The Supreme Court has stepped into the pork barrel scam controversy, ordering Congress to explain the legality of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).
In its weekly en banc meeting on Tuesday, the high court asked Senate President Franklin Drilon and Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. to comment within 10 days on the petition filed by the Social Justice Society (SJS).
The SJS is a political party led by former senatorial candidate Samson Alcantara.
Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te said the high court had reraffled the case filed by Alcantara who sought to have the PDAF and the pork barrel system abolished because the member in charge, Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco, had inhibited himself from the case.
“(He) inhibited because his wife is a member of Congress,” Te told reporters, referring to Lorna Velasco, an Ama party-list representative.
Alcantara’s petition was the first against the pork barrel system amid the controversy over the misuse of the PDAF of lawmakers.
The controversy broke out following the INQUIRER’s exposé on Janet Lim-Napoles, who allegedly funneled P10 billion in the PDAF of five senators and 23 members of the House of Representatives over 10 years through her bogus nongovernment organizations (NGOs).
Whistle-blowers, who are former employees of Napoles, said that up to 65 percent of the PDAF coursed through the bogus NGOs represented kickbacks for lawmakers.
The Commission on Audit (COA) confirmed the Inquirer series on Napoles and found out that from 2007 to 2009 pork barrel releases of lawmakers amounting to more than P6 billion went to 82 NGOs, including those set up by certain lawmakers and their relatives.
The misuse of the PDAF enraged tens of thousands citizens who gathered at Manila’s Rizal Park and other parts of the country on Aug. 26 to call for the abolition of the PDAF and the pork barrel system.
Days before the protest, President Aquino announced that he was abolishing the PDAF but not the pork barrel system. He said pork barrel projects, which lawmakers could specify, should be included as line items in the General Appropriations Act.
In a nine-page petition for prohibition, Alcantara and the SJS asked the high court to stop Drilon and Belmonte from enacting a law appropriating funds for the PDAF, the official name of the pork barrel.
In their prayer, the petitioners asked the high court to declare the pork barrel system unconstitutional.
They also asked the tribunal to issue a writ of prohibition “restraining respondents from further taking any steps to enact legislation appropriating funds for the pork barrel system, in whatever form and by whatever name it may be called, and from approving further releases pursuant thereto.”
Also on Tuesday, a second petition was filed against the pork barrel this time by another former senatorial candidate—Greco Antonious Beda Belgica, who ran and lost in the May senatorial election.
Belgica, along with Jose Villegas Jr., Jose Gonzalez, Reuben Abante and Quintin Paredes San Diego, took to court Drilon, Belmonte as well as Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., Budget Secretary Florencio Abad and National Treasurer Rosalia de Leon.
The petitioners filed an urgent petition for certiorari and prohibition of the pork barrel system and prayed for the immediate issuance of a temporary restraining order and/or the writ of prohibition.
They also asked the high court to declare as unconstitutional not only the PDAF but the lump sum discretionary funds under the General Appropriations Act, except the calamity funds and contingency funds of the President.
In the Senate, Senate President Franklin Drilon said NGOs were allowed to accept and use government money such as pork barrel funds to implement projects for the public.
Drilon made the remark days after COA Chair Grace Pulido-Tan told the Senate blue ribbon committee that it was the COA’s opinion that there was no law allowing the use of public funds like the pork barrel by NGOs.
“I am studying that but my initial studies, I must emphasize, indicated that NGOs can be granted public funds,” Drilon told reporters when asked whether an implementing government agency may channel a lawmaker’s PDAF to NGOs.
“Of course, they have to be accountable for this. I am reviewing this because the provisions in the General Appropriations Act and there were COA circulars that would indicate that the granting to NGOs is allowed under the law,” he added.
Drilon said the NGOs should definitely be “valid, authentic.”
“For example, the [Federation of] Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce. That’s an NGO and that’s allowed under the General Appropriations Act,” he said.
Drilon previously identified the construction of classrooms through the FFCCCI as one of the projects of his PDAF.
Asked if the NGOs should report to Congress their accomplishments from the PDAF, Drilon said, “At the very least, they are subject to a COA audit.
Sen. Sergio Osmeña III told reporters that he also gave PDAF allocations to NGOs like the Philippine Ballet Theater, a nuns’ group that trains overseas Filipino workers and the Kapit-Bisig Para sa Pasig.
In a Senate inquiry last week, Tan said four senators channeled between 2007 and 2009 a total of more than P1 billion in PDAF to questionable NGOs of Napoles.
The COA findings indicated that the NGO received the funds but used them for ghost projects.
The Senate may go about its own way to abolish its pork barrel funds if the House decides to go another way, Sen. Francis Escudero told reporters on Tuesday.
Escudero, chair of the Senate committee on finance, added that the Senate would have to decide on what to do with the pork barrel ideally before Congress went on recess on Sept. 28.
Waiting for House
“I don’t know what the decision of the House will be. What will happen is the two chambers will meet in the bicameral conference committee. The Senate will present its position and the House will present its own,” he said.
“It might come out that the decision to abolish the pork barrel will be applicable to the whole Congress or applicable to just the Senate,” Escudero added.
Under the proposed budget, each senator is entitled to identify projects worth a total of P200 million for 2014 and each House member, P70 million.
The senator said he was in favor of taking the P25 billion in PDAF out of the P2.26-trillion proposed national budget for 2014 or realigning the funds to agencies for education and health spending.
Taking their cue from the President, Liberal Party congressmen have formally moved to remove the controversial PDAF from the 2014 national budget.
Such was the “consensus” arrived at during the caucus of LP members of the House at the party headquarters, called “Balay,” in Quezon City on Monday, according to an LP stalwart and vocal supporter of Mr. Aquino, who requested anonymity for lack of authority to discuss the matter in public.
“Definitely, there has to be less discretion on the part of congressmen when it comes to PDAF and there should be transparency and accountability,” he told the Inquirer.
Belmonte Jr. said the initiative was still in the “consultation stage” with LP’s coalition partners. He said the call to scrap the congressional pork would come in the form of a “statement,” not a resolution.
Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga, whose National Unity Party (NUP) belongs to the majority coalition, said the matter was tackled among administration congressmen the other day.
Barzaga said the “agreement” was to take away P25 billion worth or PDAF in the proposed P2.268-trillion national budget for next year.
“We have to hear the voice of the people. They don’t like the pork barrel,” he told the Inquirer on the phone, describing also as “alarming” the COA report that a number of legislators had misused their PDAF.
The statement being circulated for signatures would ask the committee on appropriations to drop the entire PDAF item in next year’s budget, according to the unidentified LP stalwart.