Government News Analysis

Spilling the beans on pork

Philippines Senators and "Pork Barrel Scam"
Philippines Senators and "Pork Barrel Scam"

The ‘Pork Barrel Scam’ which hit the administration of President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino in 2013 was one of the biggest scandals of malfeasance and misuse of public money the Philippines has ever produced. And it’s not been short of those. Now, four years on it’s still making headlines. This week, 52-year-old Janet Lim-Napoles, the scam’s alleged mastermind, has implicated a number of other public figures in the PHP10 billion swindle – and, in the Philippines, these are all big household names.

They include (photos, left to right) senators Franklin Drilon, the Senate Minority Floor Leader; Antonio Trillanes IV, who stood as a vice-presidential candidate in last year’s election, and Leila de Lima, Secretary of Justice in the Aquino administration who is presently being detained in Camp Crame, the national police headquarters, on charges of profiteering from the illegal drugs trade. Also named is Florencio Abad, Aquino’s budget secretary.

Although these individuals’ alleged involvement in the scam will come as a revelation to the general public, it’s unclear whether they were already on a list of those suspected of profiting from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) – a discretionary fund by which members of Congress are given money to fund small projects in their home provinces. Annually, each senator receives PHP200m; each member of the House of Representatives gets PHP70m. In the first three years of his administration Aquino dispensed PHP62.5 billion worth of pork.

Certainly, such allocations have been used fraudulently in the past – the fund’s predecessor, the Countrywide Development Fund (CDF), was widely abused. Kickbacks to politicians from contractors for CDF-financed infrastructural works ranged anywhere from 19% to 52% of the project cost.

But the sheer scale of the 2013 scandal, directly implicating politicians from right across Congress, created a tidal wave of public condemnation. It inspired the ‘Million People March’ a mass protest on 26 August 2013 at Luneta Park in Manila, as well as rallies and demonstrations in other major Philippine cities and among Filipino communities overseas. It led to the establishment of the People’s Initiative Against Pork Barrel; the Scrap Pork Barrel Network; the Church People’s Alliance Against Pork Barrel; the Cebu Coalition Against the Pork Barrel System, the #AbolishPorkMovement and many others.

According to the present justice secretary, Vitaliano Aguirre II, these new names may have been collected by the previous administration, but were intended to be part of “succeeding batches that never came”. We’re skeptical about that; there were no members of the Liberal Party among the first batch while three of the new names are Liberal Party figures.

The inclusion of Abad and de Lima on Napoles’ new list is curious, however. When this scandal hit they were members of the Aquino Cabinet; de Lima only entered Congress in June 2016. Thus, how they got access to PDAF handouts is unclear as they wouldn’t normally qualify directly as non-members of Congress. Aguirre promises to explain this apparent anomaly once Napoles has completed her affidavit. That said, Abad’s involvement might not be as a recipient but as someone involved in the scheme itself. And perhaps that’s the same for de Lima.

The scam originally came to light from an exposé in the Philippine Daily Inquirer which showed that Napoles had set up a network of ghost front companies and dummy non-governmental organisations (NGOs) through which to wash and route the funds.

The Inquirer reports, which formed a six-part series, named 28 Congressmen – five senators and 23 House members – as beneficiaries of the scam. They too included some big names, such as then senate minority floor leader, Juan Ponce Enrile, a grandee of the political establishment of which he’s been a member for half a century – he’s been in public office in one form or another under six presidents; former multiple-coup leader and sitting senator, Gregorio Honasan; Senate president, Jinggoy Estrada, the son of former Philippine president Joseph Estrada; Ferdinand Marcos Jr, son of late president Ferdinand Marcos Snr – in short a who’s who of the country’s political blueblood.

Interestingly, when these names emerged back in 2013, de Lima announced euphorically that Napoles has “spilled the beans” on the Congressmen. “Let’s see if in those additional sessions [follow-up interviews with Napoles] what other [information] may be extracted from her,” de Lima said at the time. Well, we are about to find out and it may not all be to de Lima’s liking this time around.

Interestingly too, just days after the scandal originally broke, Drilon proposed scrapping the PDAF. “We should seriously think about abolishing the pork barrel,” he said then. Three months later he went on record personally supporting a Liberal Party resolution to do away with the fund. Of Napoles he’s on record as saying: “I had no transactions with her”.

With regard to Abad – a congressman from 1995 to 2004 and a regular pork recipient for all that time – there are questions that need to be answered. In particular, did his Department of Budget and Management fully cooperate with the Commission on Audit in supplying all the relevant records of how the PDAF payments were allocated and disbursed?

There’ve also been suggestions that Aquino used the PDAF to bribe Congressmen in order to remove Renato Corona from his post as chief justice. Corona was successfully impeached in May 2012. One year later, in a privileged speech in the Senate, Jinggoy Estrada claimed that all but three of the senators had received a PHP50 million payment to remove Corona. That would then implicate Trillanes and Drilon. Marcos was said to be one of those who was not offered the ’30 pieces of silver’. And that would certainly figure given Aquino’s strong dislike of Marcos.

If there was such a scheme, the question is was Abad, rather than Napoles, the real mastermind of the pork-barrel scam? In a sworn statement which Napoles made in 2014 she alleged that it was Abad who taught her how to use dummy NGOs to route the funds. So what was his relationship with Napoles?

And finally, Senator Trillanes. In October 2014, the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) – the political party of then VP Jejomar Binay – drew attention to the senator’s “highly anomalous purchases” of a fleet of between 30 and 40 nationally operating multicabs. He bought them between 2011 and 2013 with his PDAF allocations for PHP300,000 a pop. The ticket price at the time was PHP160,000.

Trillanes’s answer to the challenge was that in fact the cabs had been bought for PHP170,000 – still PHP10,000 above list price – and that the additional; PHP130,000 per cab was for “spare parts” and additional expenses. That seems an extraordinary explanation – but then extraordinary explanations in such affairs in the Philippines are, after all, quite ordinary. He also said that it was local government units that that handled the transaction – “The liability lies on those who purchased the unit and not us”.

However, don’t hold your breath while you wait for any of this to come to court. Of the 28 Congressmen originally citied in the 2013 Pork Barrel Scam, only a handful have been charged and none of those have had there cases heard. Enrile – now 93 – is still yet to make a pre-trial appearance; that’s been delayed several times – the last time because of the “unfinished marking of [19 folders of] evidence”.

The beans may have been spilled but as is so often the case with the Philippines judicial system, they’ll have completely decomposed by the time the courts get their act together. In fact it’s so bad that the judiciary itself is what should really be put on trial.

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