Senators behind release of pork

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At least three senators instructed government agencies to release millions of pesos from their pork barrel funds to nongovernment organizations (NGOs) belonging to the Janet Lim-Napoles group, Commission on Audit (COA) Chair Grace Pulido-Tan told the Senate blue ribbon committee on Thursday.

Senators implicated in the pork barrel scam allegedly masterminded by Napoles have repeatedly said they have no hand in the implementation of the projects funded by their pork barrel, such as in choosing which NGOs will handle their entitlement under the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).

Tan narrated at the opening hearing of the Senate inquiry into the scam how Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, Ramon Revilla Jr. and Gregorio Honasan allocated a total of P1.093 billion of their pork allocations to the bogus NGOs belonging to Napoles between 2007 and 2009.

In her report to the committee, Tan said Enrile and Revilla confirmed the authenticity of their signatures or those of their authorized representatives appearing in documents related to the release of their funds from the PDAF to Napoles’ NGOs.

Napoles allegedly siphoned off P10 billion from the PDAF into her bank accounts through bogus NGOs over the last 10 years.

In Honasan’s case, a project coordinator confirmed signatures in two documents relating to the release of P14.55 million to Agri and Economic Program for Farmers Foundation, Inc.—the only Napoles NGO he allegedly funded.

Estrada, Tan said, did not reply to inquiries about the authenticity of his signatures appearing in his PDAF releases to Napoles’ NGOs.

In a report designed for the Senate inquiry into the scam, Tan also told the blue ribbon committee that House members during the same period also had PDAF disbursements totaling P648.547 million going to the fake NGOs.

Agencies and NGOs

Tan identified the implementing agencies that released the legislators’ pork barrel funds to the Napoles NGOs as the National Livelihood Development Center (NLDC), Technology Resource Center (TRC), National Agribusiness Corp. (Nabcor) and Zamboange del Norte College Rubber Estates Corp. (ZREC).

The eight Napoles NGOs Tan listed in her report were the Agri and Economic Program for Farmers Foundation Inc., Agrikultura para sa Magbubukid Foundation Inc., Countrywide Agri and Rural Economic Development Foundation Inc. or CARED, Magsasakang Ani para sa Magsasaka Foundation Inc., People’s Organization for Progress and Development Foundation Inc., Philippine Agri and Social Economic Development Foundation Inc., Philippine Social Development Foundation Inc. and Social Development Program for Farmers Foundations Inc. (SDPFFI).

Tan said the COA audit team was entertained by Benhur Luy, the principal whistle-blower in the scam, when SDPFFI was inspected by the auditors. Luy was the president of SDPFFI when it was subjected to the audit.

“Most of them have letters to the agencies and these are attached to the disbursement voucher when the funds are released.  This is because the agency is required to document every release of funds,” Tan said, when asked for proof that lawmakers gave instructions for the release of funds from the PDAF to the specific NGOs.

Senators signed

Sen. Teofisto Guingona III, chair of the blue ribbon committee, asked Tan if Enrile, Estrada and Revilla wrote the implementing agencies letters to give their PDAF entitlements to the NGOs.

“Yes. This was signed by either them or a representative,” Tan answered.

“These senators directed implementing agencies to transfer [funds] to specific agencies coupled with documentary evidence?” Guingona asked, referring to Enrile, Estrada and Revilla.

“Yes, sir,” Tan replied.

Guingona asked if the letters from the lawmakers were the basis for the release of millions of pesos from the PDAF by the implementing government agencies to the concerned NGOs.

“According to [officials of the] implementing agencies… and this is also a part of our audit report and we almost lifted verbatim from the letters of the NLRC (National Labor Relations Commission), the NLDC, even the DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development) to us saying in effect that [they] don’t have any intervention in the choice of the NGO and that [they] were just following the directives or instructions of the legislators,” Tan said.

Transfer to NGOs legal?

Guingona asked if the transfer of funds from the PDAF to an NGO was legal.

“We have yet to see a law or an ordinance that gives authority for the transfer of public funds from a government agency to a private corporation like an NGO,” Tan answered.

“As a matter of fact, this is provided for in the implementing rules of [Republic Act No.] 9184, or the Government Procurement Act,” she added.

Tan said the law was being implemented by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and it was the agency that formulated the condition “that one can only transfer public funds to NGOs if there is an appropriation or ordinance earmarking or contracting government funds to NGOs.”

“So in our opinion, it is contrary to law to transfer funds from implementing agencies to NGOs,” Tan said.

Tan added that even the General Appropriations Act provides that the PDAF can be handled only by implementing agencies.

 

No provision for NGOs

She said there was no provision in the budget law for the transfer of funds from the PDAF to NGOs for the implementation of projects.

According to the COA special audit report, Revilla was the senator who poured the most into Napoles’ NGOs, at P483.49 million.

Enrile came in second with P332.7 million, followed by Estrada with P262.575 million.

Honasan gave the least amount to the bogus NGOs, at P14.55 million.

The four senators inhibited themselves from the investigation but in previous remarks had expressed readiness to face an investigation.

They have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in relation to the disbursement of their PDAF allocations.

Estrada attended Thursday’s hearing but excused himself from any further participation after the opening.

Estrada cited his interest in participating in the blue ribbon committee’s investigations, such as those on irregularities in the military, “jueteng” and sexual exploitation of female Filipino overseas workers.

“I recognize the importance of legislative investigations in drafting laws to address issues of national importance. However, being one of those whose names have been mentioned in connection with the pork barrel issue, I feel compelled to excuse myself from participating in these proceedings,” Estrada said.

“I believe that my presence during the investigation may be conceived as deterring the resource persons from providing relevant information or may be perceived as impeding the free-flowing discussions among the participants here,” Estrada added.

Recto cleared

Sen. Ralph Recto, whose name was also mentioned in the COA special audit, took the hearing as an opportunity to seek a clarification from the COA representatives on his PDAF disbursements.

“I thank the Commission on Audit for clearing my name twice. First, on the COA report itself, when it categorically stated that I did not sign any documents. And second, in today’s hearing, when the COA auditor in charge confirmed that indeed, I did not sign any request, endorsement, contract or, for that matter, any piece of paper related to the fund release erroneously attributed to me,” Recto said in a statement after the hearing.

“We have also made inquiries with the Department of Budget and Management and a search of their records showed that they do not have on file any official request I signed. This supports our initial belief that funds were released with neither our request nor knowledge,” Recto added.

Asked if there was an audit report on PDAF use during the Aquino administration, Tan said there was one involving the implementing agency PhilForest.

She said one or two more senators would be mentioned in the report.

Pressed by Senate President Franklin Drilon to identify the two senators, Tan declined, saying to do so was not according to COA procedures.

But she said that the two senators were not among those present during the hearing.

She said the report would be released next week.

Guingona said the blue ribbon committee would coordinate with the appropriate government agency for the appearance of Napoles in the investigation.

Wrong flow

In a news conference after the hearing, Guingona said the flow of pork should be like this: legislators identifying the projects, requesting the release from the DBM and release of the funds from the implementing government agencies to the NGOs and to the beneficiaries.

“But what happened here is legislators, the DBM, implementing agency, pocket. Although at this point, we still don’t know for certain until we have evidence that legislators pocketed the money,” Guingona said.

“We have to wait until the investigation is finished.  We have to call other witnesses, especially the whistle-blowers and, of course, Janet Napoles,” he said.

Guingona was asked if he would ask his colleagues implicated by Tan to attend the next hearing.

“The senators have already inhibited themselves and I will respect that,” Guingona replied.

As to the chiefs of staff of the senators who signed PDAF documents, Guingona said they could be invited.

“Why not?” Guingona said.

Sen. Francis Escudero, whose resolution for an investigation of the pork barrel scam enabled the blue ribbon inquiry, asked the committee to summon Napoles, whistle-blower Benhur Luy and the former and present heads of the implementing agencies TRC, NLDC, ZREC and Nabcor.

The committee agreed to do so.

‘That’s expected’

Interviewed later in the afternoon after the blue ribbon inquiry into the exploitation of female migrant workers in the Middle East, Estrada played down Tan’s disclosures during the PDAF hearing.

“That’s expected. During the press conference of Chair Grace Pulido-Tan, she already mentioned it. So there’s nothing new,” Estrada said.

But Estrada said he had instructed his staff “to do all the documentation, the research work, and my staff discovered that the signatures of my other staff had been forged.”

Estrada maintained his position that it is the implementing agency that determines where the funds will go.

“It must be the implementing agency that determines whether an NGO is bogus or not. If we senators, assuming we have endorsed a particular NGO and if it’s really bogus, we should be warned by the implementing agency,” Estrada said.

Asked if he had any ill feelings against his fellow senators, Estrada said: “No, that’s OK.”

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