Aquino shuns calls to sack Cabinet members in Napolist

MANILA, Philippines – President Benigno Aquino III did not attempt to hide his feelings about calls to fire his Cabinet secretaries who have been linked to the multi-billion peso pork barrel scam.

On Thursday, May 15, Aquino laughed off the call of his critics and said the most crucial question to ask is if there is adequate evidence against the concerned officials.

"The point here is I only have one official family. Do I trust them or not? What is the actual allegation against them?," Aquino told reporters at the sidelines of the inauguration of the San Carlos solar energy power plant in Negros Occidental.

"And I already promised the people – and I think you've seen this – when we have sufficient evidence, we will bring the case to court and that's what happened when we brought the information we had to the Ombudsman." 

The lawmakers are accused of channeling their Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to Napoles' bogus non-governmental organizations in exchange for hefty kickbacks. (READ: Pork tales and Navigating the PDAF scam affidavits)

Napoles has since volunteered information on the scam and offered names of others she transacted with in hopes of becoming a state witness. (READ: Napoles wants to be state witness – De Lima)

The President was responding to questions on the list submitted by Rehabilitation Secretary Panfilo Lacson to the Senate Blue Ribbon committee earlier this week, allegedly from Napoles herself.

The list included 3 Cabinet secretaries – Budget Secretary Butch Abad, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, and Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) head Joel Villanueva.

Aquino defended his Cabinet secretaries, saying it is their right to be be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

He also said it would be wrong for him to fire his Cabinet in response to every criticism against them.

"One of the tenets of our law [is] 'innocent until proven guilty,' not 'guilty until you prove yourself innocent - number one," he said.

"Number two – if our secretaries are doing their work, isn't it that some people will be pleased but there will also be those who won't be? All those who are not pleased – the critics – it's automatic they want the secretary changed. So I wonder when we will have a Cabinet if after every criticism, I remove them?"

A day earlier, Malacañang also dismissed the list that was released to media as a "mere scrap of paper," pointing out the fact that it was part of an unsigned affidavit.

Defending Villanueva

Abad and Alcala have denied the accusations against them, and have been vehemently backed by the President.

On Thursday, Aquino came to Villanueva's defense, and took the opportunity to mention some of his accomplishtments.

The President said Villanueva showed him the alleged request he made for funds, according to the unsigned affidavit. The document allegedly from Villanueva, Aquino said, bore the letterhead of a party list the former lawmaker never ran under.

Villanueva was a congressman for the Citizens' Battle Against Corruption (CIBAC) party list.

"Is that sufficient evidence for me to remove Secretary Villanueva? If I removed him for that alone, I would say: Sorry, there are rumors against you so thank you. Thank you for the 91% of graduates you produced for the semiconductor and electronics industry who were eventually employed. And sorry to the 62% of graduates, previously 26%, that you gave jobs to," Aquino said.

"If I did that, then maybe all the graduates that benefitted from TESDA under Joel (Villanueva) who are upright will be disappointed in me, especially those who will lose opportunities if the replacement I will get is not as good."

Doubting Napoles

Aquino also expressed doubt over Napoles' credibility, questioning why various sets of lists – all supposedly from her – vary in the names included.

The President previously said he has seen two separate lists and have been told of a third, but the lists don't match. All 3 lists allegedly come from the businesswoman.

Aquino expressed his reservations about Napoles while responding to questions on  the call of some senators to recall Napoles and whistleblower Benhur Luy for a hearing to provide clarity amid the emergence of the lists.

"Honestly, where is this all leading to? Let me just go back to the list. Why is one person, at least as far as I know, [has] one list or one set of lists. The [number of senators] is 11 [in one list] and another list from the same person says 14? So why do you keep on changing [it]? Will you help clarify the discussion or are you out to muddle it?," he said, apparently referring to Napoles. 

"If we keep exploring the accusations, maybe they want us to ask for a time out so that no cases will be filed eventually. So of course, we have to be careful of that possiblity."

The President admitted he prefers to "just go straight with the process" and leave the Office of the Ombudsman to probe the accusations. He also stressed that as far as he knew, the affidavit of Napoles is still a "work in progress."

 He said the way things are going, there might even be "Chapter 3" of the list or a "third revision."

"What if 6 months from now, all those who are not in the current list would be in that [third] list, and those who are there now would not? So it’s important that we get her testimony to help us know the truth instead taking us here and there, as if they want to make us so dizzy and torn apart. We won't allow that," he said.   Rappler.com