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3 senators inhibit as ‘pork’ probe starts

Marvin Sy (The Philippine Star) - August 29, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Three senators linked to the pork barrel scam will not attend today’s first hearing on the issue by the Senate Blue Ribbon committee.

Only chief auditor Grace Pulido-Tan has been invited as resource person so that concerned senators can readily clear themselves, according to Blue Ribbon committee chairman Teofisto Guingona III.

A Commission on Audit (COA) report released recently said 82 non-government organizations had cornered billions of pesos in pork barrel funds – officially called Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) – in connivance with about 200 lawmakers between 2007 and 2009. At least 10 of the NGOs were identified with fugitive businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles.

The three senators’ names were in the COA report. Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., whose name also appeared in the COA report, said he has yet to decide whether to attend the hearing.

“I’m ready to be investigated by my peers because that is a constitutional mandate. Probably I will inhibit myself so that they will not say that I will influence the proceedings. And if they call me, if they want to call me, then I will appear,” Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile said.

Sen. Gregorio Honasan said he would not attend the inquiry so that the focus would remain on the issues and not on the personalities linked to the controversy.

“But like any other Filipino, I also want to find out the truth in this controversy,” Honasan said.

“Our people want accountability from the government. It is about time that every kind of fund coming from the government should be scrutinized,” he added.

“Aside from prudence, I am not a member of the Blue Ribbon committee to begin with,” Sen. Ramon Revilla Jr. said, explaining his decision not to show up at the hearing.

“But I fully support the inquiry and all the other investigations into the matter,” he added.

Aside from being in the COA report, Revilla’s name also appeared in affidavits submitted to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) by scam whistleblower and former Napoles’ employee Benhur Luy.

Although not linked to the scam, Sen. Vicente Sotto III said he would also not attend the hearing because he would be out of town. “Besides, I was not a senator in the 14th Congress and that is what they will discuss. I am not involved in that,” Sotto said.

He said the minority bloc, to which he belongs, has yet to take a position on the Blue Ribbon hearing.

For Sen. JV Ejercito, a Senate investigation is welcome if only to clear the names of those tagged in the scam.

“Although I admit that it’s awkward for the institution to try its own members,” Ejercito said, suggesting that an independent commission conduct its own investigation into the issue.

He chided the administration for being unfairly quick in pinning down members of the opposition. “But when it’s their allies who are involved, they are quick to clear their names,” Ejercito said.

Marcos said he is for “complete and thorough investigation. That’s what we’ve always asked for since the beginning. But now at this point it’s very hard to comment on anything. Let us just wait for the release of the investigation reports.”

Opportunity

With only the COA chair on the dock, senators will have the chance to prove that not all of them are involved in the controversy, according to Senate President Franklin Drilon.

Sen. Francis Escudero, who filed the first resolution calling for a probe into the scam, said it would be up to each senator to decide whether to attend the hearing.

“It’s their call really. It is for the individual senators to decide and they will have to answer for their respective decisions,” Escudero said.

“Our objective here is to find out the truth, to let the people see the truth and not hide behind the closed doors of the NBI (National Bureau of Investigation),” he added.

He said the inquiry would provide senators linked to the scam the opportunity to face their accusers. “But it’s up to them if they will avail of this opportunity or not,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano urged his colleagues implicated in the pork barrel scam to face the committee probe as well as that of the Inter Agency Anti-Graft Coordinating Council so they can clear their names in public.

“Senators should not hide behind the rules. While we cannot grill fellow senators during hearings, there is no rule stopping us from answering allegations thrown at us,” he said.

Meanwhile, Guingona is pushing for stiffer penalties for graft from the current maximum prison term of 15 years to 20 years.

“While we work on the speedy resolution of cases in our country, we must not allow prescription of cases to stop us from recovering what is unlawfully acquired. If what was stolen is from the people, then it must be returned to the people,” Guingona said as he filed Senate Bill 1086 amending Republic Act No. 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

Under his proposed measure, those found guilty of committing graft shall be punished with imprisonment of 12 to 20 years. The bill also seeks to help the government in recovering properties, particularly those acquired illegally.

“There is a need to fortify our laws against graft and corrupt practices. We need a concerted effort in battling graft and corruption. The issue of accountability among public officials as well as private individuals has reached a boiling point. We must amend our laws to correspond to the needs of the times,” he added.

SC help sought

From social media and street rallies, the campaign against PDAF has spilled into the legal front with cause-oriented group Social Justice Society (SJC) asking the Supreme Court (SC) to stop the Senate and House of Representatives from appropriating funds for the pork barrel system “in whatever form and by whatever name it may be called.”

“The pork barrel system enables the members of Congress to pocket for themselves money which should be spent for public purpose and which are exacted from the people by way of taxes,” said the group represented by Samson Alcantara.

“The pork barrel system allows the perversion of taxation by providing opportunities for the members thereof to gorge themselves on funds collected pursuant to tax legislation they have enacted purportedly for the public good,” SJC said.

The petitioner stressed the pork barrel system is a “mockery” of the constitutional mandate on accountability, honesty and integrity of public officers.

The group added the system also allows the executive to have control over lawmakers, which is a violation of the constitutional principle on separation of powers.

The 2014 budget allocates more than P25 billion for PDAF.

SJC said President Aquino’s pronouncements on the abolition of PDAF contained no clear assurance that the pork barrel – in whatever form – would be finally abolished.

“But all these marches, demonstrations and rhetoric, no matter how righteous, can’t settle with finality the constitutionality and legality of this pernicious legislative practice called pork barrel except through the exercise by this Honorable Court of the judicial power,” SJC told the SC. With Edu Punay

A COMMISSION ALTHOUGH I ANTI-GRAFT AND CORRUPT PRACTICES ACT BARREL BENHUR LUY BLUE RIBBON EJERCITO NATIONAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION PORK SENATORS
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