Escudero: Probe ‘pork’ instead of piecemeal exposé

Sen Francis Escudero addresses his colleagues' reluctance about investigating the pork barrel scam

WHY PROBE? Sen Francis Escudero says an exhaustive Senate probe on the pork barrel is better than the "piecemeal reports" coming out of the media.

MANILA, Philippines – Instead of a striptease and blind item exposé, Sen Francis Escudero said Congress might as well conduct a full-blown investigation into the pork barrel scam and Customs corruption.

Escudero defended his call for the Senate to investigate the two controversies after the chamber’s leadership shot down the idea. Some senators and congressmen were tagged in the scandals.

He responded to statements from Senate President Franklin Drilon and Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano that probing the multi-million pork barrel scam is not advisable because of conflict of interest.

Drilon said he prefers to wait for the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to complete its probe on the issue before holding a Senate inquiry.

READ: Should Senate probe pork barrel scam? 

“The difference with a Senate probe is that statements are made under oath and in public. Besides, the NBI is already making public the witnesses’ statements,” Escudero said in the Kapihan sa Senado press briefing on Thursday, August 1.

He added: “At least the public will have the chance to hear and know the revelations. It’s not piecemeal, that whatever the reporter wants to write, that’s the only thing that comes out.”

The Philippine Daily Inquirer exposed the pork barrel scam allegedly committed by Janet Lim-Napoles’ group, citing affidavits and interviews with supposed whistleblowers. 

Rappler’s investigation – based on state audit reports over a 5-year period – showed that the list of lawmakers and NGOs involved is much longer than what the whistleblowers provided. Not all of them are identified with Napoles.

READ: Admin solons linked to pork barrel scam

READ: Almost half of PDAF goes to favored NGOs

Escudero also responded to comments that the public will doubt the results of a Senate probe into its own members.

“It’s not our objective to investigate each other. The purpose is to clean the institution…. I hope the Senate will not turn its back on this opportunity. At least if we have it face to face, [senators] have the opportunity to confront their accusers.”

While he defended his position, Escudero said it will be up to the Senate majority to decide on whether or not to push through with investigations. 

The senator filed resolutions calling on the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee to investigate the pork barrel scam, and the so-called padrino or patronage system in the Bureau of Customs (BoC).

READ: ‘Reveal Customs padrinos in Senate probe’

Blue ribbon committee chairman Sen Teofisto “TG” Guingona III has yet to indicate whether or not he will act on the resolutions.

In contrast, the minority in the House of Representatives is pushing for a congressional probe on the pork barrel scam.

On the Customs patrons, Escudero commented on the statement of Sen Antonio Trillanes IV that there is no need for a probe because he already knows the identities of the politicians backing Customs officials.

“Hindi ko kilala, baka kilala niya. Ayoko mag-akusa nang wala akong basehan. Hearsay ang ‘may nagsumbong na bata ni ganito o ganyan.’ Bilang abogado, hindi ko gawain mag-akusa,” Escudero said.  

(I don’t know them, maybe he does. I don’t want to accuse without basis. It’s just hearsay if you say that ‘so and so is backed by this politician.’ As a lawyer, I don’t make it a habit to accuse people.)

Trillanes said even President Benigno Aquino III knows who the patrons and corrupt officials are, and only executive action is required to reform the BoC.

READ: Aquino knows ‘padrinos’ in Customs – Trillanes 

‘Nothing wrong with pork released to LGUs’

Escudero also disagreed with the proposal of Sen Miriam Defensor Santiago to phase out the pork barrel or Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) by 2016.

He said he is in favor of reforming the use of the fund, and not its abolition.

“If it’s a line item in the budget, there won’t be that much objection because you can see and guard if it was used properly. Members of Congress can stand by how they used their PDAF.”

In the 2014 budget, the PDAF was included as a line item in the budget, meaning its specific use was outlined in the General Appropriations Act (GAA). Escudero is the chairman of the finance committee, which handles the budget.

On Wednesday, Santiago issued a resolution to gradually abolish the pork barrel and to impose limits on its use.

Escudero said he was also against Santiago’s proposal that local government units be made ineligible to receive pork barrel. Santiago said the PDAF should also not be released to NGOs.

“I never allocated my PDAF to NGOs or people’s organizations but I allocate it to LGUs. LGUs are not fly-by-night. There is a mayor that you elect and an institution,” Escudero said.

Only one agency accrediting NGOs

Escudero also had a different opinion on the government’s plan to designate the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) to screen and accredit NGOs receiving PDAF.

Santiago opposed this, saying it will politicize the DSWD. Escudero though said having one “clearing house” will ensure accountability.

“What is happening now is if there is an anomaly with the Department of Agriculture, the NGO blacklisted there will run to another department and get funds there. At least, with a singular accreditation process, not necessarily the DSWD, you will have one agency or committee overseeing this.”

Escudero said this will prevent finger-pointing, which is what happened when the scam was exposed.

“Now, the NGOs and the agencies blame each other. At least with this system, there is one agency that will say, ‘We accredited that. We have the liability.’” – Rappler.com