Philippine government urged to dig deeper into $19m pork scam

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. on Tuesday said the government should dig deeper into the P670 million (S$19 million) in pork barrel funds that allegedly went to dubious nongovernment organisations (NGOs) recommended by 49 lawmakers instead of the targeted Muslim communities.

"If the money ended up with the NGOs and they cannot account for them, certainly that has to be investigated," said Belmonte, a vice chair of the Liberal Party (LP).

The Commission on Audit (COA) said Senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Gregorio Honasan II and 47 administration lawmakers were involved in alleged irregularities in the disbursement of P670 million from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) between 2011 and 2013.

Belmonte said he was vaguely aware that some of the House of Representatives' members coursed their PDAF and DAP through the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF).

With only 67 per cent of PDAF-DAP funds liquidated, Belmonte said the COA should "continue to investigate it and to take whatever proper measures were necessary."

But Belmonte cautioned against generalizing the COA findings to include all of the 47 lawmakers named.

"Those people who have adequately explained themselves, there, I think we should not make them-unless there are evidences against them-we could not keep on bantering their names. But those whom the COA has found unsatisfactory or inadequately documented their liquidation or the destination of their money, that should be followed up," Belmonte said.

Out of the 47 representatives, Belmonte said only 20 or 21 were incumbent and LP members. He said there was no need to call the LP members because he expected them to "voluntarily explain themselves to the COA first and show how the money went to the Muslim organisation."

Belmonte refused to make a "judgment" on the NCMF, an agency of the Office of the President created in 2010 to ensure the well-being of Muslims.

The NGOs involved in the NCMF projects were not owned by accused pork scam mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles. The two pork barrel scam cases filed in the Sandiganbayan involved Napoles NGOs and PDAF transactions released before the Aquino administration.

List incomplete

Navotas Rep. Tobias Tiangco, the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) interim president, was unsatisfied with the COA's work.

"The list is incomplete as there are no bigwigs in it, only members of the Liberal Party who were given crumbs. Pity those who were named even though they only got loose change just to cover up for the rest who could face plunder for the millions they received," Tiangco said.

For Tiangco, the COA report was a "smokescreen" used by Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad and Senate President Franklin Drilon to protect the bigwigs in the LP's inner circle. It's sad that they used those not close to them as sacrificial lambs," he said.

He said it was also possible that the sanitized list was meant to "silence those pushing for real transparency and accountability in the government."

Rep. Leopoldo Bataoil said his P4.47-million livelihood projects for Muslim communities in Pangasinan province's second district were implemented by NGOs under the close supervision of his office.

Bataoil said his projects involved teaching Muslim women to earn extra income from cosmetology, alternative healthcare and fish processing.

Former Rep. Bernardo Vergara made the same assertion, saying he chose to spend P6.82 million of his pork barrel on livelihood projects for Muslim migrants in Baguio City, through NCMF's accredited NGO, Kapuso't Kapamilya Foundation Inc.

"As far as we were told, the NGO was a legitimate outfit authorised by an agency supervised by the [Office of the] President. Why would we assume anything was wrong?" Vergara said.

He said his office facilitated business training in mushroom growing, honey cultivation and the manufacture of soap and candles for Muslims in Baguio, with the supervision of the Office of Muslim Affairs.

Kalinga Rep. Manuel Agyao, who is in Vietnam, called the Inquirer by telephone to say that he received a notice of disallowance for some projects financed by his P5.5-million PDAF allocation. He said he asked the COA to revalidate its findings.

He said Commoners Foundation Inc. and Ito Na Movement Foundation (Itonami), which undertook the livelihood programs for NCMF in Kalinga, submitted documents required by COA for the revalidation.

Kickbacks spurned

The office of former Nueva Ecija Rep. Josefina Manuel-Joson said she did not deal with NGOs and other middlemen.

"All the money for the PDAF of [Joson] was disbursed through the Department of Public Works and Highways, the National Irrigation Administration, local governments and other agencies, and organisations requesting fund assistance," said her lawyer, Chito Lahom.

Lahom said Joson rejected offers of kickbacks from NGOs of up to 40 per cent of the projects.

"I'm surprised with that report because as far I am concerned, the projects were fully implemented and long liquidated," said former Rep. Salvador Cabaluna III of 1-Consumers Alliance for Rural Energy Inc. (1-Care) party-list group.

Cabaluna released P37.5 million from his PDAF for training on soap-making, fish processing, candle-making, jewelry-making, cosmetology, "dimsum delights," hair accessories and trendy balloons.