investigation is so far ahead at this point that it makes no sense to conduct a parallel one at this point.”

“They’ve gathered a lot of witnesses, sworn affidavits and evidence from several whistle-blowers. It would have been different if the NBI and Congress were both just at the initiatory stage,” he said.

Quimbo said the House should conduct an ethics probe “should the NBI find sufficient evidence to hold past and previous members accountable for PDAF misuse.”

Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello said that while he has always been for the abolition of the pork barrel, he would rather agree “in principle” with Belmonte’s position.

“My personal take is that you cannot trust an agency to investigate itself, which is why it’s best for an outside agency to do it, like the DOJ,” he said.

Bello added that this was the same reason behind his decision to ask the DOJ to step in in the sex-for-flight scandal because he could not trust the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Labor and Employment to come out with objective results.

“I am not familiar with the reasoning behind the House leadership’s position, maybe a fear that instead of becoming an objective process, it could degenerate into a partisan wrangle,” he said.

Like a voice in the wilderness, some lawmakers are stepping up the pressure on their colleagues to give in to calls for a congressional inquiry.

“I am frustrated and share the people’s disgust in the ‘non-investigation’ of the PDAF scandal. I hold the belief that the Senate passed upon a golden opportunity to show and prove to our people that the ‘upper chamber’ has the moral ascendancy to bring to its logical conclusion P-Noy’s fight against corruption,” Escudero said.

He said that after impeaching and convicting Corona on a mere “non-declaration” of assets in his SALNs (statements of assets, liabilities and net worth), “I cannot help feeling that there is a seeming double standard in how we are pursuing our common fight against graft and grafters in government.”

“I continue to hold on to P-Noy’s statement during his Sona (State of the Nation Address) that the fight will go on whoever is hit and wherever and against whom the axe may fall,” Escudero said in a text message.

He said his colleagues’ argument that the Senate should not conduct a parallel probe while another agency was already looking into had “no basis” because it conducted a probe of the Cagayan de Oro bomb blast recently even though the NBI and the Department of the Interior and Local Government were still probing the incident.

ACT Teachers party-list Rep. Antonio Tinio said Congress should not act as if it was “business as usual even as its members are accused of perhaps the largest corruption scandal in its history.”

“The challenge which we in the minority are posing, is for the House to conduct an investigation into its own members that will be credible to the public. It should be able to show that it can police its own ranks. Otherwise, it will prove itself to be an irretrievably damaged institution,” said Tinio, a member of the Makabayan bloc of militant lawmakers who announced their plan to abstain from using their pork funds and push for its abolition.

Like Escudero, Tinio questioned Congress’ malleable rules on who should and who should not be investigated. “Is this the same institution that impeached Corona? Why is it that the crusading zeal against graft and corruption seems to have vanished into thin air when the House is now challenged to investigate its own?” he asked.

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