Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada wants to investigate the misuse of his own pork barrel that the Commission on Audit (COA) says went to a bogus nongovernment organization.
“We need to unmask those who benefited from this scheme,” said Estrada, who himself was linked to payoffs from jueteng operators during the short-lived administration of his father, former President Joseph Estrada.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, who was embroiled in the controversy over turning millions of pesos in maintenance and other operating expenses into gifts last Christmas, is claiming ignorance of the recipient of his pork, also called the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).
Estrada and Enrile were reacting to an Inquirer banner story about a COA report that found some P195 million in PDAF allocations in 2009 and 2010 of four lawmakers—Enrile, Estrada, Sen. Ramon Revilla Jr. and Buhay Rep. Rene Velarde—went to Pangkabuhayan Foundation Inc. (PFI).
The COA said that PFI fabricated documents and forged signatures for the liquidation of the funds and that the PFI president, Petronila A. Balmaceda, could no longer be reached.
Every year, senators are allotted P200 million in PDAF and members of the House of Representatives, P70 million, for their pet projects. The PDAF is a known source of kickbacks for lawmakers.
Quoting news reports, Estrada said ZNAC Rubber Estate Corp. (ZREC) received P106.7 million of his PDAF late in the term of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. ZREC, a government-owned and -controlled corporation, then transferred the money to PFI.
Enrile confirmed the COA report that he identified livelihood projects to be funded by his PDAF in Ilocos Norte, Tawi-Tawi, Sulu and Camiguin but denied that he nominated ZREC and PFI to receive the funds and implement the programs.
“What I designated were the LGUs [local government units]. And I do not know why ZREC had to transfer the money to Pangkabuhayan Foundation whatever that is,” Enrile told the Inquirer.
“At that time, the lawmakers were informed by the agriculture department this NGO was a legitimate organization and that our pork barrel would be used to benefit thousands of farmers,” Estrada said in a statement.
Estrada wanted to find out from former Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap and the ZREC board “why they channeled the taxpayers’ money to this bogus organization.”
“We’ll work with COA and we’ll open our books to get to the bottom of this. I won’t allow my office to be used as a conduit for debauchery, decadence, dishonesty and depravity,” the senator said.
Asked about the agriculture department and ZREC’s role in the use of the four lawmakers’ PDAF, Yap, now a Bohol representative, said: “I do not recall the name of that foundation, but senators and congressmen, then and today, are allowed to endorse coops to undertake projects using their PDAF.
“The recipient coops must account for their usage and liquidate the funds. In this case, the concerned NGOs must be called to account for the funds they received,” he said.
Enrile called on the Department of Agriculture to shed light on the legitimacy of PFI and how his PDAF was spent.
He said he did not nominate either ZREC or PFI to be the recipients of the P74.69 million of his PDAF earmarked for livelihood projects in provinces of his choice in 2009 and 2010.
No second thoughts
“I never heard until [Wednesday] night of ZREC and PFI. I was flabbergasted,” Enrile told the Inquirer, referring to the instance when his reaction to the allocation of his PDAF for the NGO was sought.
Revilla said he identified projects under the agriculture department’s program for Basilan.
“We know the situation in Basilan and in many parts of our country so that when an NGO asks for our help to assist our countrymen, who are caught in the armed conflict in Mindanao, we had no second thoughts about setting aside funds for them, especially since it was the Department of Agriculture that would implement the project,” said Revilla, an actor.
He said the agriculture department and the NGO that received the funds “should explain so that the public would be enlightened as to where the funds allocated by our office in Senate for our poor countrymen in Basilan really went.”
Enrile also confirmed the COA findings that certain documents were forged to make it appear that his office nominated the recipients of PDAF-backed livelihood projects.
“They found in the records certain documents where the signatures had been altered or superimposed… And then as if we nominated them. I have nothing to do with the nomination or dealing with the beneficiaries,” Enrile said.
“To be fair to [the members of my staff], regarding those documents, I don’t think they’ve done a letter like that,” he added.
Among the documents the COA presented for verification from his office, Enrile said, were liquidation reports that he said his office shouldn’t be concerned with.
‘We were not warned’
Enrile also addressed the COA’s reported recommendation that ZREC inform Enrile and the other lawmakers “that PFI should no longer be granted any fund assistance and have it blacklisted.”
“We have never been warned nor have we ever received any such notification from ZREC nor the Department of Agriculture. I have no knowledge of nor any link to PFI, or the one identified as its President, Petronila Balmaceda,” Enrile said.
The Senate President, one of the pillars of the opposition United Nationalist Alliance, called on the COA to release the entire report on the special audit of all the lawmakers’ PDAF from 2008 to 2010 to prevent a “selective disclosure” of the findings that may be used for political ends.
Enrile said COA chairperson Grace Pulido Tan had told him that the special audit “was not directed at the lawmakers but at the implementing agencies.”
Reelectionist Sen. Chiz Escudero said members of the Senate had the responsibility to make the use of their PDAF transparent and relevant.
“I believe members of the Senate, present and future, should adhere to the principles of good governance when it comes to public funds such as our PDAF,” the senator said.
“At the same time, we have a responsibility to protect the integrity and the reputation of the Senate as an institution and as a pillar of our democracy. This should be non-negotiable,” Escudero added.
Former Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr. said a thorough probe was necessary “so that we can plug any loopholes in the funding process.”
Magsaysay, chairman of the Senate committee on agriculture that looked into the fertilizer fund scam during the Arroyo administration, said the misuse of the PDAF was inconsistent with President Aquino’s reform program.
“The next Senate should impose stricter penalties on such misuse of taxpayers’ money and uphold transparency and accountability,” said the senatorial candidate of Team PNoy.
Malacañang signified its willingness to help establish liability in the misuse of the PDAF.
At a briefing, presidential spokesmaon Edwin Lacierda said the Aquino administration would cooperate should the Senate investigate the matter.
Lacierda said the Palace would allow members of the Cabinet to appear in the Senate if summoned by senators.
“Well, if the DBM (Department of Budget and Management) will be called in as a witness, they (DBM officials) will, of course, testify in the Senate hearing. But again, it’s up to the Senate if they decide to call for an investigation,” he said.—With reports from Christian Esguerra and Michael Lim Ubac