PHILIPPINES - The pork barrel fund is here to stay, but Janet Lim-Napoles will have to face the music for allegedly pigging out on it.
President Aquino on Monday rebuffed mounting calls for the abolition of the lawmakers' Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) from academics and Church and civil society groups outraged by reports of its large-scale misuse over the years.
Addressing the issue for the first time, Aquino said that the clamour against the PDAF, or pork barrel, of senators and congressmen was premised on the notion that it was being misused in its entirety.
"As in everything else, there are good uses, and bad uses," the President told reporters after a speech at the first congress on the Filipino language at Ateneo de Manila University.
"Perhaps the right thing to do is to apply the appropriate punishment for the misuse, but support its good use especially in communities outside the National Capital Region," he added.
The President announced that he had instructed Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to file "a strong case" in court against Napoles, the alleged brains behind a P10-billion scheme that channeled funds over the past 10 years from the pork barrel and other state agencies into kickbacks of up to 60 per cent using dummy nongovernment organisations (NGOs).
"Maybe the first of two to three cases will be filed at the soonest possible time," he said.
Napoles disappeared on Wednesday after the Makati City Regional Trial Court issued warrants for her arrest and that of her brother, Reynald Lim, in connection with the serious illegal detention of her cousin and former employee Benhur K. Luy.
Following his rescue by the National Bureau of Investigation, Luy blew the whistle on Napoles. He said his employer had ordered his detention after she learned that he was out to compete with her. Five other former employees of Napoles in her JLN group of companies have likewise turned whistle-blowers.
The President said the PDAF had many good uses, adding that even the Commission on Audit (COA) had distinguished between its good and bad aspects.
Aquino said that as a congressman, he requested the allocation of his PDAF for the long overdue repair of MacArthur Highway in Tarlac province even though this was a national highway that wasn't covered by congressional funds.
"If we scrap it, then we presume that the national government knows all our needs and attends to these all the time, and I believe that's a little far-fetched," he said.
The COA reported on Friday its special audit showing that at least 74 legislators exceeded their annual allocations of P70 million for representatives and P200 million for senators between 2007 and 2009.
Appalling pork record
COA chair Grace Pulido-Tan said the findings were appalling.
Of the P12.018 billion in taxpayers' money allocated to the pork barrel, only about 10 to 20 per cent were spent on the actual projects, she said.
The COA report identified 371 legislators who accounted for P8.374 billion worth of pork barrel in soft projects, and P32.347 billion in hard projects. The list was topped by former Compostela Valley Rep. Manuel "Way Kurat" Zamora who allegedly received P3.114 billion in pork barrel fund from 2007 to 2009. Another person, a certain Luis Abalos, who was not even a congressman, got P20 million.
Following calls by faculty members from the University of the Philippines for the abolition of the pork barrel fund, social networking sites buzzed with reports of a huge rally being mobilized on Aug. 26 against the PDAF. The proposed P2.268-trillion 2014 national budget includes a P25-billion allocation for the PDAF recommended by Malacañang.
Former National Treasurer Leonor Briones, who is pushing for the abolition of the special purpose funds, including the pork barrel, said on Sunday that the President's daang matuwid campaign would become less credible if he ignored calls for the abolition of PDAF.
"Daang matuwid will be exposed as mere slogan. The people will realise they're not the boss after all. His winning slogan, 'walang kurap…' will lose its meaning," Briones said.
No ready-made answer
On proposals to distribute the pork barrel fund, if scrapped, to priority projects through the Cabinet departments, the President said it was difficult to come up with a ready-made answer for this.
"It should be scrutinized whether it was used rightly or wrongly. If used rightly, I repeat, it should be supported. But if wrongly, it should be put to a stop so it won't be repeated," he said.
Aquino said that during his watch, the number of NGOs that were accredited to be recipients or conduits of pork barrel funds was drastically reduced.
"There are NGOs that are legitimate and don't use the names of bar passers," he said.
"Some steps have been taken to craft safeguards, and so far, the chances to misuse it have been greatly reduced. But I believe that the process could still be improved to eliminate any chance to take advantage of it," he said.
The President maintained that even administration allies would be prosecuted if evidence would link them to wrongdoing.
"As I said in the Sona (State of the Nation Address), wherever the evidence leads us, [charges will be filed regardless of who are involved]," he said.
The President said building a strong case was necessary to ensure conviction, otherwise if the evidence was weak, the culprits would enjoy "get out of jail free cards."
"Since we assumed office, our policy has been to file a strong case to serve a lesson to all, but it's also important to serve justice," he said.
Aquino said he could always promise the swift arrest and quick conviction of the culprits, but he acknowledged that the trial of cases actually took years. The best recourse then, he said, was to file a solid case.