Unanimous decision: Senate won’t probe pork for now

'If we decide to investigate, the consensus was nobody will believe us,' says Senate President Franklin Drilon

'NOBODY WILL BELIEVE US.' Senate President Franklin Drilon says the Senate decided as a whole to wait for other agencies to finish probing the pork barrel before deciding whether or not to conduct its own probe. Photo by Senate PRIB/Cesar Tomambo

MANILA, Philippines – Don’t expect to see senators grilling Janet Lim-Napoles anytime soon. 

In a unanimous decision, the Senate agreed not to investigate the multi-million peso pork barrel scam for now. At least 5 of its members and 23 congressmen were tagged in the scam.

Instead, senators agreed in a caucus on Monday, August 5, to wait for the Ombudsman, the National Bureau of Investigation, the Justice Department and the Commission on Audit (COA) to finish their probes on the issue, and then decide whether or not to conduct its own investigation.

“A question was raised by one of the senators: will the public believe the results of our investigation? The unanimous response was no,” Senate President Franklin Drilon told reporters.

Senate Blue Ribbon Committee Chairman Teofisto “TG” Guingona III said he decided to consult all senators about the issue, instead of deciding on his own about the resolution Sen Francis Escudero filed before his committee.    

READ: Should Senate probe pork barrel scam?

Guingona said no voting was done, and even Escudero did not object to the decision.

“The main consideration was we do not want to preempt the investigative bodies…. I told the senators that since this issue of the Napoles case will affect the image, reputation, integrity of the Senate as an institution, I deemed it proper that the Senate as a whole decide on the matter,” Guingona said in reference to Janet Lim-Napoles, the alleged brains behind the scam.

Guingona said after the investigating agencies conclude their probes, the Senate will meet again to decide whether or not to push through with its own investigation. 

Sen Bong Revilla, Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile, Sen Jinggoy Estrada, Sen Bongbong Marcos, and Sen Gregorio Honasan II were named in the Philippine Daily Inquirer reports as among the lawmakers who allowed their pork barrel or Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to be used for ghost projects of Napoles’ bogus non-government organizations.

In exchange, the senators allegedly received commissions.

While the senators refused to give details about the discussion during the caucus, the decision reflected Drilon’s stand.

The Senate President has said that an internal probe will raise questions of conflict of interest. He also said that the public may not believe the results of the Senate’s probe into its own members.

Drilon said after the caucus: “We do not want to run interference, in effect, in football, there’s run interference, we don’t want to do that. We don’t want to conduct our investigation while these bodies are conducting their investigations.”

He added, “The point of we will have conflict of interest was something each senator considered…. If we decide to investigate, the consensus was nobody will believe us.”

Chiz to lead pork reforms

Unlike Drilon, Escudero was the strong voice pushing for a Senate probe on the scam. Last week, he reiterated his position even after his colleagues shot down the idea.

READ: Escudero: Probe pork instead of piecemeal exposé

Guingona said though that Escudero did not object during the caucus.

Instead of immediately investigating the issue, Guingona said senators agreed to talk about how to tighten the use of the PDAF to avoid abuse. 

“What was the discussed was the steps that we should take to reform the pork barrel system. And it was agreed that Sen Chiz Escudero as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee will conduct hearings as to how to make the pork barrel system transparent, and more accountable,” Guingona said.

Guingona said part of the reforms Escudero will discuss will be the resolution of Sen Miriam Defensor Santiago to gradually abolish the pork barrel by 2016.

READ: Miriam to Congress: Phase out pork by 2016

“Sen Chiz will hold a hearing. I’m sure that will be tackled,” Guingona said. 

Santiago filed the resolution last week, saying phasing out the pork barrel is the second best solution to the scam and will be more agreeable to lawmakers.

“Senators and congressmen are expected to pass laws and exercise oversight functions over the Executive Department’s implementation of existing laws. We are not expected to build roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects,” she said.

Many senators though have said they prefer reforming the use of the PDAF instead of abolishing it.

Santiago also suggested stricter guidelines on the use of the PDAF like removing local government units and non-government organizations from the list of recipients.

Drilon has also proposed that the pork barrel be limited to hospitals and schools.

P50M in savings from oversight panels

Besides the pork barrel, senators also agreed in caucus to review bloated and outdated oversight committees.

READ: P500M a year: Will Senate slash bloated committees?

“There is a consensus that we have to rationalize the oversight committees with the end in view of saving funds and at the end of the year, we will be able to save funds, roughly we’re looking at, at least 50 million in savings,” Drilon said.

Drilon said senators have yet to discuss which committees to abolish or cut funding to.

Separate from the 39 regular committees, the 35 oversight panels monitor the implementation of specific laws. Senators have said they have grown in number and budget over the years, with many duplicating the work of regular committees.

The review is part of the Senate leadership’s reforms to cut the budget of the Senate following the Senate fund controversy and the pork barrel scam. – Rappler.com