‘It could get emotional if Senate probes pork scandal’
Investigating their colleagues in the Senate on the pork barrel scam could lead to emotional hearings that might bog down legislative work, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano on Friday warned, in reaction to an earlier suggestion by Sen. Francis Escudero.
The Senate majority leader and chair of the committee on rules instead suggested a public and televised investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ) or the Ombudsman into the multibillion-peso pork barrel scam.
Escudero the other day reiterated the need for the Senate to investigate the alleged funneling of billions of pesos in Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to questionable nongovernment organizations (NGOs), especially since senators have been linked to the controversy.
A Senate probe would dispel the notion that the Senate was an “old boys club” that would shield its members from any investigation of wrongdoing, he added.
Cayetano said that while a Senate or House investigation was “always productive because it is open and transparent,” it might be problematic since “we’re dealing with our own members.”
“What if we run out of time [while conducting the investigation] and senators and congressmen fight among themselves? We might not (be able to) pass any piece of legislation,” he added.
Cayetano said that some senators might also miss certain hearings “so they could attend the (hearing) on the pork barrel scam because they were implicated.”
“There’s a solution, which is to allow the hearings to be televised,” Cayetano said, adding that it had been done in the case of the Luneta hostage-taking incident in 2010.
“It can be done without the Senate and the House (getting involved) but just the DOJ and (the) Ombudsman forming a panel that will investigate and allow full and complete media access—Internet, print and broadcast,” Cayetano said.
Malacañang said it was eyeing more stringent measures in processing requests for funding by lawmakers to eliminate corruption involving the pork barrel funds.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said Malacañang and the Department of Agriculture (DA) are “putting in place a tighter screening” process for accrediting and monitoring the implementing agencies and NGOs being used as conduits for pork barrel.
Valte made the disclosure even as she admitted at a news briefing that President Aquino himself was against the abolition of the pork barrel.
“I think that’s what I got from my conversation with the President. We had already mentioned this previously, that in theory, the intention of the PDAF is good. That’s what we also want—for the theory to become a reality,” she said.
Valte did not disclose the specific stringent measures but said that while “the (PDAF) is coursed through these (conduits), it is really the legislator who identifies the request that is being processed.”
Cayetano indicated that there has yet to be a consensus on whether the Senate will investigate the pork barrel scam or not.
“So far there are only individual statements,” he said.
Less than satisfactory
Cayetano said he would personally push for the Senate to investigate the matter if the probe by the National Bureau of Investigation turned out to be less than satisfactory.
The NBI would have to finish its probe soon and endorse its findings to the Ombudsman, the Senate majority floor leader said, adding that unlike the Ombudsman, the NBI has no power to give immunity to a potential witness.
“My personal issue here is that… some of (those implicated) have a big influence on the DOJ and the NBI because the Senate will handle their budget,” Cayetano said, referring to the budget hearings that the Senate committee on finance will conduct on the allocations of government agencies for 2014.
The Inquirer i-Team’s series on billions of PDAF being funneled into Janet Lim-Napoles’ questionable NGOs, had initially mentioned opposition senators Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, Sen. Gregorio Honasan, Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and Sen. Ramon Revilla Jr. as being involved in the scam.
Subsequent reports on alleged PDAF misuse later mentioned Senators Vicente Sotto III and Lito Lapid.
Cayetano also indicated that lawmakers could give the DOJ or the NBI a hard time during the budget hearings.
NBI Director Nonnatus Rojas did not respond to text messages from the Inquirer to comment on Senator Cayetano’s proposal.
As for Escudero’s Senate Resolution No. 40 calling for a Senate investigation on the PDAF controversy, Cayetano said it was up to Sen. Teofisto Guingona III to decide what to do with it.
Guingona had indicated that he would respond to the issues on the PDAF scam on Monday.
Escudero had defended his resolution in a weekly news forum at the Senate: “It is not our objective to investigate each other… My objective was to clean the institution, to show that we’re not an old boys’ club, that we’re not silent when it comes to issues like these… that confront any of our colleagues.”
He added: “This is also an opportunity for any witness to identify who are involved so that not all would be implicated, (and) the institution will be spared.”
Escudero called for a vote on the resolution “so that the views of each one will be seen and known.”
But it will be a lost chance for the Senate if it votes against the probe on the pork scam, he added.
“It has not been my style to throw a tantrum but I will be greatly disappointed at the lost chance for each member to explain and be given explanations as regards this issue,” Escudero said.
DA’s probe of pork
Valte said that aside from taking more stringent steps in processing requests for PDAF, “Agriculture Secretary (Proceso Alcala) has put together a fact-finding investigation to see what these allegations are (and) to put together documents relative to this. And we’ll know the results—he told us—by next week.”
The Palace official said the fact-finding investigation ordered by Alcala would not only look into the possible culpability of Ophelia Agawin, an assistant secretary for finance in the DA, and reported gatekeeper of NGOs sanctioned to accept state money for livelihood projects for the last two years.
Conduit for fake NGOs
Agawin’s name cropped up after pork scam whistle-blower Merlina P. Suñas tagged her as the conduit for a web of fake NGOs controlled by Napoles, the alleged brains of a syndicate systematically channeling PDAF into ghost projects through bogus NGOs.
Alcala said that he was just waiting for Agawin’s explanation. He denied endorsing questionable projects, but added that the programs of accredited NGOs were being “revalidated” in light of the whistle-blowers’ claims.
But while Alcala has vowed to look into the projects in connection with the fake NGOs and the PDAF, Valte admitted that he had not indicated what he intended to do with Agawin.
Asked whether Malacañang had demanded an explanation from Alcala on why Agawin had been promoted assistant secretary under his leadership, Valte said: “No, it wasn’t mentioned because when we spoke to Secretary Procy (Alcala) earlier (yesterday), he told us, ‘we’re doing something about it. We have acted on it.’ So (since it) is our inclination not to preempt the results of any investigation or inquiry, we will defer comment on these allegations until such time that the secretary has come out with the results of their investigation,” said Valte.
On calls for the abolition of the PDAF, Valte said the President was not inclined to support its deletion in the General Appropriations Act.
The proposed P2.268-trillion national budget for 2014 contains P27 billion for PDAF.
“When I had the occasion to speak to the President about it, what he said was, ‘You know the job of the national government is to look at the macro concerns. The local (officials) are in charge of micro concerns. And who are those in a position to correctly ascertain what are the essential (needs) of the community?’” said Valte.
The President, she added, recounted to her how, as a congressman, he had concentrated on certain projects because these were not given attention by the national government.
“So, what he said was, ‘Technically, the job of a legislator is to bring to the attention of the national government the (local) concerns that are not given attention (at) the national level,’” Valte said. With reports from Michael Lim Ubac and Nancy C. Carvajal