Chiz: Invite media to explain payoffs

Escudero says the Nabcor funds reportedly given to journalists are public funds, and should be investigated by the Senate blue ribbon committee

PUBLIC FUNDS. Senator Francis Escudero said the Nabcor funds reportedly given to journalists are public money, and should be investigated by the Senate blue ribbon committee.

MANILA, Philippines – Senator Francis Escudero said journalists who reportedly received payoffs from the National Agribusiness Corp (Nabcor) should be invited to the Senate probe into the pork barrel scam.

Escudero said TV5 news anchor Erwin Tulfo and GMA7 radio host Carmelo del Prado Magdurulang known as Melo del Prado should be given the chance to explain themselves amid allegations they each got P245,535 from Nabcor in “advertising expenses.” Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said her department will also investigate the issue. 

The senator said the Senate blue ribbon committee has the mandate to invite the two even if they are journalists, not public officials. Escudero is a member of the committee. 

“Unlike other committees that need to conduct [inquiries] in aid of legislation in all hearings, the blue ribbon committee, on top of in aid of legislation, has the power to investigate an anomaly for the sake of investigating an anomaly in government, whether it’s a media man or not who received funds. For as long as that’s public funds involved and it was not spent properly, that’s always an anomaly and corruption,” Escudero told reporters on Wednesday, March 19.

Escudero was responding to a report of the Philippine Daily Inquirer quoting former Nabcor officials as saying that the agency issued checks to the two journalists in 2009. Tulfo denied the allegation while del Prado said he did not want to talk about it.

Former Nabcor official Rhodora Mendoza also said another prominent TV and radio personality received P2 million from ex-Nabcor President Alan Javellana on the instruction of then Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap as “payoff to stop criticism of a Nabcor project.” Nabcor is a government-owned and controlled corporation (GOCC) under the Department of Agriculture.

Escudero said the committee can issue an invitation, not a subpoena, to the journalists and it will be up to them to attend the hearing or not.

“At the very least, we should give them a chance to respond, too. The difficulty with accusations on the front page, headline, the answers are on page 20. At least, they will get the chance to also have their responses and explanations on the front page and headline,” he said. “I think it will be their loss if they don’t explain.”

Escudero said the committee is the proper venue for the investigation because Nabcor does not have its own budget and sources its funds from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) coursed through the agency. 

He added that the Senate should look into the issue of government agencies’ “advertising expenses.”

“That’s one area that the government should check. That was also the issue of another GOCC, the [Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office] where they had an advertising expenditure per PCSO director that went to various uses. That became the subject matter of a COA report and Ombudsman case. It’s a fresh area, good area for legislation and inquiry in aid of legislation,” he said.

In a separate interview, Senate blue ribbon committee chairman Teofisto “TG” Guingona III said the journalists’ alleged payoffs can be the subject of another investigation “if somebody will initiate.”

“But with everything we have that need investigating, we have to prioritize,” Guingona said.

The committee is investigating the multi-billion peso pork barrel scam, where top lawmakers allegedly funneled their PDAF to fake non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in exchange for kickbacks.

‘Committee can already issue report’

Guingona said he will “defer” to the resolution of Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago to summon Mendoza and another former Nabcor official Vic Cacal to the hearing to shed light on their media statements. Yet he said his committee will have to wait for the resolution to be referred to the panel when session resumes in May.

Escudero though said the blue ribbon committee has the power to conduct hearings motu proprio or of its own accord even if session is on break.

The senator also said that Guingona can already issue a committee report on the pork barrel scam involving alleged mastermind Janet Lim Napoles without closing its investigation. After all, the Senate already conducted 10 hearings into the issue.

“There can already be a report, partial or not. It does not mean we should already close the hearings because the Napoles NGOs are just 8 out of the 72 NGOs, and [account] for P2 billion out of the P6 billion in PDAF that went through anomalous NGOs. It’s not even half of the amount wasted,” Escudero said.

Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano also called on Guingona to issue a partial report and move on to the P900 million Malampaya fund scam.

For Senator Grace Poe, the investigation should result to an indictment, and not just a committee report.

“Who would think that PDAF would be abolished? And I think this is brought about by citizen’s participation, social media pressure, and without the Senate hearings I don’t think we could have reached this point. Somehow, in aid of legislation, it is also working. I just hope that we could finally indict someone; otherwise nobody would take the processes of government seriously,” Poe said in a media forum.

Tuason to be summoned again

Cayetano said the Senate should now focus on the Malampaya fund scam, where funds intended for farmer victims of typhoons were also siphoned off to Napoles NGOs.

“It’s the right of the people to know why instead of giving the Malampaya funds to affected farmers, it was even pocketed by people who have no conscience,” Cayetano said in a statement.

Guingona said his committee will likely summon self-confessed pork barrel bagman Ruby Tuason to the Malampaya investigation. The justice department said Tuason got the highest kickbacks in the scam worth P242 million.

“Yes, we will be calling her but we have to review what she said because she said the one involved was her brother. Nevertheless, we will call her just to clarify things,” Guingona said.

Tuason said in her affidavit that her late brother, Remy Chan, was the one who knew about the Malampaya fund scam, and denied involvement in the scheme.

With all the issues before his committee, Guingona said he is not inclined to heed Santiago’s suggestion to investigate the excessive spending for Napoles’ detention at the Fort Sto Domingo police camp in Laguna.

“We will leave that to the executive department. They would be in the best position to take care of that.” – Rappler.com