MANILA, Philippines – Is there any possibility that senators and congressmen do not know that their discretionary funds go to dubious non-governmental organizations (NGOs)?
Government audit reports, as well as a few other lawmakers, say these elected officials almost all the time choose which NGOs get a slice of their Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).
At the very least, this suggests collusion between lawmakers and these organizations outside government. Documents show that these NGOs continued getting funds even after state auditors questioned their qualifications or the way they handled funds or both.
Rappler studied Commission on Audit (COA) reports on two government-owned and –controlled corporations (GOCCs), which a self-confessed bagman identified as having released lawmakers’ funds to bogus NGOs linked to pork barrel scam head Janet Lim-Napoles.
In exchange for ensuring which NGOs get the funds, lawmakers allegedly get commissions from the NGOs, former Napoles associate Benhur Luy said in an affidavit submitted to the justice department.
At some point between 2007 and 2011, COA noted in its reports on the National Agri-Business Corporation (Nabcor) and the ZNAC Rubber Estate Corporation (ZREC) how senators nominated or endorsed NGOs to implement PDAF projects for them.
During that 5-year period, COA found that P1.35 billion in the PDAF of at least 49 senators and congressmen, coursed through Nabcor, went to 26 dubious NGOs.
They had no track record and no counterpart funds, had interlocking interests, didn’t comply with COA regulations, and failed to provide a list of beneficiaries for PDAF-funded projects.
In a single GOCC, the number of lawmakers and NGOs involved were much more than what whistleblower Benhur Luy had exposed about Napoles. The anomaly is clearly bigger than her and her 5 allegedly bogus NGOs.
Jinggoy, Bong, JPE
“Copies of the letters from the concerned legislators nominating/endorsing the KKFI to implement the projects were submitted,” reads the 2009-2010 COA report on Nabcor.
KKFI or the Kagandahan ng Kapaligiran Foundation Inc received P109 million in PDAF funds “despite its failure to comply with the requisites for entitlement for government funds,” the COA report notes.
The same note was made about Kaisa't Kaagapay Mo Foundation Inc and Infinite Community Integrated Development Support Foundation Inc.
The same conclusion was made in the audit reports on ZREC. Four lawmakers downloaded a total of about P200 million to the now blacklisted Pangkabuhayan Foundation Inc (PFI).
“The offices of Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, Ramon Revilla and Congressman Rene Velarde all nominated PFI to implement their projects,” reads the COA 2009-2010 report on ZREC.
In 2009, Estrada had 3 projects amounting to P110 million that were downloaded to PFI. That was more than half of his PDAF that year.
Enrile’s PDAF funded two projects of PFI totaling P77 million, Revilla had a project worth P10 million.
“Lawmakers choose the NGO 99% of the time,” said a lawmaker, who spoke to Rappler about the process.
While the PDAFs don’t pass the hands of lawmakers, interviewees privy to the budget process explained that solons’ endorsement of NGOs that will get the funds may already be named in the paperwork submitted to the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).
Lawmakers may also “suggest” them to the GOCCs either through letters or verbal instructions, they said.
It is not always a bad thing, they said. Assuming good faith, congressmen, for example, should know “the small community of NGOs” operating in their districts.
A check on the project sites of NGOs questioned by COA, however, shows some congressmen’s PDAFs going to projects outside their jurisdictions.
The money trail
Every year, each senator gets P200 million and each district and party-list congressman gets P70 million in PDAF. The funds are supposed to finance projects that are not prioritized by the national government.
The PDAF is divided into “hard” and “soft” allocations. Hard projects refer to small infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, and drainage systems.
Soft portions refer to scholarships, livelihood assistance programs, medical assistance, and financial assistance to local governments. This is where NGOs are sometimes needed.
Both hard and soft allocations continue to be abused, said anti-corruption advocate Leonor Magtolis Briones, a former national treasurer.
The soft allocations, however, have become more “fashionable” to “corrupt politicians” because “they cannot be seen, unlike bridges or schools,” she said.
Senators are allowed to allocate P100 million to hard projects and P100 million to soft ones. Representatives are allowed to allocate P40 million to hard and P30 million to soft projects.
Bayan Muna Rep Colmenares said he makes sure that projects funded by his soft allocations won’t need NGOs to implement. He puts them in scholarships and medical assistance programs, so the money goes straight to schools and hospitals.
There’s a system and paper trail that should guarantee that pork barrel – hard and soft – are properly spent. A scam can only happen if there is collusion, according to lawmakers interviewed by Rappler.
The money trail starts with lawmakers identifying beneficiaries of their pork barrel allocations. These “nominations” are submitted to the DBM for approval.
The DBM vets the items according to a “menu of options” that guides the use of PDAF. If an item is approved, the DBM releases the money to the implementing agency or sometimes transferred further to GOCCs.
Technically, these GOCCs are supposed to vet the NGOs availing themselves of the funds. But even at this stage, budget and legislative sources said, lawmakers can “whisper” to GOCCs which NGOs to choose.
NGOs have to submit to the implementing agency and the lawmakers various paperwork to show the project was completed.
Conduit NGOs are the trend
There was a time when PDAF scams were mostly about “ghost roads,” “roads that lead to nowhere,” and overpriced bridges.
The lawmakers were accused of pocketing a slice of the pork barrel by making sure their favored contractors got the projects.
In recent years, there have been a growing trend that pork barrel funds are unscrupulously funneled through NGOs and foundations that supply items that could “disappear” – fertilizers, pesticides, and other consumable items.
“It was just recently we have this sudden interest in downloading projects to NGOs,” Department of Budget and Management (DBM) secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad told Rappler executive editor Maria Ressa on #TalkThursday.
It is harder to track them. If it involves a long list of fictitious beneficiaries and forged signatures, it means locating them one by one to verify they received the items.
The earliest scam in soft PDAF allocations was exposed in March 2004. Sen Panfilo Lacson said P1 billion in PDAF meant to buy fertilizers for farmers were used by congressional allies of then President Gloria Arroyo for her presidential campaign.
NGOs were tapped to distribute the liquid fertilizer, but the investigation showed that many of the listed beneficiaries did not receive the items.
A report by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism showed at least 3 of the NGOs that served as conduits in the fertilizer fund scam were run by or affiliated with lawmakers from the then ruling Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats, the political party of President Arroyo.
As in the Nabcor and ZREC funds now, COA noted in the fertilizer fund then: “Congressmen, governors, or mayors…identified the LGU or the NGO/PO as beneficiaries of the fund and the suppliers from whom the farm inputs and equipment should be purchased.”
NGOs as corruption ‘agents’?
The fertilizer fund was released to the Department of Agriculture. Nabcor and ZREC are GOCCs under DA.
Napoles was already implicated in the fertilizer fund mess. She was called to the Senate probe, but she did not appear.
Briones said there are definitely other Napoleses out there “in greater and smaller degree.”
Napoles, Briones added, is for lawmakers who “do not want to do it on their own” and prefer to tap “agents” like Napoles.
“It does not mean Napoles invented it. If the lawmaker has bad intentions, he can create NGOs all by himself. He doesn’t need a third party,” Briones said.
Other lawmakers, she said, don’t choose NGOs as recipients but LGUs run by relatives who are mayors or governors.
Under the pork barrel menu, the lawmakers may allocate their PDAF as “financial assistance” to LGUs.
Malacañang and pork barrel
Speaking to Rappler, Budget Secretary Abad said the government is mulling an accreditation system for NGOs that seek funding from lawmakers’ pork barrel.
But as much as Malacañang has introduced reforms in the release of the PDAF, it is also guilty of misusing the pork barrel as a “political tool."
Then and now, the executive has used the pork barrel as a carrot and stick for lawmakers to support Malacañang's priorities.
Advocates of the abolition of the pork barrel are closely watching how Malacañang and Congress are responding to the new pork barrel controversy.
They said corruption gets worse year after year because when controversies are swept under the rug, politicians are embolded to continue misusing the funds.
This time, said House Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora, they will make sure to get to the bottom of the scam.
He said he wants to give lawmakers the chance to defend themselves, especially for the "majority" who "do not deserve to be maligned by suspicion or be as equally convicted in the public mind as the few who are truly guilty."
And once the guilty parties are determined, he said, "Let us jail whomever deserves to be jailed, and then let us throw away the key." – Rappler.com