NBI questioned DBM exec–PalaceBy TJ A. Burgonio, Gil C. Cabacungan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Budget Undersecretary Mario Relampagos and three of his staff who allegedly dealt with Janet Lim-Napoles in connection with the P10-billion pork barrel scam, were summoned “a few weeks back” by the National Bureau of Investigation, Malacañang said.
“My understanding is that they were summoned a few weeks back by the NBI to shed light on the investigation,” presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said.
According to whistle-blowers, Napoles would call the office of Relampagos to follow up the release of the special allotment release order (Saro) and the notice of cash allocation (NCA) from a lawmaker’s pork barrel for certain projects.
A Saro is a DBM document authorizing a fund release from an agency’s allocation during a specific period, while an NCA is a cash authority issued quarterly by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to central, regional and provincial offices and operating units to cover the cash requirements of the agencies.
Whistle-blowers Benhur Luy and Merlina Suñas said that Napoles would often talk to Relampagos’ staff—identified as Leah, Malou and Lalaine—to “badger” them about the status of the Saro or NCA. The whistle-blowers added that they themselves would call the three women to follow up Napoles’ requests.
Relampagos is the budget undersecretary for operations and the three women are part of his staff.
“As to (their) testimony, I’m not privy to that. So let’s just wait for the investigation report of the NBI,” Lacierda said.
Budget Secretary Florencio Abad Jr. confirmed that, on President Aquino’s orders, Relampagos and his staff were investigated for their possible role in the scam.
“(The President) had the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the NBI investigate the personalities initially mentioned by the whistle-blowers,” Abad said, adding that Malacañang also formed a task force to work with the DOJ and the NBI.
“The investigation is still ongoing and we are as eager as you to learn about their findings so we can act accordingly,” the budget secretary said in a text message.
According to the whistle-blowers, Napoles ran her pork barrel racket from a unit in a posh hotel in Pasig City, where her staff would churn out requests for funding from lawmakers using the forged signatures of local officials. Napoles and her staff also used fake or dummy nongovernment organizations (NGOs) as conduits for the pork barrel, and made calls to government officials for them to approve the spurious documents and release the funds in return for hefty commissions.
In the meantime, Napoles would meet with the lawmakers or their chiefs of staff to discuss how to split the kickbacks from their pork barrel allocations that were deposited in the bank until withdrawn by her staff.
With the unraveling of the P10-billion pork barrel scam that began in the Arroyo administration and continues to the present, both Malacañang and Congress are pointing fingers as to who has the final say on what implementing agencies and projects are eligible for pork funding.
Abad claimed that while it was Malacañang that prepared the annual budget, it was the lawmakers who had the final say on how their Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF, also known as pork barrel), was going to be used.
A senior Liberal Party (LP) senator added that it was the House of Representatives that was more involved in drawing up the PDAF menu and laying down the specific implementing agencies and projects that were eligible for pork funding.
“The negotiations usually take place in the House, with the Senate as bystander. Usually, the budget secretary gives way,” said the LP senator who refused to be identified for fear of offending his party mates.
Power to veto
But party-list Rep. Antonio Tinio of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers argued that while Congress could rework the budget, the budget secretary, through the President, still had the power to veto any amendments in the PDAF menu or withhold the release of pork, as it did during the 15th Congress when hardcore allies of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo were given zero pork.
“Upon instruction of the President, the DBM can withhold the release of any PDAF for any reason whatsoever. Presidential intervention is supposed to be the final fail-safe in the PDAF system,” Tinio said in a text message.
“Congress may override the presidential veto, but in practice, the President—who executes the budget—has been given the final say,” said another LP representative, who asked not to be named.
The blame passing on who was ultimately responsible for the PDAF menu that allowed unscrupulous lawmakers to release their pork to fake NGOs, was sparked by an Inquirer report that tagged the budget secretary as being accountable for having allowed the Philipine Forest Corp. to act as a conduit for the release of P428.5 million worth of pork to suspect NGOs in 2011.
The Philforest pork had been endorsed for release as early as 2009 but its allocation was delayed because of questions from the Commission on Audit.
Upland planting project
But in February 2011, Abad issued National Budget Circular 529 that laid down the guidelines in the release and utilization of pork funds. The budget official sanctioned Philforest and its mother agency, the National Resources Development Corp., among several agencies, to tap pork funds for projects meant to rehabiltate and protect forests and watershed areas. The project also included an upland planting program for jatropha plant to be cultivated as feedstock for biodiesel.
Abad, in a statement, disputed the Inquirer report as “erroneous,” and claimed that the 2011 proposed budget was half-finished when the Aquino administration took over in July 2010. The reforestation project was added by Congress during its deliberations that year, he added, although he did not name the Congress representative who inserted Philforest in the PDAF menu.
“By the time President Aquino came into office in July 2010, we found ourselves in the middle of preparations for the next year’s budget, which had already been overseen by the previous administration,” Abad said. “We trimmed the PDAF menu as much as we could.” Philforest was yanked off the proposed menu, he added.
“However, it was added during budget deliberations in Congress,” Abad said. “We were thus constrained to follow the new menu as approved by Congress,” the budget official added.
But Isabela Rep. Giorgidi Aggabao disputed this. “The (lawmakers’) role is limited to choosing a project from the listed menu prepared by DBM, which agency to implement the project, again from the DBM list, and the amount alloted for it. Should our project require the procurement of goods, it is the implementing agencies that conduct the bidding,” he said.