MANILA, Philippines – Less than two weeks before the Supreme Court hears arguments over a controversial spending program of the Executive, President Benigno Aquino III went on national television to defend the way his office had managed public funds.
In a 10-minute speech on Wednesday, October 30, the President reiterated past explanations by him and his Cabinet officials on the legality of the Disbursement Allocation Program (DAP) – the issue being questioned before the High Court – as well as the necessity of his office having discretionary funds for emergency purposes.
Aquino urged Filipinos not to be distracted from what he said was the real issue: the alleged misuse of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) of senators and congressmen.
“Let me make it clear: The Disbursement Allocation Program is not pork barrel. Of the DAP releases in 2011 and 2012, only 9% was disbursed for projects suggested by legislators. The DAP is not theft. Theft is illegal,” he said.
Aquino argued the DAP “is clearly allowed by the Constitution and by other laws,” and that the funds used by DAP came from legal means: savings, above-target collections and new revenues, all “results of good governance.”
He said the DAP was then used to fund “projects that were within the proposed budget and that had a clear benefit to the country.”
The Constitution, they say, gives the President power to realign only savings in the national budget – excess funds after a project has been completed – and not move around items from unfinished and supposedly slow-moving projects, which was how the Executive initially explained the DAP.
The President questioned these criticisms against the DAP in his speech, saying the program had funded infrastructure projects, scholarships, relief for natural calamities, benefits of government employees and “played an important role in our economic resurgence.”
“You can decide for yourselves: Is this wrong? When has it ever been wrong to look for a constitutional way to serve our countrymen more effectively?” he said.
“This economic growth – and its positive effects, which have redounded to our countrymen, especially those in the margins of society – this is the product of principled spending, and not of stealing. Money once pocketed by the corrupt is now being used to help our people, particularly the poor.”
Aquino’s address came after a recent survey showed clear public disappointment over perceived widespread corruption in government. Government spending has been widely criticized after whistleblowers exposed the massive misuse of the PDAF and lawmakers questioned the DAP’s legal basis.
President’s Social Fund necessary
Aquino also defended the President’s Social Fund (PSF), a discretionary fund, and which critics have tagged as the President’s pork.
He said the PSF had been used for occasions when the government “need[s] funds that can be disbursed quickly to meet sudden needs,” such as the Zamboanga conflicts, and rescue and relief operations for Typhoon Sendong.
Since the misuse of PDAF by some lawmakers was exposed, all other discretionary funds in government – including the President’s and the multi-billion-dollar Malampaya fund – had been scrutinized by various sectors, which demanded their abolition.
The President made it clear he disagreed with this perspective.
“Because these funds were abused in the past, people are saying that perhaps we will abuse them today – even if no one has accused us of stealing or using them in the wrong manner. Some propose to remove them completely. Would this be just? If only it were that simple – but what would we then do in case of natural disasters?” he said.
As a senator, he filed a bill limiting the President’s discretion over funds, but has changed his mind since he became President. (READ: Aquino: No to reduced power over discretionary funds)
Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago had made calls to remove 3 off-budget funds out of Palace discretion – proceeds from the Malampaya natural gas project, the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) that primarily funds the PSF, and the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor).
She said these funds should be included in the budget law, which only Congress can allocate.
Aquino did not take up the issue of the Malampaya fund in his speech.
After defending government spending, Aquino said the real issue was being blurred by political opponents.
“I repeat: The issue here is theft. I did not steal. Those who have been accused of stealing are those who are sowing confusion; they want to dismantle all that we have worked so hard to achieve on the straight path,” he said.
Aquino slammed those he believed are behind what he believed was a demolition job: “This is what I say to them: If you think that this will stop me from going after you, if you think that you can divert the public’s attention, if you think you can get away with stealing from our countrymen — you have sorely underestimated me and the Filipino people.”
The President then appealed to the Filipino people to re-focus on what matters: to punish those guilty of pocketing government funds.
“My bosses, we have fought so many battles. And I am grateful that no matter how foul the slander and the sabotage, you never let go, you never gave up,” he said.
“Now, those who have abused our trust want to cast us off the course towards the fulfillment of our collective aspirations. I do not believe that you will let this pass. And so long as you are with me, I will continue to stand for our principles,” he said.
The Department of Justice has filed plunder complaints with the Ombudsman against those allegedly involved in pocketing the PDAF. Janet Lim Napoles, the alleged mastermind of the scam, is accused of conniving with lawmakers to channel their pork barrel to her bogus non-governmental organizations in exchange for hefty kickbacks.
The Supreme Court has also suspended the release of the PDAF and the Malampaya fund pending petitions questioning their constitutionality.