Source of fake SARO? House has 2 versions of the story

(UPDATED) Cagayan Rep Baby Aline Alfonso says it was from a staff of the appropriations committee; the Speaker says it's from Zamboanga City Rep Lilia Nuño's staff

NO PROBE YET. Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr says Cagayan Rep Baby Aline Vargas-Alfonso called him on Friday, November 29, 2013 to explain her alleged involvement in the fake SARO case. Photo by Rappler

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – It’s the subject of a probe by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), a possible inside job at the Department of Budget and Management, according to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima.

But how did one of the fake special allotment release orders (SAROs) for agricultural funds got in the hands of Cagayan Representative Baby Aline Vargas-Alfonso’s chief of staff?

In an interview with reporters on Monday afternoon, December 2, Speaker Feliciano “Sonny” Belmonte Jr said Alfonso told her in a phone conversation that the fake SARO came from a staff of the appropriations committee.

Hours later, the Speaker issued a statement to clarify that the dubious document was not from the appropriations committee but from the chief of staff of Zamboanga City Representative Lilia Nuño.

Belmonte said earlier: “Apparently the guy from the [appropriations committee] is a good friend of her chief of staff.” Belmonte had talked to Alfonso on the phone.

“Her chief of staff is one of those who has been working here for many years and has been the COS of Cong X, etcetera, and not somebody she brought along. And that fellow is apparently the good friend of an official here, who has moved from one congressman to the appropriations committee. They know each other and they talked to each other,” Belmonte said.

Philippine Daily Inquirer report on November 25 revealed an ongoing investigation into a case of fake special allotment release orders (SAROs) amid a supposed news blackout imposed by Budget Secretary Florencio Abad on the matter. 

The fake SAROs were reportedly released to mayors for P879 million worth of farm-to-market roads in Region II (Cagayan Valley).

Not the appropriations committee

Hours later, Belmonte issued a statement to the media, clarifying what he told reporters in an interview earlier.

His statement read: 

Upon further inquiry, we have found out that the photocopy of the fake Special Allotment Release Order (SARO) came from the staff of Congresswoman Lilia Nuño of Zamboanga City, Emmanuel Raza, who requested Appropriations Committee staff Jose Badong if he knew someone from the Office of Congresswoman Baby Aline Vargas-Alfonso, because he (Raza) has a copy of the SARO for Region 2. Badong, who knew Bong Pelonio, Vargas-Alfonso’s Chief of Staff, gave the alleged SARO to Mr. Pelonio.

The Committee on Appropriations has no knowledge or hand in the issuance of said fake SARO. The Appropriations Committee does not issue or receive any SARO. SARO’s are sent directly by DBM to the implementing agencies.

The Office of the Speaker supports the investigation being undertaken by the NBI. 

Belmonte’s statement did not explain how the photocopy of the fake SARO ended up with Nuño’s staff. 

The powerful appropriations committee, chaired by Davao City Representative Isidro Ungab, is in charge of preparing the annual national budget. 

Inside job at DBM too

Earlier, Justice Secretary De Lima said the Department of Agriculture (DA) was alerted of the bogus SARO after the staff of a then unidentified congressman from Region II presented the document to a DA regional field unit. 

Alfonso’s aide, Enrico Arao, has admitted to “hand-carrying” the fake SARO himself but claimed he was unaware it was fake. 

Alfonso has also maintained that she had “no notion” of what’s going on and was unaware of operations involving the fake SAROs, Belmonte said. 

“When it was mentioned to her, she just assumed that it was a regular thing going on. When it was found out that it’s fake, she herself took the initiative to talk to her chief of staff and say, ‘Go to the NBI and give your explanation,'” Belmonte said. 

The Speaker said the appropriations committee staff, and Alfonso’s current chief of staff worked with other representatives before. The Cagayan congresswoman is on her second term.

The NBI has opened an investigaton into the case. On Tuesday, November 26, De Lima said it is “hard to believe” a DBM staff is not involved

No House probe

Despite his revelations, Belmonte said the House won’t conduct an internal probe on the matter yet. 

“I prefer, first of all, for the NBI to get at the bottom of it because apparently it involves other regions,” Belmonte said. “So, I certainly don’t like to pre-empt them and to appear like I’m protecting anybody and I would like to urge any congressman to see to it that if their employees would be mentioned, to go and give their statement to the NBI.” 

The House leader would rather wait for the NBI to establish that the scheme is not an isolated incident. 

“One of these days, I will call the NBI director to give a briefing on what’s going on. If it’s an isolated thing, let us just let them investigate it. Definitely, we will be giving our full cooperation,” Belmonte said. 

De Lima earlier revealed the NBI is also looking into reports that fake SAROs were also issued in other regions, including Region IV-A (Calabarzon), Region VI (Western Visayas), and Region XII (Soccsksargen). Probers have yet to come up with an estimate of how much are involved in these regions. – 

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