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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Too much tax-payers’ money lying around in the corridors of government and wasted by predatory pols, largely owing to shoddy accounting, zero accountability and a scratch-your-back, I-scratch-yours relationship between two branches of government.



The nation’s attention has been riveted in the past weeks on the pork barrel scams, unleashed by the expose on the Napoles network’s system of operation.  But as we all suspected, the scams appear to be far bigger than anyone thinks---obviously just the tip of the iceberg.

The 462-page special audit report released by COA Chair Grace Pulido-Tan last Friday to media covered the performance of Congress vis-à-vis the PDAF in the Macapagal Arroyo years from 2007-2009.  The audit showed that of some 82 NGOs to which P6.156 billion in PDAF were released and found questionable, 10 of these NGOs were linked to Napoles’ vast web, which managed to corner about P2.157 billion in legislators’ pork allocations.

What this means is that there were (and doubtless are) other scam networks operating in Congress aside from Napoles. These have to be exposed and punished.

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The question is, will the citizenry ever see the real picture, given Congress’ siege mentality---with leaders of both chambers fiercely resisting internal investigation and the tendency to protect one another and cover their tracks?

Moreover, as Chair Pulido-Tan pointed out, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) failed to supply COA with complete records during the investigation, and in fact she was quoted as saying of the DBM, “Ang pangit ng records, very sloppy.”  But citizens could well ask, are DBM records really being kept messy and sloppy in order to hide the truth about those PDAF allocations, which DBM releases to NGOs upon legislators’ say-so, even without verifying these NGOs' mostly bogus existence and track record.

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But more than just PDAF allocations, there’s also the Special Purpose Fund (SPF), informally called the President’s pork barrel, which, as former National Treasurer and lead convenor of the watchdog group called Social Watch Philippines (SWP) pointed out recently, is far bigger than the PDAF but far more difficult to detect as it's not as detailed and specific as budget proposals of regular agencies. Liling Briones asserts that funds under the SPF, once approved, “are far more vulnerable to reductions, transfers and adjustments since they are lump sums.”

SWP computes that the SPF accounts for 22% of the current P2.4 Trillion national budget now under deliberation in Congress.  But SWP also asserts that importance has to be given to SPF items because they are not normally debated in Congress and are less scrutinized by the public.

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But that’s the SPF which is controlled by the President and which Congress ought to scrutinize with a fine-toothed comb but does not---because it’s a scratch-your-back, I-scratch-yours relationship between the two branches. What it all shows is that there’s too much taxpayers’ funds lying around for predatory politicians to seize---owing to the faulty record-keeping and accounting in both branches, and zero accountability of both the Chief Executive and the legislators.

With this as background, be prepared, dear readers, for some indigestion in figures as we go back to Congress.

The COA special audit report provided by Chair Pulido-Tan also showed that aside from the PDAF, there are other sources of huge funds that legislators are able to help themselves to, such as the “congressional initiative allocation” and the “leadership fund.”  These are funds given out to ranking officers of both chambers of Congress and chairs of major committees by the leadership.

In addition, aside from the four or five senators who were cited as involved in the Napoles scam network when it first came to light weeks back, the COA special audit report showed that, to quote Inquirer today, “The lawmakers themselves were not content being the givers of pork. Some took a direct hand in the NGOs that they had chosen to be the recipients of their pork.” The names of former Sen. Edgardo Angara and Reps. Amado Bagatsing, Matias Defensor, Jr., Ma. Victoria Sy-Alvarado, Jeannie Sandoval and Anthony C. Miranda were mentioned in this connection.

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The COA special audit report released by Pulido-Tan, covering only years 2007-2009, investigated congressional fund expenditures released to three national government agencies, four government corporations, five provincial governments, eight city governments including their 109 barangays. Queried as to why the audit confinement only to those areas, she said these had the biggest releases. This is valid for starters.

But when queried as to why the audit report covered only the Macapagal Arroyo years and did not include the three years of the P-Noy administration, the COA Chair replied that when she came into COA in 2010, upon appointment by President Aquino, this audit was already going on. Pressed further, she said that updated report results will be included in audit reports on the various agencies involved in legislators’ allocations---presumably DBM, DSWD, Agriculture and DAR.

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More queries about this COA special audit report: a copy was furnished to the President before it was made public, and this gesture raised eyebrows in a suspicious public. Palace spokesperson Abigail Valte said, however, that this was nothing extraordinary, as it’s done with other government reports. Perhaps, but the COA report is nothing routine, as it zeroes in on “the scam of the century,” and for the moment only on the Gloria years.

Moreover, this special report includes an audit of Tarlac, the President’s home province, which he represented in the House and later the Senate, until he assumed the presidency in 2010.  Did the Palace check out first what went into it? Isn’t COA an independent constitutional commission? 

Then too, it’s a fact established by DBM data that PDAF allocations in the Noynoy years more than doubled those of the GMA years.

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When asked what happened to the audit of the PDAF in the current Aquino years, Valte replied that these have already been uploaded in the COA website. But the question that will linger in citizens’ minds is, why weren’t these data furnished to the general public through the media?  What about those who care to know about the disbursements in P-Noy’s three years but don’t have access to the internet?

The Palace gives the impression that it’s not in a hurry to divulge the PDAF audit results from COA in the Aquino years, but care should have been taken to make this much-awaited full public disclosure as hitch-free as possible, in order to avoid suspicion of a whitewash or laundering of data in the P-Noy era.



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