Palace retains P25-B ‘pork’ in 2014 budget

Jess Diaz - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Malacañang has retained the controversial pork barrel funds in the 2014 national budget despite reports of a syndicate led by businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles that allegedly skimmed about P10 billion from appropriations over the past decade.

In a television interview, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said pork barrel funds – officially known as the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) – are included in the proposed P2.268-trillion budget for next year.

“The amount of PDAF is the same as in this year’s budget,” Abad said.

The PDAF holds some P24.790 billion for 24 senators and nearly 300 members of the House of Representatives. It allocates P200 million a year for each senator and P70 million for each House member.

Vice President Jejomar Binay has a separate pork barrel allocation, which is also P200 million. It is subject to the same limitations as the lawmakers’ allocations.

Binay’s daughter Nancy will have another P200 million as a senator, while younger daughter Abigail will have P70 million as a House member.

“They (lawmakers) really need it for their districts. It’s just unfortunate that there are irregularities,” Abad said.

He said even if Malacañang does not include PDAF in its budget proposal, it is most likely that members of Congress would restore it.

“They are the policymakers. As they say, they have the power over the nation’s purse,” he said.

Abad is a former Batanes congressman. His wife Henedina is the incumbent representative of the province.

Malacañang would not encroach on the territory of the legislative department over proposals to abolish the pork barrel funds, saying it is up to them to waive their annual allocation.

“We wouldn’t want to wade into that debate because that’s primarily the call of each and every solon. Senator (Panfilo) Lacson did it,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said, distancing the executive department from allegations the funds were misused.

“Is it something that is worth emulating? That is the call and discretion of each and every legislator. It is, again, the discretion of the legislator,” he stressed.

As far as the Palace is concerned, the executive department will keep submitting the yearly budget for all agencies to Congress, and let lawmakers decide whether they want to uphold the budget proposal or remove some items.

“For us in the executive to wade into something which is legislative in character and nature, it would seem to be intruding on their prerogative. So it’s a decision that each and every legislator... would have to decide on their own,” Lacierda said.

Napoles, owner of JLN Corp., has been accused by her distant relative and former trusted assistant Benhur Luy – the whistleblower in the scandal – as the brains behind the racket in allegedly pocketing billions from the PDAF of several senators and congressmen.

The businesswoman has been linked to an alleged scam involving the diversion of pork barrel funds of several lawmakers into dummy non-government organizations (NGOs) purportedly for ghost projects worth over P10 billion.

Napoles has denied any wrongdoing.

She even claimed that she did not deal with any of the five senators and several House members whose names have been dragged into the alleged P10-billion PDAF scam.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) reported that Luy and Merlina Sunas, the two whistleblowers in the pork barrel scam, will be covered by the Witness Protection Program (WPP).

Former senator Ramon Magsaysay Jr., who headed the Senate agriculture committee that looked into the P728-million fertilizer fund scam in 2004, said as early as that year, Napoles had already been linked to irregularities in the use of lawmakers’ funds.

In fact, he said the alleged scam brains was summoned to one hearing along with several executive officials, but the inquiry did not push through because then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo barred her officials from showing up.

According to Magsaysay’s report, many of the lawmakers and local officials who were allocated P3 million to P5 million in fertilizer funds by then agriculture undersecretary Jocelyn Bolante used the money to buy liquid fertilizer from Jo-Chris Trading using some private foundations.

It now turns out that, based on the revelations of whistleblower Luy, Napoles owned Jo-Chris Trading and organized those foundations used as conduits of funds from lawmakers.

The trading firm was named after the businesswoman’s daughter Jo Christine.

According to the Commission on Audit (COA) report on the fertilizer scam, liquid fertilizer procured by House members and local officials was overpriced by as much as 1,100 percent.

Some of the foundations involved in the procurement were non-existent, the COA said.

Magsaysay lamented how irregularities like the fertilizer scam nine years ago apparently continue to happen.

Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said that he is willing to be placed under investigation regarding the pork barrel scam.

Marcos, along with Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Ramon Revilla Jr., Jinggoy Estrada and Gregorio Honasan, and several members of the House of Representatives, were named among those whose PDAF allegedly went through the JLN Corp. of Napoles.

Marcos said he suspects that he was implicated in the alleged scam because of his statements regarding the possibility of seeking higher office in 2016.

Sen. Franklin Drilon emphasized that none of the allegations regarding the PDAF have been proven yet and so no conclusions should be made about possible wrongdoing on the part of the concerned legislators.

Drilon said that he is open to removing the PDAF from the General Appropriations Act (GAA) but admitted that this would be difficult considering that this has to be approved by both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Sen. Cynthia Villar said that the problem of the PDAF going to bogus projects could easily be prevented through proper auditing.

Witness protection approved

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima confirmed yesterday that whistleblowers Luy and Sunas would be admitted to the WPP even as she rejected a call of the camp of Napoles for the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to leave the probe to other agencies after it was found they were “misled” into buying Luy’s story.

De Lima said Luy’s lawyer Levito Baligod would be coordinating with the WPP office to formally ask his client and Sunas to be covered by the program.

The whistleblowers are expected to appear in the DOJ today for this purpose.

The DOJ chief admitted she already offered Luy to be covered by WPP after he was rescued by NBI agents from the camp of Napoles last March, when the whistleblower filed serious illegal detention charges against the businesswoman, but Luy decided then to decline government protection.

She said when she reiterated recently the offer to Baligod, the latter was able to convince his client to agree. “I’ve talked to them already before. I interviewed Benhur before, that’s why we initiated the investigation and I created a very small team of trusted investigators to look into the allegations of Benhur and his companions,” she bared. Baligod, in a separate interview, said apart from Luy they are already working on the WPP applications of two other whistleblowers.

He claimed motorcycle-riding people had been seen tailing the two up to their residences.

Baligod also said he has yet to ask three other individuals if they wanted to get government protection. He said he has not yet spoken to the three since they already returned to their home provinces in the Visayas and Mindanao.

These individuals – just like Sunas – were allegedly named as presidents and officers of Napoles’ ghost foundations without their knowledge, Baligod said.

The DOJ chief stressed the NBI would pursue the probe despite calls made by lawyers of Napoles to let other bodies like the ombudsman and the Senate handle it instead.

Napoles’ lawyer Bruce Rivera said the NBI and De Lima were just “misled” into rescuing Luy and taking him into custody during a “fake rescue” last March at the condominium unit of Napoles’ brother, Reynald Lim.

But De Lima believes such insinuation might just be “a strategy.”

She explained she is treating the serious illegal detention case separately from the P10-billion scam.

“I hope they could be circumspect in issuing statements like that. The NBI would not bite such moves or strategies to incite the bureau to do something that would jeopardize its impartiality,” she stressed.

Vice President Binay said yesterday that the pork barrel scam was the same issue raised against some candidates of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) and its allies during the campaign for the last May 13 midterm elections.

Binay, part of the three-man UNA executive committee, said he was informed by former Senate president Enrile that the same issue was exposed last April, at the height of the campaign.

 â€“ With Delon Porcalla, Edu Punay, Jose Rodel Clapano, Paolo Romero


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