Ilocos Norte’s tobacco funds go to Imee Marcos' pet projects

MANILA, Philippines – Ilocos Norte’s share of the tobacco excise tax was used to fund the pet projects of Governor Imee Marcos for at least two years, documents show.

Rappler obtained a copy of a Provincial Appropriation Ordinance No. 022-2011 where the Office of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan approved “to set aside” P57.5 million from the province’s share of the tobacco excise tax for the Programang Ikauunlad ng Mamamayan Ekonomiya at Ekolohiya or what local officials call “P Imee.”

"P Imee,” pronounced like the name of the governor, refers to “projects programs and activities to be implemented by the governor,” explained Vice Governor Eugenio Angelo Barba, who is also a cousin of the governor. 

It's not clear what entity "P Imee" is. Barba said "it's just a name... written in the ordinance," prompting allegations that it is a lumpsum discretionary fund for the governor.

The document Rappler obtained is also reflected in an online copy of the 2011 Annual State of Local Governance. The fund transfer was recommended by Barba himself on March 7, 2011, in his capacity as presiding officer of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan. Marcos approved the ordinance on March 10, 2011.

A Rappler source believes this was how the provincial government funded the allegedly questionable purchase of supposedly second-hand, overpriced, and unregistered motor vehicles.

They are now the subject of an investigation by the House committee on good government and public accountability. (READ: House panel wants Imee Marcos to explain P66.45M in 'misused' tobacco funds)

Screenshot of Ilocos Norte's 2011 Annual State of Local Governance Report

P213 million for 'P Imee'?

Leading the probe of the eldest daughter of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos is Ilocos Norte Representative Rodolfo Fariñas, who leads the other political clan that has ruled the tobacco-growing province for decades. The two families were allies until 2015. And Marcos is on her last term as governor.

The probe suffered delays because the documents relating to the purchase of the motor vehicles have been declared missing and the local government officials involved have yet to appear before the House committee. (READ: House cites for contempt 7 Ilocos Norte Capitol officials)

But Fariñas has copies of the missing documents and it's obvious he knows the transactions by heart.

At the continuation of the House probe on Tuesday, May 16, he read out two other appropriation ordinances separately issued in 2013 showing the transfer of more tobacco funds to “P Imee."

The first ordinance signed in July 2013 involved P78.6 million. The other ordinance signed in September 2013 involved another P78 million. These two documents have not been released publicly, however, and could not be independently verified by Rappler. 

Barba, who attended the House probe, noted that the documents shown to him were only a "machine copy." He asked for time to review their records before commenting on the funds trasfer. 

If all 3 ordinances prove genuine, this means that at least P213 million were transferred from the tobacco excise tax fund to "P Imee" in 2011 and 2013 alone.

Barba maintained the money allocated for "P Imee" was not a lumpsump for Marcos. He claimed it still needed accompanying resolutions before it could be spent. 

Fariñas: What is P. Imee?

Barba: To the best of my knowledge it's for projects, programs, and activities to be implemented by the governor. 

Farinas: It's a lumpsum for the governor?

Barba: It's for various projects, your honor.

Fariñas: How was it created?

Barba: It's just a name, your honor. 'Yun lang ang tawag po.

Farinas: Oo nga. Parang DAP. 

Barba: It was just written in the ordinance, if my memory serves me right. 

Barba was also asked to submit to the House committee documents to show how the province's share of the excise tax funds were appropriated. 

Marcos vs Fariñas

Fariñas accuses Marcos of violating Republic Act 7171 – An Act to Promote The Development of the Farmer in the Virginia Tobacco Producing Provinces – for diverting tobacco funds from its intended uses. 

"Ang uses ng shares [from the tobacco excise tax] ng Republic Act 7171 are specific. Hindi po kasama ang motor vehicles (Republic Act 7171 is specific about the uses of the shares from the tobacco excise tax. They can't use it to purchase motor vehicles)," Fariñas said. 

But Marcos could face worse charges as the House probe digs deep into 3 transactions – totalling P66.4 million – to buy the motor vehicles, and several cash advances made by Capitol officials including one that amounted to P32 million. 

Fariñas said Marcos' signatures were all over the transactions. She signed the purchase request, approved the disbursement voucher, and approved the check. 

"Kapag nakita namin yung mga document at talagang may katiwalian, COA (Commission on Audit) na ang mag-file diyan o Ombudsman (If we establish based on documents that there was corruption, it will be COA or the Ombudsman that will file a case agaisnt her)," Fariñas said.

Marcos snubbed the hearing on Tuesday.

In a statement, she said the vehicles were purchased to address farmers’ “need for transport to increase productivity, market produce, and facilitate access to livelihood and training projects.” (READ: House tobacco funds probe 'ironic, unkind,' says Imee Marcos)

Tobacco farmers in the city?

During Tuesday's hearing, former Ilocos Norte provincial auditor Rizalino Franco Jr tried to defend the use of tobacco funds for motor vehicles while Fariñas was sitting beside him. 

Franco said the Annual Investment Plan of the province detailed how the motor vehicles will be used by tobacco farmers for their livelihood.

"[It's for] the development of alternative farming systems to enhance farmers' income po (sir). 'Yung mga vehicles kasi gaya ng mga multicab ay gagamitin to transport 'yung mga products nila (The vehicles such as the minicabs are used to transport their products)," Franco said. 

But Fariñas said among the beneficiaries of motor vehicles was the barangay captain of Barangay Tres, which is at the downtown of Laoag City, where he said there are no tobacco farms.

Franco himself laughed.

"Tignan po natin hanggang saan po ang tawa 'niyo (Let's see how much longer you can laugh) because you approved this," said Fariñas. 

No matter the local politics, the House investigation promises to expose not only how funds for tobacco farmers are misused but possibly how local government officials may have colluded to abuse public funds, and how government auditors have been unable to stop this.

Marcos was invited again to the next hearing scheduled on May 29. – Rappler.com