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MANILA, Philippines – “’Yung chief of staff po, pumupunta po sa opisina. Kinukuha nila ‘yung pera or sometimes, kasama ho sila sa bangko sa pag-withdraw ng pera.” (The chief of staff, they would go to our office. They would get the money or sometimes, they’d accompany us to the bank to withdraw it.)
Principal whistleblower Benhur Luy and whistleblowers said aides served as the link of alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles to some senators. In exchange, they supposedly got a cut of up to 5% of the project, in addition to perks like sponsored parties and cars.
Jessica “Gigi” Reyes, former chief of staff of Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile, along with lawyer Richard Cambe (chief of staff of Sen Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr) and Pauline Labayen (chief staff of Sen Jinggoy Estrada) were charged with their bosses in the first batch of cases related to the multi-billion peso scam.
Statements of the whistleblowers and former heads of implementing agencies show that senators’ staff members were closely involved in the release of their principals’ pork barrel. From drafting letters to supposedly endorsing NGOs on the senator’s behalf to signing liquidation reports, the staff played an active and powerful role.
What are the rules and safeguards for staff work in the pork barrel process? To what extent do rules allow them to be involved? Should they be involved?
Just cursory checks
Lawyer Rodolfo Noel Quimbo, chief of staff of former senators Juan Flavier and Orly Mercado, said each senator has his or her own internal arrangement for staff handling the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). A Senate employee for 20 years, Quimbo is now director general of the Blue Ribbon Oversight Office Management.
While the chief of staff and political officers are usually in charge of the PDAF, Quimbo said this is not a requirement. He said the set-up depends on how senators run their individual offices.
“Theoretically, even the janitor can be made in charge of the PDAF. It depends on trust. How much trust does the senator have on his or her chief of staff? Two, what is the personality of the senator? Is the senator a control freak or does the senator delegate everything? You have 24 personalities and 24 treatments of staff.”
The only Senate office that screens PDAF documents is the Senate Legislative Budget Research and Monitoring Office (LBRMO), the technical arm of the Senate finance committee. The finance committee handles the national budget.
LBRMO head Yolanda Doblon told Rappler that her office checks whether or not the senators’ proposed list of projects complies with the Department of Budget and Management’s (DBM) guidelines or the so-called menu.
Senators are allotted P200 million in PDAF each year, with P100 million for infrastructure or hard projects and P100 million for “soft” ones. Only 50% of the amount is released in the first semester, with the remaining 50% in the second.
Doblon said the LBRMO checks if the amount listed complies with this rule, and if the type of project and the implementing agency are included in the menu. The LBRMO then prepares the endorsement letter for signing of the Senate finance committee chairman and the Senate President, and sends it to the DBM.
Luy said that in the scam, it was he and other Napoles employees who drafted the listing, which the staff they were in contact with, would edit and submit to the LBRMO.
Doblon clarified that her office just performs a cursory check, typically done in one day. “For example, purchase of ambulances. For us, that is okay, it’s in the menu. But the DBM will require the specification of the vehicle including engine displacement, number of units, name of recipient. DBM does the nitty-gritty.”
“We don’t exercise discretion to disapprove [project listings]. Once it is in the menu, it becomes ministerial for us,” Doblon said. “We don’t know who prepared the list. What we see is the finished product. Our contact with the staff is superficial. We don’t go deep into the preparation.”
Elections, home province and piles of letters
This finished product, the listing, is the result of a process and criteria that vary from one senator to another. While the DBM encourages lawmakers to prioritize 4th to 6th class municipalities, senators have their own considerations and quirks.
As nationally elected officials, senators have wider latitude compared to congressmen, who must attend to their districts’ needs. In Flavier’s case, Quimbo said he and another staffer would choose just about two requests per region from a pile of letters, with a preference for the 20 poorest provinces.
“NCR? ‘Di namin type iyon. (That’s not our type.) Our assumption is it has money. We go for rural areas. We also don’t give funds for medical missions. My boss is a doctor. He doesn’t think they are effective,” Quimbo said of the former health secretary.
A chief of staff of a senator whose term ended in 2013 said his boss’ advocacies determined the type of projects they chose. He spoke with Rappler on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
“When we were chairman of education [committee], we advocated classrooms, schools, chairs, construction of toilets in school buildings.”
Sen Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III’s sister and chief of staff Gwen Pimentel said because the senator is an advocate of local governance, they put a premium on requests of local government units (LGU).
“If we think it’s really of importance to the locality, if it’s a mountainous community, definitely a farm-to-market road is very important to them so we grant it,” said Gwen Pimentel.
The finance officer of an incumbent senator said his principal frequently funded projects of his home province even if they have a policy of not being repetitive in choosing areas. The staffer also chose to speak anonymously.
Pork as political tool
For all of senators’ peculiarities, what is common for most is the use of their PDAF in aid of election.
“It’s quid pro quo,” said the finance officer. “Let’s help those who helped us as long as it’s in the menu. We have a map of where we won in the last elections. If there is a request, we check: ‘What was our ranking there?’”
Quimbo said this is why political staff traditionally handled the PDAF, being familiar with the senator’s standing and allies in an area.
He said it also explains why some lawmakers do not miss photo opportunities during inaugurations and allow their names and faces to be plastered on the project billboards or tarpaulins. During campaign sorties, legislators tick off the schools, hospitals and buildings their PDAF financed in various towns.
“It is a political tool. That has always been the treatment of PDAF. How much power a senator gives to his subordinates in decision-making, where to put, how much to give, is fraught with political implications. Of course, pork barrel in the Philippines is discretionary,” Quimbo said.
“The standards are really different. Assuming the scam to be true, then their standard would be: ‘How much will I get out of that?’”
Projects located in the 4th to 6th class municipalities or indigents identified by DSWD
|Source: DBM Circular No. 537||Source: Interviews with senator’s staff|
Micromanaging and great temptations
A contentious issue in the scam is the senator and staff’s signing of endorsement letters.
In the case of Enrile, he wrote the Commission on Audit (COA) confirming that he authorized Reyes and his deputy chief of staff Jose Antonio Evangelista to sign papers on his behalf.
Documents from the National Bureau of Investigation show Evangelista wrote the National Agribusiness Corp endorsing a supposed Napoles-linked NGO, a choice COA and senators said, violated procurement laws. Yet Enrile’s lawyer told Rappler in a previous interview that the senator never authorized his staff to allot his PDAF to NGOs.
In Revilla’s case, COA chief Grace Pulido-Tan said he (Revilla) confirmed the signatures in documents included in the COA report to be his and his staff’s. Now he is saying the signatures were forged.
The Senate staff who talked to Rappler said it is usually their principals who sign the letter addressed to the LBRMO and communication to fellow senators and heads of agencies. They said they only sign letters responding to beneficiaries.
They also said that they did not write implementing agencies. Nor did they follow-up requests because the lawmaker’s role ideally ends after the DBM releases the Special Allotment Release Order (SARO).
They stressed that staffers’ role must be limited and must exclude implementation.
The finance officer quipped, “Alangan kami pa maghahalo ng semento?” (Do they expect us to be the ones to mix the cement?)
Gwen Pimentel said that while staffers research on the beneficiaries, they rely on the accreditation that agencies give to NGOs. They also expect COA to monitor projects, with the staff playing only a supporting role.
“If you can’t even trust a government agency, who will you trust? Your own people? Do they have the capability and resources that a department is supposed to have? Of course not. Everybody has a role to play.”
Senators implicated in the scam use the same argument as an excuse, but Quimbo said there is a rationale to limiting the intervention of the senator and the staff.
“I was surprised that this is too micro. Because this is too micro, the temptation to make something out of it for personal benefit becomes stronger because you practically intervened from the general process up to the last signature,” he said.
The other chief of staff of a retired senator said having a limited role does not absolve the senator’s office of liability. As a precaution, some staffers avoid projects most vulnerable to abuse like skills training and farm supplies while others do not engage with NGOs.
“When you accepted the pork, you have the responsibility to make sure it’s used properly. You may not be able to check everything but at the back of your mind, you have the mentality that constituents must benefit from this,” he said.
A chief of staff’s nightmare
Despite best efforts, there could have been times, staffers said, their boss’ PDAF may have been misused. Requiring photos and completion reports of the project is not a guarantee of regularity.
Quimbo cited an instance when a mayor sent them a photo of a road in Lanao funded by Mercado’s PDAF. To his surprise, he saw an “eerily similar” photo sent to another senator. “Did the mayor do double funding? I don’t know.”
The former chief of staff of the senator who recently retired was alarmed when he watched the Senate hearings on the scam. He was chief of staff for 12 years.
“It’s a nightmare to me because it was the same process we used when we entered into a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with Gawad Kalinga. It was common for us to deal with NGOs but of course we don’t deal with non-existent NGOs and we asked them to go through the process of the agency first and submit requirements to COA.”
“Everyone is walking on a tight rope. With all the projects we endorsed over time, it’s really possible malusutan ka (something will slip by you) except the difference is if it happens, it happens just once but that’s still a nightmare,” he added.
No consensus on PDAF
With so much discretion and a system prone to abuse, the staff members said setting rules within the Senate could have helped cut down the loss of taxpayers’ money. One possible rule is prohibiting the staff from signing on behalf of the senator.
“Now, it’s his testimony versus her testimony: did I authorize you or not? Who will the court believe? With this rule, if the senator wants to do something wrong, he will think twice because he knows that’s his signature. The downside is, there will be no flexibilities allowed in the office,” Quimbo said.
Traumatized by the controversy, the former chief of staff of the retired senator said no amount of rules will be enough.
“The abolition of the pork barrel is an idea whose time has come. After Napoles, you realize that even with the best intentions, you can be a victim of these kinds of scams. We see this as a time of cleansing, renewal.”
Senators’ right hands though believe that the problem does not end with abolishing PDAF.
“Remove legislators’ discretion but what is the alternative? The executive should step up and offer a better system for health care, education. You also cannot say the legislator should not have a hand in the budget planning. They were elected to be the people’s voice and that’s checks and balances. It cannot be a dictatorship of the executive on where government resources will go,” Gwen Pimentel said.
Like their bosses, staff members do not have a consensus on what to do with the PDAF. Yet they agree that public outrage and the fallout from the scandal deeply affect the people working for the tainted institution.
“Hindi mahirap if all these people acted in good faith. Ang problema, hindi,” said Quimbo. (It would have been easy if all these people acted in good faith. The problem is, they did not.) – Rappler.com
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