Public accountant figured in fertilizer, pork rackets

She was the public accountant at the heart of an alleged P432-million (S$12.5 million) fertilizer fund scam engineered by then Agriculture Undersecretary Jocelyn "Joc-joc" Bolante in 2003 which was exposed by journalist Marlene Esperat who was later murdered.

Ophelia Agawin was subsequently cleared in that case and has since been promoted assistant secretary for finance in the Department of Agriculture (DA) and gatekeeper of nongovernment organisations (NGOs) sanctioned to accept state money for livelihood projects for the last two years.

Agawin is again in hot water after pork scam whistle-blower Merlin P. Sunas tagged her as a conduit of a web of fake NGOs controlled by Janet Lim-Napoles who has been accused of systematically pillaging state funds by undertaking ghost farm projects and paying off lawmakers and state officials.

Agawin and Bolante were among 11 DA officials and businessmen who were sued by Esperat in 2003 for buying overpriced fertilizer without any bidding from Philippine Phosphate Fertilizer Corp. (Philphos) worth P432 million.

The two and their codefendants-former Agriculture Secretaries Luis Lorenzo Jr. and Arthur Yap; DA officials Edmund Sana, Ibarra Poliquit, Belinda Gonzales, Eduardo Garcia; and businessmen Jesus Varela, Benjamin Tabios and Pepito Alvarez of Philphos- were absolved by the Ombudsman in 2008.

The scam was believed to be the precursor of the P728-million fertilizer fund scandal that also involved Bolante and Napoles, whose Jo-Chris Trading (named after her daughter Jo Cristine) was the second biggest supplier of the liquid fertilizer distributed to allies of then President Macapagal-Arroyo in 2004.

Napoles visits

A DA official, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, claimed that Napoles, the alleged leader of the network of 20 bogus NGOs, had been an occasional visitor of Agawin and her immediate boss, Undersecretary Antonio Fleta, at their second floor office in Quezon City since 2011, when the department tightened accreditation of NGOs in the wake of reports of irregularities from the Commission on Audit.

The DA source said the staff remembered Napoles' visits because of the boxes of pizza and trays of noodles and spaghetti she brought for the staff and the long meetings between Napoles and Agawin and Fleta, who shared adjoining rooms.

"The staff was always full when she came that's why they remember her. She always came with two assistants, including Benhur Luy, that's why he was familiar to the staff when he came out to expose the pork barrel scam," the source said.

Napoles has denied having anything to do with Luy, Suñas and the fake NGOs bilking state money.

President Aquino has ordered Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala to respond to the allegations, according to presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda. "Secretary Alcala is ready to respond to all these allegations, so that's not a problem for us. If there are new claims, Secretary Alcala will respond to them," Lacierda told reporters Thursday.

Alcala said Thursday an inquiry on the alleged release of state funds through his office to bogus NGOs was expected to produce results within the week. He said he was just waiting for Agawin's explanation.

He denied endorsing questionable projects but added that programs of accredited NGOs were being "revalidated" in light of the whistle-blowers' claims. "It's difficult when just anybody can dish out mere accusations," he said. "It's not that easy to nurture a reputation."

Alcala said that people in the department, including himself, had worked so hard and should be judged by their accomplishments. One such feat that Alcala proudly points to is his claim that the country is now "practically self-sufficient" in the supply of rice and corn following heavy investments in strategic agricultural infrastructure the past three years.

He expressed disappointment at the Inquirer's headline in its July 31 issue, which stated that he was himself implicated in the alleged scam. "The text of the story is fine but the headline jumps to a conclusion," he said. "I should have been given a chance to explain. I don't deserve this."      

Accrediting dubious NGO

Meanwhile, Agawin is lying low. Alcala said she had been going to work religiously, attending meetings and doing her tasks as usual. She declined the Inquirer's request for an interview as well as an offer for her to air her side on the matter.

Sunas as has told the Inquirer that 11 pet projects of eight representatives in the 15th Congress were endorsed for funding by Alcala in 2011 using Kaupdanan para sa Manguguna Foundation Inc.-Masbate Rep. Scott Davies Lanete (P30 million), Lanao del Sur Rep. Mohammed Hussein Pangandaman (P15 million), An Waray Rep. Neil Benedict Montejo (P14.2 million), Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab (P13 million), Bukidnon Rep. Florencio Flores Jr. (P6 million), Abante Mindanao Rep. Maximo Rodriguez (P5 million), Camarines Sur Rep. Arnulfo Fuentebella (P5 million) and Davao del Norte Rep. Antonio Lagdameo Jr. (P1 million).

Agawin accredited Kaupdanan even though it had been under fire from the Commission on Audit for its alleged involvement in the P900 Malampaya fund scam said to have been orchestrated by Napoles and former Agrarian Reform Secretary Nasser Pangandaman.

The Inquirer has requested a copy of the DA-accredited NGOs in the last three days but the DA has not responded to it.

DA group from Quezon

Fleta is among a core group of officials from Quezon province who were brought to the department by Alcala when he took over in 2010. Upon his entry, Alcala reappointed Agawin and promoted her assistant secretary in February 2012.

Fleta is closely affiliated with the Abono party-list group whose representatives and kin allegedly coursed their pork barrel funds to a fake Napoles NGO, the Social Development Program for Farmers. They were Robert Raymund Estrella of Abono (P31.5 million); Conrado Estrella III (P20 million) and La Union Rep. Victor Ortega (P10 million).

Alcala himself and his appointee, Agriculture Undersecretary Claron Alcantara, were charged in the Ombudsman for disbursing P3.5 million in pork barrel funds to a dubious NGO when Alcala was a Quezon representative in 2008.

Alcala allocated the money to the Alcantara's family-run NGO, Sir Pelagio Alcantara Development (Spade) Foundation Inc., which made a commitment to give P50,000 each in capital assistance to 65 farmer families, a number of whom have denied receiving the amount.

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