Factionalism within Aquino Cabinet over DAP downplayed

Delon Porcalla - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - A Palace spokesman downplayed yesterday the alleged factionalism within President Aquino’s Cabinet that once again came out in the issue of the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program that the Supreme Court (SC) recently declared as unconstitutional.

“I had an occasion to be in a meeting where one particular DAP project was discussed and there was no factionalism there. So I think that’s inaccurate to say that there was factionalism involved. That’s not true,” Secretary Edwin Lacierda said.

He acknowledged though that he was not aware whether former chief presidential legal counsel Eduardo de Mesa was apprised of DAP, being the head of the Palace’s legal team when the program was created in late 2011.

“With respect to Ed saying no, I have no basis,” Lacierda stressed.

De Mesa, now connected with the Bases Conversion and Development Authority, confirmed to The STAR that Budget Secretary Florencio Abad didn’t consult him about DAP.

At the same time, Lacierda could not categorically refute reports that Abad - a close friend of Aquino - had hand-carried the DAP letter to the Chief Executive, bypassing Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr.

“I’m not aware of the processes involved, so I cannot say if he (Abad) went straight to the President directly,” he said. On paper, Ochoa was furnished a copy of the DAP letter, but insiders disclosed that Ochoa only learned of it from Aquino himself.

What Lacierda was only aware of, he recounted to Palace reporters, was when he once attended a meeting on DAP authorization. 

“I remember once that we were in a meeting where we discussed a DAP authorization. That’s what I remember in the presence of some of the Cabinet officials,” the Palace spokesman recalled.

De Mesa belongs to the Samar group faction within Aquino’s Cabinet, and is closely identified with his principal, Ochoa, who was not informed of Abad’s plan to realign pooled savings among agencies.

On the other hand, Abad is very much associated with the Balay group that Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II heads.

Palace insiders revealed that while it was made to appear on paper that Ochoa was furnished a copy of DAP communications, the Department of Budget and Management chief had in truth hand-carried the letter to Aquino in late 2011.

It was “at the height of the issue of factionalism” that DAP was created, another source said, noting that it is also an open secret that Aquino allows such factionalism to exist if only to ensure that officials don’t conspire and watch each other’s backs.

Among the many agencies where factionalism is prevalent are those of the DILG and the Philippine National Police, the Palace Communications Group, and the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) when Roxas was still its head, and the Land Transportation Office.

Another was the Bureau of Customs under then commissioner Ruffy Biazon, who was supposed to be under the supervision of Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima - Customs being an agency under the Department of Finance.

Reliable sources said Ochoa learned about the DAP only through Aquino, who showed him a copy of Abad’s letter. It was also learned that although all concerns should have passed through Ochoa’s office, only DAP was not brought to his attention.

Under regular office procedure, it is Ochoa’s job to assign and refer issues that concern the appropriate agencies, being head of the cabinet, the very rationale behind why the executive secretary is dubbed as the “Little President.”

DOJ starts DAP probe

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has started looking into alleged anomalies involving DAP that was declared illegal last week.

But Justice Secretary Leila de Lima admitted that the probe, which has been assigned to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), is limited to DAP funds that reportedly went to bogus non-government organizations of alleged pork barrel queen Janet Lim-Napoles.

The DOJ has also received P11 million in DAP funds, records showed.

“We’re investigating that already. NBI is investigating the alleged use of DAP funds thru Napoles NGOs, as claimed by Benhur Luy,” she told reporters.

“What we are seeing now is that there are a few people who again misused these funds using Napoles NGOs. This is what we’re investigating,” she revealed.

Luy and Merlina Suñas, both whistle-blowers in the pork barrel fund scam, are reportedly set to execute affidavits on how P425 million in DAP funds allocated to five senators - Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Ramon Revilla Jr. and Vicente Sotto III - went to Napoles.

“We are evaluating and see whether we have cases against those senators; and if confirmed, then what to do about it - if we will refer them to the Ombudsman or will it be the NBI that will file the cases,” the DOJ chief bared.

De Lima said the NBI team, which also investigated the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scam, has already gathered basic documents related to the alleged DAP anomaly, including Special Allotment Release Orders (SARO) from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).

She added that Justice Undersecretary Jose Justiniano heads the probe team.

The DOJ has been criticized for its supposed “selective justice” in the earlier investigation on the PDAF anomaly.

Only Senators Enrile, Estrada and Revilla – all belonging to opposition parties – have been charged so far for plunder and graft for the alleged diversion of the millions of pesos of their PDAF allocations to Napoles’ NGOs.

Meanwhile, petitioners in the SC decision last week that declared DAP unconstitutional said that the office of the Ombudsman and Commission on Audit (COA) should be the ones to conduct the probe.

In a joint manifesto, they urged the COA to “immediately conduct a special audit on how the DAP funds were disbursed through the specific acts and practices cited as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.”

They said the constitutional commission should also “immediately serve notices of disallowances against all parties involved placing priority on cross-border transfer of funds committed by the executive branch and immediately make public all such reports.”

The petitioners led by former Manila councilor Greco Belgica lauded the Ombudsman office “for stating and making a public commitment to ‘initiate an investigation’ to see if any crime or offense has been committed by involved public officials.”

They said they also appreciate President Aquino “for taking full responsibility for the DAP and controversy sparked by the Supreme Court’s unfavorable ruling... and mounting calls for the resignation of some of his cabinet officials.”

Belgica, president of the group Reform PH, was joined by officials of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption, and lawyers Manuelito Luna and Jose Malvar Villegas in signing the statement. 

Malacañang decried yesterday what it sees as a classic discrimination against the popular administration of President Aquino compared to all his predecessors who also suffered judiciary setbacks but managed to get away with criminal liability.

“To be perfectly honest, this is the first time that the Supreme Court, in declaring an act unconstitutional, extended all the way to liability. It has never been done so,” Lacierda, a lawyer himself, told a news briefing.

“Especially when it comes to the operative fact doctrine, if you go through many decisions in the SC dealing with the operative fact doctrine, it recognizes the law as unconstitutional,” he said, underlying good faith in the executive branch’s acts.

“You cannot undo what has already been done,” Lacierda stressed, thanking the justices for acknowledging the benefits the voided DAP gave to the public in general - in the forms of farm-to-market-roads, classrooms and the like.

What really baffles him is the fact that never has the high tribunal delved on criminal liability of officials even during the term of Aquino’s predecessors who also had their share of policies that were later invalidated by the high court.

Lacierda earlier decried discrimination when talks about criminal liability abound regarding the alleged illegal use of DAP, noting that there were no such things in previous administrations. – With Edu Punay, Aurea Calica

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