Former Agri execs urged to name mastermind
MANILA, Philippines—One of the would-be jurors at the impeachment trial of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez on Saturday said former agriculture officials Luis “Cito” Lorenzo and Jocelyn “Joc-joc” Bolante should tell all they know about the P728-million fertilizer fund scam.
“I think Bolante and Lorenzo should spill the beans as to the real mastermind of the scam because it now appears that they are being thrown away like dirty rags after being used to do someone else’s dirty work,” Senator Francis Pangilinan said Saturday.
“Mukhang inilaglag na sila (It looks like they’ve been left in the lurch),” Pangilinan said of the two men against whom plunder charges had been ordered filed by the Office of the Ombudsman in connection with the fund that was purportedly diverted to the 2004 election campaign of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
A special panel of the Office of the Ombudsman has issued a resolution directing the filing of plunder charges at the Sandiganbayan against Lorenzo, Bolante and several others who purportedly amassed some P265.6 million from the fund.
The panel also directed that Lorenzo, Bolante and 30 others be charged with falsification, malversation of private and public funds, and graft.
President Aquino’s deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte belittled the resolution issued by the special panel, saying it was “too little, too late.”
Valte said the Office of the Ombudsman’s belated action on the case “doesn’t diminish but highlights the inaction that has gone on.”
“Remember, the fertilizer fund scam happened in 2004 and it was discovered in 2005. Now it’s 2011,” she said over state-run Radyo ng Bayan.
The fertilizer fund scam is considered the strongest complaint among the six articles of impeachment submitted against Gutierrez.
<strong>Skirting the trial</strong>
Former Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr., chairman of the Senate agriculture committee that recommended in 2006 the prosecution of the key players in the scam, said the order was Gutierrez’s way of skirting the impeachment trial. (The Senate blue ribbon committee chaired by Sen. Richard Gordon also looked into the case. See What Went Before on this page.)
“It’s welcome, but at this stage it might just be used as a reason by Gutierrez to wiggle out of the [trial],” Magsaysay said in an interview.
Besides, the order “doesn’t change the fact that her office has become one of the biggest symbols of stunting reforms within the bureaucracy,” he said.
Magsaysay agreed that the special panel’s resolution had come too late, and said it would also take the Sandiganbayan years to resolve the case.
“It ain’t over until it’s over,” he said.
Two congressmen who will serve as prosecutors at Gutierrez’s trial also said the special panel’s resolution was part of her defense strategy.
Iloilo Representative Niel Tupas Jr., the chairman of the House committee on justice, said the Ombudsman merely wanted to cover up her “intentionally doing nothing” vis-à-vis the fertilizer fund scam.
“The betrayal of public trust has already been committed and a very delayed cover-up cannot cure it,” Tupas said.
Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares said Gutierrez was still trying to protect her boss, former President and now Pampanga Representative Arroyo, by pinning down Bolante.
Colmenares said the special panel’s recommendations were just for show.
“The fact that it took [Gutierrez] an unreasonable length of time to file a case is also betrayal of public trust,” he said.
<strong>‘She thinks we’re fools’</strong>
In Roxas City, Liberal Party (LP) president Manuel “Mar” Roxas II assailed Gutierrez for the belated order to file plunder and corruption charges against Bolante.
“She thinks Filipinos are fools,” the former senator told the Inquirer on the sidelines of the Capiztahan festival.
Roxas, who fiercely campaigned against Bolante when the former agriculture undersecretary ran for governor of Capiz in last year’s national elections, said the special panel’s resolution was “startling,” coming after five years and when Gutierrez was to stand trial at the Senate.
“[Gutierrez] sat on this case for five years, being blind to the charges against [Bolante]. This is the biggest proof that she has done nothing and of her dereliction of duty,” he said.
Roxas also said Gutierrez finally ordered the filing of the plunder case as “a desperate move to cling to power.”
He said he agreed with suspicions that the Ombudsman might have filed a weak case against the respondents with the idea that this would eventually be dismissed.
In a separate interview, Capiz Governor Victor Tanco, an LP leader who trounced Bolante in the 2010 gubernatorial race, said the filing of charges against the latter was long delayed.
But Tanco expressed doubt about the motives of the Office of the Ombudsman.
“This might be meant to placate those wanting [Gutierrez] removed from office,” he said.
Renato Reyes, secretary general of the militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan and one of the impeachment complainants, voiced concern that the plunder case might be designed to fail and be dismissed by the court because of the delay in its filing.
Reyes pointed out that the report recommending the preliminary investigation of Bolante et al. was completed in 2006.
“If five years isn’t inordinate delay, then what is? The belated filing of cases vs Bolante et al. only strengthens the impeachment case against Gutierrez. What was the difference between the evidence that the Ombudsman had in 2006 and the evidence they have now, that it is only now that they decided to file plunder raps against Bolante and the others?” Reyes said in a statement.
He also expressed concern that a weak case might be filed, and that it was only to allow Gutierrez to use it as a defense in her trial.
“We are not about to give her the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “We have to see if the [case] is designed to be dismissed.”
<strong>Facing the charges</strong>
Bolante did not respond to repeated calls and text messages from the Inquirer since Friday.
But an ally of his in Capiz came to his defense.
“Joc-joc wanted the charges to be formally filed back then so he could face these squarely at the proper forum, instead of continued allegations in the media,” said lawyer Henry Reyes, secretary general of the Ugyon Kita Capiz, a coalition of former LP stalwarts in Capiz that joined forces with Bolante in the 2010 elections.
Ricardo Oblena, the former director of the Department of Agriculture in Central Visayas, expressed readiness to respond to the malversation and graft charges recommended filed against him in connection with the fertilizer fund scam.
Oblena, who is now with the Office of the Agriculture Secretary, said he was dragged into the case only because he implemented the fertilizer project in Central Visayas.
He admitted that the case was affecting him: “Of course we have to worry.”
Oblena said he and the others to be charged would have to answer the case individually because there was a different project implementor in each region.
He said he would have to use his own money especially in hiring lawyers to defend him. He added that this was just part of the hazards of the job.— <strong><em>With reports from Cynthia D. Balana and Leila B. Salaverria in Manila; and Jhunnex Napallacan, Inquirer Visayas</em></strong>
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