Aklan solon linked to fake Saro syndicate
MANILA, Philippines—Aklan Rep. Teodorico Haresco Jr., the driver of Budget Undersecretary Mario Relampagos and three others were behind the fake special allotment release order (Saro) scam, according to the National Bureau of Investigation, which recommended the filing of criminal charges against them.
A Saro is a document issued by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) that allows the release of lump-sum funds, such as those from a senator’s or a congressman’s pork barrel, officially known as the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).
The release of a Saro paves the way for the issuance of a notice of cash allocation (NCA), which in turn triggers the release of the funds. (The Supreme Court declared the PDAF unconstitutional last December.)
Relampagos, who was also investigated by the NBI for possible involvement in the fake Saro scam, was not among those recommended to be charged in the NBI’s Jan. 29 report to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima. The report was released to the media Tuesday.
De Lima said there was “no evidence or sufficient evidence yet” against Relampagos.
Syndicate in DBM
“That’s why the (NBI) team also recommends further investigation with the end view of identifying others who may be part of a well-entrenched syndicate engaged in Saro peddling and similar insidious schemes,” the justice secretary said in a text message to reporters.
Budget Secretary Florencio Abad vowed to “take appropriate action” against his personnel implicated in the case.
But Abad said his agency would first “need to thoroughly review the [NBI] report and determine the culpability/extent of involvement of DBM personnel in the so-called Saro scam.”
Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma said the NBI findings were “part of our continuing effort to curb corruption and establish higher standards of public accountability.”
“Those who persist in carrying out decadent practices in the bureaucracy are served notice to shape up or ship out,” he told reporters.
Haresco on Tuesday challenged the NBI findings that he was criminally liable for a fake Saro, saying that he or his office has no capability to produce such a document and that he would have no use for a bogus order anyway.
He said he was “flabbergasted” by the NBI’s findings, especially since his staff had acted as complainants in the NBI in connection with the spurious documents.
Haresco said the NBI should reinvestigate the matter even as he disclosed that he had received another Saro last month that concerned the same project covered by the fake Saro, although this time, the latest document was confirmed to be original.
“I’m asking the NBI to reinvestigate because how can it be that my office can be an originator of fake Saros when we have no capability at all. We don’t know how the Saro document [is produced]. We have an idea but we don’t know the code number, the signatories, the serial number or bar code,” Haresco said in a press briefing.
He said a fake Saro would serve no purpose for him. “What will it benefit me if I have an advance notice? What will I get out of it except to announce [it] prior to the construction of the project?”
De Lima said the NBI report focused on the agency’s investigation of two fake Saros for Region 2 (Cagayan Valley) and Region 6 (Eastern Visayas), which were peddled to certain congressional staff members. The probe was conducted at the request of the DBM.
Besides Haresco, recommended to be charged in the Department of Justice were Emmanuel Raza, a staff member of Zamboanga City Rep. Lilia Macrohon-Nuno; Elvie Rafael, driver of Relampagos; Bhernie Beltran, an alleged DBM employee; and Mary Ann Castillo, a consultant of Haresco.
Except for Castillo, the rest were recommended to be charged with falsification of public documents. Castillo was recommended to be charged with obstruction of justice.
Raza, Rafael and Beltran were also recommended to be charged with violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, and the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees. Rafael was recommended to be administratively charged with grave misconduct.
The Saro gang’s modus operandi is to photocopy advance copies of the Saros and turn them over to their contacts in the congressional offices where signatures are superimposed to make the documents appear genuine.
The congressional contact then shows the copy of the Saro to the local executive where the project is located. The local executive then shows the fake Saro to a contractor who will then advance at least 20 percent of the project cost.
The contractor will then be awarded the project and get paid upon the issuance of the NCA.
Operations in Congress
In the course of its investigation, the NBI unearthed the involvement of a “well-entrenched syndicate” within the DBM, the operations of which extend to the halls of Congress, De Lima said.
“(S)ome DBM employees, who requested anonymity, hinted [at] the involvement of some other employees and a high-ranking official in Saro peddling,” she quoted the report as saying.
“Hence, further and deeper investigation is warranted,” the justice secretary said.
The NBI investigated Relampagos after a janitor and a driver in his office were said to be members of the Saro gang.
The investigation covered Saros issued in Cagayan Valley worth P161 million and in Western Visayas worth P77 million.
When the scam was uncovered in October last year, the DBM quickly canceled 12 Saros covering P875 million worth of farm-to-market projects, the funds for which had yet to be released. The Saros also had not been signed by the authorized signatory, then Assistant Secretary Luz Cantor.
The NBI report said that according to Relampagos’ affidavit, the budget undersecretary did not recommend the request for the release of funds on the farm-to-market-roads of the Department of Agriculture in October last year because it lacked a network plan.
But copies of unreleased and unsigned Saros for the farm-to-market road projects surfaced in mid-October last year when inquiries into these were made at the DA regional field office in Tuguegarao City.
Raza was implicated after it was found out that he had given a copy of a fake Saro and its attachments to a staff member of Rep. Aline Vargas-Alonso.
Raza told probers he had gotten a folder containing a photocopy of the listing of farm-to-market road projects from Rafael, a Relampagos driver, and Beltran, a DBM employee. Both men offered no evidence to refute Raza’s claims.
Haresco was implicated because he sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala on Oct. 21, 2013, to which a Saro that was determined to be fake was attached. The document was among a series of Saro that the DBM had canceled.
Because of this, the NBI team said that “the legal presumption that the person who presented a falsified document is deemed to be the author, if he stands to benefit therefrom arises.”
“The requirement of gain or benefit was satisfied because Cong[ressman] Haresco Jr., would surely take the credit if the project mentioned in the Saro would be implemented considering that his district was its beneficiary,” the report said.
It was discovered that the fake Saro was endorsed by Haresco’s consultant, Castillo, who claimed it came from someone she was not familiar with. But investigators said Castillo had hesitated to provide more information about the person who gave the fake Saro to her.
She left her job after her contract ended last Dec. 31. She gave a notarized affidavit instead of being interviewed by the NBI.
All this prompted the NBI team to conclude that she did not want to identify the source of the Saro and to cooperate with the probers.
The NBI team said the premature disclosure and/or unauthorized release of the Saro was due to a lack of internal control system in the DBM.
This lack of control led to the printing of Saros despite deficiency in the documentary requirements, especially the network plan; improper handling of documents; and improper use of non-DBM employees in the delivery of documents.
Because of the scam, the DBM announced in early January the scrapping of the Saro system.
Abad said departments and agencies would no longer need to get Saros to obligate funds because the General Appropriations Act had become the government’s “official budget release document.”—With a report from Christian V. Esguerra
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