FIGHTING corruption has been one of the top priorities of President Benigno S. Aquino III. Or so he claims. He bannered the slogan “kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” during the 2010 presidential campaign.
He promised to be the “most-determined fighter of corruption” in his Social Contract with the Filipino People, the Aquino administration’s platform until 2016.
He also made good governance a cornerstone in the current Philippine Development Plan, promising to curb corruption by intensifying government efforts at detection and prevention as well as resolving pending corruption cases with dispatch.
Yet barely a year before Aquino’s term ends, his administration seems to be falling far, far behind in fulfilling such pledges. Indeed, one of the starkest examples of the Aquino government’s weak response to corruption is its action – or lack thereof – on the controversial cases involving pork-barrel monies.
In fact, rather than being proactive in pursuing those involved in the pork-barrel scam that included government agencies, lawmakers, and bogus nongovernment organizations (NGOs), the Aquino administration appears to have been springing into action only after dogged media coverage on the controversy. And when it does act, those it hales into court are mostly small fry – career civil servants from the middle level down. Interestingly, too, most of the big-fish exceptions belong to the political opposition.
The government, however, has been slow to react to revelations by media that a syndicate of fake NGOs has been siphoning monies from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) – otherwise known as pork barrel – in collusion with legislators.
For sure, there were those who thought Aquino was making good on his promise to combat corruption when his administration went after then Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona and succeeded in having him impeached and then convicted by the Senate in 2012 for not declaring more than US$2 million worth of assets in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) as required by law.
To this day, though, the leaders and most members of the House of Representatives, including the President’s allies who served as prosecutors in the Corona trial, have refused to release copies of their actual SALNs to the public. Only a summary of the legislators’ net worth is what the House has disclosed in its press releases since 2010.
More than words, results
Speed, volume, focus, fairness – a campaign blind to political color or friendship – these seem to be in short supply when it comes to Aquino’s anti-corruption drive. Not surprisingly, it is hard to find enough reason to assert that the present administration has conducted a truly, fully vigorous war against corruption.
- The PDAF scam story broke in the Philippine Daily Inquirer involving eight NGOs connected with businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles in July 2013, and the Commission on Audit (COA) released its special audit report on the abuse and misuse of pork from 2007 to 2009 in August 2013. A month later, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed its first plunder and graft complaint against three opposition senators and five former legislators, and two months later, its second complaint against seven more former legislators. But it was only on Aug. 7, 2015, or 24 months later, when DOJ filed its third complaint against a senator and eight other incumbent and former legislators. Curiously, all three complaints were founded on practically the same sets of documentary evidence and testimonies of whistleblowers.
- In its three complaints, the DOJ has named more than 100 respondents, including only 24 legislators mostly from the political opposition – four senators and 20 former and incumbent members of the House of Representatives.
The Ombudsman has filed charges against three senators and five former congressmen in the Sandiganbayan, indicted a few more, but has yet to finish its case build-up against the rest of the lawmakers named in the three DOJ complaints.
The 24 legislators in the DOJ list make up just a fifth of the 118 legislators that COA said implemented “highly irregular” PDAF projects in tandem with questionable NGOs from 2007 to 2009.
This, in the five-year life of “Daang Matuwid” is by no measure an abundant harvest and, according to both critics and allies of the administration, an apparent case of “selective investigation” or “selective justice” on the part of the DOJ and the administration. To this day though, the Ombudsman’s Field Investigation Office continues to gather documentary and testimonial evidence against the other legislators named in the COA report.
- The COA report offered more than enough documentary and testimonial evidence on the modus operandi of legislators, implementing agencies, contractors, and NGOs, and how they corrupt the flow of public funds. Too, it proposed a menu of corrective measures and reforms that could have been instituted in agencies that have been used as pork funds conduits. The President has abolished pork barrel under the PDAF system, but in its stead allowed the continued flow of monies to bankroll projects endorsed by legislators, in the budgets of executive agencies.
- In a series, more COA annual audit reports followed for the years 2012 and 2013, this time on the same patterns of pork abuse and misuse under the Aquino administration. As with the first report, hardly word, comment, action, or promise of reform was heard from the President about what the government could do better to curb corruption.
Not just PDAF or Napoles
To be sure, the problem is this: corruption is bigger in scope and breadth than all the saber rattling against it could crack.
For one, Napoles is just one of the so-called “service providers” who have supposedly been colluding with lawmakers and officials of various state agencies to pocket funds meant for development projects. Lawyers, prosecutors, and civil servants in the agencies tainted with the corruption in pork say there are several other Napoles-like “service providers.” Thus, the three batches of PDAF cases that focused only on Napoles NGOs would hardly scratch the surface of this multi-billion-peso scam.
For another, PDAF was just one of the multiple lump-sum funds that have been raided, and continue to be raided, by Napoles and Napoles-like service providers and their fake NGOs. Audit reports documenting the abuse and misuse of these funds have not received appropriate action from the President or his Cabinet secretaries.
For a third, filing suit against a few big fish and a multitude of small fry may not at all trigger the right results and behavior among civil servants. Those in the lower ranks are bearing the heaviest punishment for corruption, even as their bosses and the politicians who authored the misdeeds have managed to fly out of the country, hide in opulent surroundings, and escape prosecution.
The COA special audit on the PDAF disbursed from 2007 to 2009 is a virtual road map for licking corruption and fulfilling the promises of “Daang Matuwid.” It reveals that during that period, 82 NGOs implemented 772 projects funded from the pork of a total of 188 legislators amounting to P6.156 billion. But of the 82 NGOs, only eight are controlled by Napoles. COA’s findings indicate that several others are fake and cannot be located at their given addresses.
For this period, the eight Napoles NGOs received only a total of P1.742 billion from the PDAF. The remaining P4.414 billion went to the 74 other NGOs, which, says COA, were selected to implement projects on the “basis alone of the purported endorsement by the sponsoring legislators” – just like the Napoles NGOs.
Lawyers of the DOJ and the Ombudsman, as well as Baligod, say the COA report and the whistleblowers point to at least six to nine more Napoles-like operators or “service providers” who are in cahoots with corrupt legislators and top officials of some government agencies.
Justice Undersecretary Jose Justiniano, who is tasked with overseeing the DOJ’s PDAF investigation, thinks there may even be more than 10. Lawyer Levi Baligod, the private complainant in the first two PDAF cases, has the most conservative estimate: six – based, he says, on the audit report and his own research. The Ombudsman’s estimate is seven more.
More fake NGOs
Baligod says, though, that whatever the number, the Aquino administration should also give priority to the investigation into the non-Napoles fake NGOs. His own research reveals that the sum total of the take of at least six other service providers may be bigger than the Napoles-linked NGOs. This is because, he argues, “they give bigger commissions compared to Mrs. Napoles.” In other words, they may have been been awarded more projects because they gave bigger incentives.
The lawyer of the whistleblowers in the Napoles-linked cases until early 2014, Baligod notes that per project “Mrs. Napoles gives only a maximum of 60 percent (of the project cost) commission. Some of the six give up to 70 percent.”
He named the Kaisa’t Kaagapay Mo Foundation, Inc. (KKMFI) and the Kapuso’t Kapamilya Foundation, Inc. (KapKFI) as examples of NGOs that were seriously competing with Napoles’s operations before her network was shut down.
From 2007 to 2009, COA said KKMFI implemented five projects, channeled through the National Agribusiness Corporation (NABCOR), of the following members of the House of Representatives, totaling P36.86 million:
- Julio Ledesma IV, P26.190 million;
- Arturo Robes, P2.910 million; and
- Al Francis Bichara, P7.760 million.
The projects covered the procurement of livelihood technology kits and seedlings for distribution to 58 barangays in two municipalities and two cities of Negros Occidental, three municipalities and one city in Albay and in three barangays of San Jose del Monte, Bulacan.
According to the COA special audit report, however, the beneficiaries did not receive the goods. Of the 58 barangay chairpersons who allegedly acknowledged receipt of the kits and seedlings, 26 categorically denied receiving the items. Moreover, nine of the 58 were not incumbents during the period of distribution, the report said.
NABCOR files reviewed by PCIJ showed that the same legislators supposedly got bigger amounts: Ledesma, P27 million; Robes, P3 million; and Bichara, P18 million.
KapKFI, for its part, implemented three projects from NABCOR and nine projects from the Technology Resource Center (TRC) amounting to P107.541 million for the following congressmen:
- Roberto Cajes, P12.610 million;
- Michael John Duavit, P4.850 million; and
- Ignacio Arroyo, P6.615 million.
Yet again, NABCOR files reviewed by PCIJ showed bigger amounts that supposedly went to these lawmakers – Cajes, P23 million; Duavit, P5 million; and Arroyo, P22.82 million.
- Edgardo Chatto, P13.440 million;
- Robert Jaworski Jr., P5.760 million;
- Pedro Pancho, P27.106 million;
- Roque Ablan Jr. , P9.800 million;
- Eladio Jala, P13.720 million; and
- Ignacio Arroyo, P13.640 million.
The NABCOR projects covered the procurement of livelihood technology kits, seedlings and farm implements for distribution to 42 municipalities and barangays in the provinces of Rizal, Negros Occidental, Bohol and Bulacan. But COA auditors said that none of the recipients who were interviewed confirmed receipt of the items that were supposedly distributed to them. In fact, 15 categorically denied having received the goods.
Meanwhile, the funds totaling P83.466 million transferred by the TRC to KapKFI for the implementation of nine projects remained unliquidated during the period of the special audit.
Rep. Arroyo had already passed away when COA was preparing its special audit report. COA sought the other legislators to verify their signatures appearing in the pork documents. Most did not reply or tried to avoid directly answering COA’s query. Only three – Pancho, Jaworski, and Chatto confirmed as theirs the signatures on some or all the papers shown them by COA. (See Sidebar)
No summons yet
Yet even with such leads provided by COA, DOJ has seemed disinterested to investigate deeper into PDAF, and especially into cases of NGOs not related to Napoles.
Asked recently why DOJ has yet to summon the officers of NGOs identified as “suspicious” in the audit report, Justice Undersecretary Justiniano replied, “First and foremost, there’s no whistleblower. Whistleblowers greatly help because they provide inside information on the operation of the NGO.”
Too, said Justiniano, the department wanted to focus on Napoles first before embarking on other suspects because the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) lacks manpower.
The DOJ’s proclaimed focus on Napoles, though, does not seem to have translated to a heightened sense of urgency for the department. After all, the latest PDAF complaint linked to Napoles was transmitted to the graft-investigating body only less than two weeks ago—almost two years after the first two complaints were filed.
According to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, this third complaint involves “the third and final batch” of people who will be charged, “insofar as the Napoles NGOs are concerned for 2007 to 2009 COA special audit report.”
With these three complaints, the DOJ has recommended the filing of plunder and/or malversation, direct bribery, and other graft and corrupt practices against over 100 individuals, including four incumbent senators and four incumbent and 16 former members of the House of Representatives,
But a PCIJ review of data shows that the number of lawmakers so far charged is less than one-fourth of the total 118 senators and congressmen that could be indicted based on evidence gathered by COA and whistleblowers.
In its special audit report of the PDAF disbursed from 2007 to 2009, COA named 118 lawmakers as having implemented “highly irregular” projects using their pork barrel. Nineteen other lawmakers, apart from the 118 on COA’s list, appear to have received kickbacks from their pork-barrel funds, as shown from the files of Benhur Luy, a whistleblower in the PDAF scam, as well as from Baligod’s research.
Napoles herself named 20 senators and 100 congressmen in an affidavit she submitted to the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee as having “connections with [her] and received part of the pork barrel.”
Third and last?
De Lima’s recent statements that DOJ’s work is done, with the filing of the third and last complaint has puzzled Baligod. DOJ, de Lima has said, finds no other leads or cases to pursue on account of the COA report and the testimonies of the whistleblowers.
A part of the team that prepared the first, second, and third batches of PDAF cases, he says, “The third batch should have included 29 congressmen, and not just nine. In fact, based on the documents, it should have been 34, but in the course of our investigation we found out that five had died.”
“We were already done with the case build-up against the 29 congressmen,” he continues. “(Way) back June 13, 2014 Secretary de Lima issued a statement promising to file the third batch a week from then because the evidence was already complete.”
“Between then and now I don’t know what happened,” Baligod says. “My assessment is that politics already crept into the process.”
In the DOJ’s list of those who should be charged with plunder and/or malversation, graft, or direct bribery, 14 are identified with the political opposition—all the four senators and at least half of the 20 congressmen. But three of the 24 are high-profile supporters of the Aquino administration: former Citizens Battle Against Corruption (CIBAC) party-list Representative and now Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) chief Joel Villanueva, former Muntinlupa congressman Rufino Biazon, and Cagayan de Oro 2nd District Representative Rufus Rodriguez.
The amount that the 24 lawmakers had allegedly obtained in rebates is huge. Based on Luy’s records from 2004 to 2012, the total reaches P1.017 billion. The kickbacks racked up by Napoles’s client-legislators —61 in all (six senators and 55 congressmen, including the 24 recently named in the DOJ complaints) – amount to about P1.37 billion.
This means that the 37 other client-legislators could have gained about P350 million in total. Compared to the kickbacks of the 24 lawmakers, the 37 other legislators just got one-fourth of the pie; not as huge but a very substantial amount nonetheless. Yet based on de Lima’s pronouncement, these lawmakers may escape formally facing a complaint in relation to the misuse of their PDAF.
But the 25 or so officials and employees of implementing agencies that transferred funds to NGOs for the implementation of various PDAF projects allegedly on the behest of the legislators will not be as lucky. Some of them have been charged with the crime of plunder; most are accused of graft and corruption, violation of ethical standards of public officials and falsification of public documents. Many are now free on bail, but even they are feeling somewhat betrayed. As they see it, they were left with little choice but to follow orders from their bosses; now the order-givers are being allowed to get away and they are left holding the bag.
“Even now that just a few years have passed, all of us have almost been reduced to crawling on the ground,” says a former NABCOR employee. He adds that the scandal “has tainted my person, even my family’s.”
He reasons, “What I’m saying is that not all who were involved in the case are guilty. You also have been employed, you know employees just implement orders.”
Later, however, he concedes that he also had a part in the systemic corruption. Says the former state firm employee: “Lahat may kontribusyon sa corruption, kahit ordinaryong tao. Siguro on our part, natatakot kami, nagpadala kami (Everyone has a contribution in the corruption, even the ordinary people. Maybe on our part, we were afraid, we gave in).” – With research and reporting by Fernando Cabigao Jr. and Malou Mangahas, PCIJ, August 2015