MANILA - Philippine President Benigno Aquino went on national television Wednesday to publicly declare that he was "not a thief" in an attempt to head off a growing corruption scandal that threatens to derail his political agenda.
In a rare, live address to the nation on TV and radio, Aquino defended hundreds of millions of dollars in government spending that has come under scrutiny as he lashed out at the opposition, saying they were stirring up controversy to divert attention from their own corruption scandal.
"The issue here is theft. I did not steal. Those who have been accused of stealing are those who are sowing confusion," Aquino said.
"I have never stolen. I am not a thief. I am the one who goes after thieves," he added.
Opposition figures and critics have recently attacked Aquino for his use of two controversial funds, the Disbursement Allocation Programme (DAP) and the President's Social Fund, accusing him of using them to buy favours from legislators.
But Aquino countered that the opposition created the controversy after they failed to answer questions about their own alleged misuse of so-called "pork barrel" funds.
Aquino, who was elected in a landslide in 2010 running on an anti-corruption platform, defended his use of the special funds, insisting it was done legally, for urgent cases and for projects that benefited the country.
Public anger over government corruption has risen since a whistle-blower said in August that a businesswoman connived with opposition legislators to syphon off some 10 billion pesos (S$285 million) from a special fund allocated to the pet projects of law-makers.
Massive street rallies have been held to condemn the alleged corruption while squabbling over the issue has dominated legislative sessions.
The woman, Janet Napoles, has since been arrested and the government is preparing graft charges against her and some legislators.
The Justice Department earlier this month, also sought to cancel the passports of three senior opposition senators and dozens of their aides, allies and suspected conspirators to keep them from fleeing abroad to escape charges.
The opposition said Aquino's party is using the issue to "demonise" them and have charged that the president's use of his special funds are no different from their "pork barrel" coffers.
"In the midst of all their extended counter-accusations hurled against me, not once have I heard them say: 'I did not steal,'" Aquino said in response.
"If you think that this will stop me from going after you, if you think that you can divert the public's attention, if you think you can get away with stealing from our countrymen, you have sorely underestimated me," he warned.