Aquino confirms NBI probing fake Saros
President Aquino on Monday said the National Bureau of Investigation was looking into another instance where “enterprising souls” attempted to work on the release of a dubious special allotment release order (Saro) from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) for farm-to-market road projects.
“We actually ordered the investigation of two instances,” Aquino told the Inquirer in an interview.
The Inquirer on Monday reported that the NBI had begun looking into the release of a Saro worth P879 million to mayors for farm-to-market roads. The release order turned out to have bogus signatures of the local chief executives.
The Saro was issued in October amid public outrage over the P10-billion pork barrel scam involving a number of lawmakers and businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles and her dubious nongovernment organizations. The document was uncovered last month.
Aquino said it was the DBM office in Region 2 (Cagayan Valley) that discovered the attempt to have the multimillion-peso Saro released and reported it to the Department of Agriculture (DA).
However, it was not clear whether the other incident the President mentioned was also discovered by the DBM Region 2 office or whether it involved another regional office.
Aquino also did not mention how much money was involved in the second incident.
The President said the DBM did not release the P879-million fund in the first incident, as reported by the Inquirer.
“The real Saro was never signed. It has never been released,” he said.
Aquino said he spoke with Budget Secretary Butch Abad and Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala on Sunday about the discovery of the attempt to have the fund released.
“I was told that someone approached the Region 2 office of the DBM and showed them a Saro. It turned out that the Saro was photocopied. Then it was signed and then photocopied again,” the President said of the apparent modus operandi.
The real Saro was not signed because a “proof of networking” for the farm-to-market roads was a requirement before any money could be released, he said.
“Since there was no network plan submitted, it was held and not signed. But there was an enterprising soul or souls who faked the signatures of the DBM and DA. Actually, there are I think two instances being investigated,” Aquino said.
The President, however, expressed disappointment that the Inquirer ran the story on the NBI investigation even after a request to hold it until such time that an airtight case has been made against the suspects.
The story’s publication, he said, “might derail the investigation because everybody would cover (his or her) tracks.”
“It would have been easier if nobody knew there was an investigation,” Aquino said.
Nonetheless, some of the pieces of evidence with the NBI could still be traced to some of the suspects, he said.
A DA source of the Inquirer said the fake Saro called for the release of funds to dozens of farm-to-market roads costing P1 million to P15 million. Such roads are prone to corruption and are hard to audit as these are susceptible to being washed out.
A DBM source said a syndicate in the department demanded advance payments to facilitate the issuance of a Saro even if it resulted in the release of a forged document.
Alcala earlier told the Inquirer that mayors had complained to him that DBM officials were asking for money in exchange for expediting the release of the Saro.
Abad on Monday acknowledged that Saros were quite easy to forge using a copier and a signature faker but he claimed no knowledge of how the scam worked or how long it had been going on at the DBM.
No funds disbursed
In a briefing at Malacañang, Abad and Alcala said no funds had been disbursed due to the timely intervention of alert DA regional officers.
“Was there any money that was lost as a result of this? There was none because it was just a Saro that was forged which was not released at all. So that is really the story there,” Abad said.
A DBM source pointed out that the Saro was considered a “currency” by itself that could be used by crooked officials to demand grease money from recipients (like lawmakers and mayors) who in turn would use the document as proof to demand advances from their favored contractors.
Abad’s first time
Abad claimed that this was the first time he encountered this kind of scam in his agency although he said that the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo had reported a similar scam.
“It is very easy to invent a Saro. If you can obtain a copy of one Saro, you can have it xeroxed and you can copy the signature of the authorized signatory. It will be easy to do that because a Saro is a public document. LGUs (local government units) are given copies of Saros and it is not difficult to get a Saro specimen and to forge it,” the budget secretary said.
Abad said the fake Saros were obtained from Regions 2 and 6 (Western Visayas).
How fake Saros uncovered
He narrated how the fake Saros were discovered by the DA office.
Abad said that on Oct. 22, a DBM director in the office in charge of agriculture got a call from the regional field unit office of the DA inquiring about the originals of Saros for farm-to-market roads in Region 2.
The DA regional office asked if the documents “had in fact been released because they were in possession of a request for released Saro that was already signed involving FMRs (farm-to-market roads) in Region 2,” he said.
“So when the director in charge inquired from the office of then Assistant Secretary Luz Cantor in our office, she was told that the Saros were still with her and, in fact, they had not been signed.”
Abad said that the original and fake Saros looked the same and only the signatures were different.
Request for NBI probe
On Oct. 23, Abad said he ordered the cancellation of the 12 Saros and wrote Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and NBI officer in charge Medardo G. de Lemos to probe the fake Saros.
Abad said he followed it up with another letter a week later. “We’ll pursue it to the end.”
He said he called De Lima last week to inquire about the progress of the case.
De Lima told him that she would give priority to the case even if the agency was already burdened with numerous cases.
Abad said the NBI probe was meant to identify the stage at which the Saros were forged to determine the modus operandi.
“The preparation of the Saro starts with the bureau until it goes up to me to finally approve it. So, along that route, we do not know what happened,” said Abad.
He said the DBM wanted to shed light on whether the document used to forge the Saro came from his department. “We want to know how it was obtained, how it was taken out of the office, so that we will be guided and be able to take measures … to tighten the procedures so that this will be difficult to do the next time around.
“So right now, the investigation is still ongoing.”
Abad ordered a news blackout on the probe when the Inquirer sought his reaction as early as Friday. “Our objective was to make sure that the investigation being undertaken by the NBI will proceed as effectively as possible, and also, to make sure that those who perpetrated these forgeries, you know, would not be informed very publicly that such an investigation is taking place. But it’s already out there in the media, nonetheless.”
Nipped in bud
Alcala said the scam was nipped in the bud due to to the tight coordination between his department and the DBM.
The agriculture secretary told the Inquirer that he ordered the immediate cancellation of the Saros after receiving reports from his regional officers who doubted the documents’ authenticity and received complaints from mayors who accused some DBM officials of demanding advances for the Saro releases.
Abad said he and Alcala decided to hold a press conference in Malacañang to clear up certain issues. “It does not look good in public the way the (Inquirer) report put it. It’s like Secretary Alcala and I are in conflict and we are not communicating,” the DBM chief said.
“Definitely, we are aggressively pursuing this case because there is another allegation involving the DBM again and another government agency, and we don’t want to have any doubts on government agencies and our people,” Abad said.
He said the DBM was pushing to tighten and improve the security system for its Saros “at every opportunity.”
Gaps in DBM system
The Commission on Audit noted that the DBM in its annual audit reports for the last three years failed to explain the gaps in the number sequence of its Saros and to account for the spoiled and damaged Saros and other official documents.
Abad himself explained the urgency of releasing the Saros within the year. “If we don’t issue the allotment before the end of the year, it won’t be carried over next year and farm-to-market road projects do help our farmers. As soon as this issue settles, Secretary Alcala and I will discuss how to continue with this project instead of losing this opportunity.”
DAP and fake Saros
Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares said that it was not by chance that a fake Saro syndicate flourished under the watch of Abad at the same time that he introduced the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP).
“Is this just a coincidence? While the Department of Budget and Management previously approved the release of special allotment release order on a first in first out basis, the Aquino administration apparently disregarded this under the DAP, allowing syndicates to claim that they are responsible for the release of Saros notwithstanding their date of submission,” said Colmenares in a statement.
“With the DAP and a DBM syndicate in play public funds are being raided systematically,” said Colmenares who noted that this latest scandal should prompt the Supreme Court to issue a temporary restraining order on the DAP releases.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.