President Aquino appears unperturbed by the social media-led initiative to gather a million people at Rizal Park in Manila on Aug. 26 to demand the abolition of the graft-tainted pork barrel.
But he vowed that lawmakers who misused the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), or pork barrel, would be prosecuted soon.
“You know, we should really be disgusted with the abuses in the (use) of PDAF,” Aquino said in an ambush interview following a visit to an evacuation center for flood and typhoon victims at an elementary school in Mandaluyong City.
“Will it (the antipork barrel protest) change (my position)? I listen to various opinions. Of course, we want to perfect the system. Let’s just be reminded that all this (misuse of PDAF) happened during the past administration which, compared to us, had a different policy (on PDAF disbursements),” he said.
The President was responding to a question by the Inquirer if the nationwide rally against pork barrel misuse next week would change his stand retaining the pork barrel allotments for lawmakers in the annual national budget.
The “Million People March to Luneta,” which arose from Facebook posts, is intended to gather together citizens who are outraged by the misuse of public funds.
Baguio, Lucena, Davao
Several key cities such as Baguio, Lucena and Davao have also sounded the call for netizens and outraged Filipinos to gather in town squares and plazas on the day the country observes National Heroes’ Day on Monday as a show of force to put an end to the PDAF of senators and members of the House of Representatives.
Farmers against pork
In Quezon province, farmer organizations are demanding that their four House representatives heed the clamor to abolish the pork barrel.
“It’s now the time to forego their PDAF,” said Jansept Geronimo, spokesman of the newly formed Peoples Movement in Quezon Against Corruption (PMQAC).
He said the multisectoral PMQAC was convened by the Coalition of Coconut Farmers in Quezon, Ugnayan ng Magsasaka sa Gitnang Quezon and Alay-Kapwa Multi-Purpose Cooperatives.
Geronimo said the movement would welcome more groups from the academe, workers, religious and business sectors.
He said the PMQAC would initiate a “day of rage at the park” on Aug. 26 in solidarity with the “million people march to Luneta.” The event would be held at 10 a.m. at Perez Park in Lucena City.
Geronimo asked the participants to come to the venue wearing plain slippers. “It will be our symbol that the money that corrupt government officials have been looting comes from the taxes paid by ordinary Filipinos,” he said.
The Aug. 26 gathering at Rizal Park in Manila may be gaining nationwide support, but it is just a starting point for change, according to one of those behind the idea of holding a gathering to protest the scam.
Peachy Rallonza-Bretaña, credited with setting the date and place for the “Million People March to Luneta,” said the focus of the gathering should be the taxpayers, and the common message of abolishing the pork barrel and filing charges against those who misused it.
“If you go deeper than that, what we just really, really want is for the government and the lawmakers to be transparent, honest and truthful. People want to know the truth,” Bretaña added.
The idea to gather citizens to protest the pocketing of public funds by politicians originated from a Facebook post from music executive producer Ito Rapadas, which was reposted on Facebook. It reached Bretaña (whom Rapadas did not know personally), and she suggested that it be held on Aug. 26 at Rizal Park.
A Facebook page was created, with Bretaña as “reluctant host,” and soon, thousands, even those from outside Metro Manila and in other countries, were on board.
Once the concerned and angry citizens have come together, this would not necessarily be the end of efforts to bring about change, she said.
“This is just a start. This cannot be made to continue by just one group alone. Which is why I believe it must be inclusive,” she said in a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon.
But with the growing support for the event, she hoped that it would not be hijacked by one group or politician with another agenda.
Bretaña said it was supposed to be a gathering of ordinary citizens, taxpayers like her, with a clear, simple message. She herself has no political affiliations, and this could be the reason so many have supported it, she said.
“That’s probably why so many people have been moved, because I am not affiliated with anybody. I am as ordinary as can be,” she said.
But there have been those who question her intention. She recalled having received a message from a person affiliated with the Left, essentially accusing her of fronting for someone in calling for the antipork barrel “pocket picnic.”
She tried not to think too much about this, she said, overwhelmed as she was with the many messages she had been receiving offers to help some organization or to coordinate the gathering.
The event at Rizal Park has inspired similar activities in the United States.
Vigils in US cities
Based on a post from Bernardo Bernardo on the event’s Facebook page, a group calling itself the United States Action against PDAF has emerged and has called on Filipino-Americans to support the Rizal Park gathering.
It said a vigil for solidarity would be held in Los Angeles on Aug. 25, 5 p.m., at the Consulate General. Similar events are also planned in New York, Washington DC, Honolulu and San Francisco.
The outrage came on the heels of allegations that billions of pesos intended to ease poverty in the country had instead gone to ghost projects, favoring bogus nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and providing huge kickbacks for lawmakers.
Posts on the networking site urged residents of Davao City to show up at Rizal Park and come up with designs of protest shirts. No one has claimed leadership for the campaign in the city, making it a citizens’ initiative.
They said the protest action would be a manifestation of support for the snowballing outrage over rampant graft and corruption in government.
No ‘trial by publicity’
Apart from Janet Lim-Napoles, the alleged brains of a group that funneled over 10 years some P10 billion worth of pork barrel into ghost projects through bogus NGOs, Aquino vowed that erring lawmakers would be charged soon in connection with the scam.
“How many lawmakers? Can we just wait for (Justice) Secretary Leila (de Lima to file the charges)? But now, we have quite a long list, and you all know that I want to be precise,” said Aquino.
By precise, he meant this: “When the charges will be filed or have been filed already, that’s when I intend to announce the (identities of the lawmakers and other respondents) to avoid trial by publicity.”
The Inquirer also asked him about his initial impression of the Commission on Audit’s (COA) special audit on the PDAF releases from 2007 to 2009.
COA chair Grace Pulido-Tan had provided the President with an advance copy of the findings of the commission, which she found “appalling.” The findings were made public at a press conference on Friday.
The President joked that it was hard to pore over the COA documents because these were printed using a “small font” size.
“But (my) initial impression? How would I describe my disgust (over its misuse)? You know, the problem besetting (PDAF) should really make you angry,” he said.
However, he quickly added: “As President, I can’t behave that I’m angry; I can’t looked peeved when I act. I should act properly at all times.”
He acknowledged that there were “people who abused the pork barrel” by “lining up their pockets with (state) funds.”
“(These people) did not even share (their PDAF) with the needy. Who won’t be disgusted by that?” he asked, pointing out that had PDAF been used for its intended purpose it could have “mitigated the poverty incidence among our people.”
‘Punish the guilty’
“Instead of lessening poverty, (PDAF) money was misused. So what is important is to punish the guilty and make sure that, No. 1, you provide an example. No. 2, that others will not attempt to imitate, or try to repeat these abuses,” Aquino said.
The COA special audit report covered the PDAF and various infrastructure fund releases from 2007 to 2009 for projects identified by legislators.
It showed that there was a large number of fake NGOs outside of the Napoles group handling equally large or even bigger funds than the Napoles NGO network, and dealing with more state agencies.
The COA report showed that the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) released a total of P12 billion for PDAF allocations for the three-year period.
Of the amount, P6.156 billion allocated to 12 senators and 180 House members went to 82 NGOs, including bogus ones and those set up by the lawmakers themselves or their relatives. Ten of those NGOs were linked to Napoles and they cornered P2.157 billion.
The COA audit, however, covered only P946 million, or just 40 percent of the pork handled by the Department of Social Welfare and Development from 2007 to 2009, with P1.524 billion still unaccounted for.
The COA report validated the statements made by whistle-blowers Benhur Luy and Merlina P. Suñas as it showed that 10 of the 82 NGOs covered by the audit were formed by Napoles, cornering P2.157 billion of the PDAF, or 32 percent of the funds audited, thus far.—With a report from Delfin T. Mallari Jr., Inquirer Southern Luzon