First of Four Parts
HOW DO you square a circle?
That’s a puzzle that has perplexed geometers for centuries.
Yet Malacañang and Congress say they have found a way to square the circle of abuse and misuse of pork: a bundle of tentative, broad strokes of a “new mechanism” to expunge the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), by name at least, in the 2014 General Appropriations Act.
A month after President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III announced his intention to abolish PDAF, however, this much-hyped “new mechanism” for disbursing pork barrel funds in lieu of the deletion of the PDAF by name is evidently still a work in progress.
Even senior lawmakers and the heads of executive agencies that will implement pork-funded projects next year at best invariably offer a guarded prognosis about whether the new pork system could finally be free of politics, patronage, and corruption.
In separate interviews with PCIJ, several legislators and government officials say that a few administrative reforms in the disbursement of pork have been outlined. Lawmakers could still get to endorse infrastructure projects for funding, as well as recommend “recipients” for “soft” projects like medical assistance, scholarship, and employment and training for pork funds that will now be downloaded direct to implementing agencies.
It is not clear, however, how the new mechanism will prevent lawmakers from lobbying or negotiating with executive agencies come implementation time — the very part of the pork process that has always been controversial.
Then again, this should be no surprise. After all, the evils of the pork system that President Aquino and Congress now want to wipe out are the very same evils that have marked their record of disbursement of PDAF money in the last three years.
A PCIJ review of data disclosed by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) shows that under the Aquino administration, P60.4 billion of PDAF had been released for 85,534 pork-funded projects of 21 senators and 284 congressmen of the 15th Congress, from July 2010 to June 2013.
The review also shows that the same problems that the Commission on Audit (COA) had raised in its special audit of pork disbursed from 2007 to 2009 under then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo linger still under Aquino’s “Daang Matuwid” government.
Interestingly, too, while lawmakers have argued that the abolition of pork would put indigent scholars and medical patients in peril, PDAF records covering the last three years showed that they got just morsels from the billions of pork pesos spent by the country’s legislators.
In fact, PCIJ’s review shows that livelihood projects, scholarships, and financial assistance to indigent patients each took about P3 billion only, or six to eight percent each of the total pork released from July 2010 to June 2013.
The construction of school buildings and classrooms made up five percent or P2.3 billion of the total PDAF during that period. A total of P1.7 billion was also spent on various social services projects that include medical, transportation, and burial assistance, among others.
These PCIJ estimates are validated by the actual amounts lodged under the budgets of the implementing agencies identified on the DBM website.
The latest version of pork may only serve up the same. By many indications, it is designed to introduce only modest administrative reforms while keeping pork as a purse to fund projects that could project the name and political stock of lawmakers — and scoring them vanity points.
Indeed, the new mechanism rolled out weeks ago with the submission by lawmakers to the Speaker of the House of Representatives of their individual lists of projects to be funded with pork, according to a shorter menu of projects listed by Malacañang.
The House members’ wish lists have not been disclosed but each one will reportedly be allowed to pitch at most five infrastructure or “hard” projects worth P2 million at least, for a total of P24.5 million. Temporary, low-cost infrastructure projects, as well as “consumable” goods and supplies, are now supposedly off the list.
Funds for four other project types — medical aid, scholarship, employment and training, and crisis assistance — will now be lodged within the budgets of the designated implementing agencies of the Executive branch. For these “soft” projects, lawmakers may reportedly nominate recipients only, but not endorse specific projects.
The senators have yet to start deliberations on the proposed 2014 national budget and submit their list of projects for funding.
Under the new mechanism, pork funds will be downloaded direct to six implementing agencies of the executive branch that will submit to open bidding all contracts for pork-funded projects. Lawmakers may no longer designate their favored contractors and nongovernment organizations as recipients of pork money.
In the case of what used to be called “soft projects” such as livelihood and scholarship assistance, lawmakers may still recommend recipients but not projects under the new mechanism.
The lawmaker’s role in pork disbursement will reportedly end once the budget is passed, according to Davao City Rep. Isidro T. Ungab, chair of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Appropriations and a member of Aquino’s Liberal Party.
That, however, is as good as it gets. Other than these details, the implementing agencies will have to work out their own improvised arrangements for parrying the undue interference of lawmakers in rolling out the projects, or insisting on getting the funds to their chosen contractors and beneficiaries — much like during the days of the old pork order.
There are no clear rules on whether the implementing agencies can say no to bad pork projects, or how they should deal with lawmakers who may react to the rejection of their wishes by threatening to have agency personnel reassigned or fired. There are also no procedures on how red flags can be raised to weed out commissions and kickbacks in pork.
At the very least, though, there have been some transparency initiatives involving PDAF, mainly through the online listing of pork projects that the administration started in late 2010 on the DBM website. Indeed, the online pork-project list proved crucial for PCIJ to conduct its review.
For one, PCIJ derived estimates it made using data from the e-Fund Releases section of the DBM website.
Yet while DBM’s database lists PDAF projects by legislator, it does not classify projects by kind. DBM also enrolls multiple name attributes for the same or similar projects (i.e. road repair, repair and rehabilitation of roads, road improvement, etc.), making it impossible to derive accurate estimates for all of the 85,000-plus project entries.
The amounts drawn from the data thus represent only about 72 percent of the value and volume of the 85,000-plus total PDAF projects. Actual figures could be higher because some amounts are entered in the location entry of the project and not in the project title entry where the keyword should be indicated.
Some projects may also overlap with other projects such as “sports-related projects”, which may appear in some multi-purpose building projects or “dredging” in some flood control projects.
To get an idea of the lawmakers’ spending priorities from July 2010 to June 2013, PCIJ created a database of DBM’s 85,534 project entries and programmatically queried for rows using common keywords such as “road,” “multi-purpose building,” “bridge,” “dredging,” “desilting,” or “asphalt” for hard or infrastructure projects, and terms like “indigent patient,” “livelihood,” “scholarship,” “medicine,” “fertilizer,” or “training” for soft projects.
Of the total P60.4 billion of PDAF that had been released to various agencies chosen by senators and congressmen to implement their pet projects in the last three years, 72 percent or P43.64 billion was covered in the PCIJ review.
Best ‘epal’ points
The review reveals that for all the legislators’ supposed concern for impoverished Filipinos who may be denied education or medical care without PDAF, multi-purpose building projects topped the list of the lawmakers’ pork projects in the last three years. One in four projects — with an estimated value of P10.5 billion — went to the “construction,” “repair,” “rehabilitation,” and “improvement” of multi-purpose buildings nationwide in the last three years.
These multi-purpose buildings variably refer to a “covered court,” “sports complex,” “gymnasium,” “barangay hall,” “health center,” “day care center,” “senior citizens’ center,” “police station,” and even “waiting shed.”
Lawmakers have scored the highest vanity points or “epal” values from these projects. All too often, their names and faces are painted on the walls and roofs of multi-purpose buildings as the supposed benefactors or project donors.
Various road and bridge projects come in as the second category of projects funded with PDAF from July 2010 to June 2013. At least 22.4 percent or P9.8 billion of the data covered in the PCIJ review went to these projects, including the “construction,” “concreting,” “completion,” “repair,” “rehabilitation,” “improvement,” “asphalting,” and “re-gravelling” of roads and bridges.
Because infrastructure projects topped the list of pork projects, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) implemented half the total or P30.8 billion worth of PDAF projects covered by the PCIJ review.
Thirty percent or P17.7 billion, meanwhile, went to various local government units or LGUs across the country.
Government hospitals and the Department of Health (DOH), and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) each got P2.6 billion, or eight percent of the total PDAF released in the three-year period.
The Department of Agriculture (DA) and State Universities and Colleges (SUC) each secured a significant P1.1 billion of pork from July 2010 to June 2013.
The review also reveals that the most expensive pork projects during the period were those endorsed by Senators Jose ‘Jinggoy’ Estrada, Juan Ponce Enrile, Vicente ‘Tito’ Sotto III, Gregorio ‘Gringo’ Honasan II, and Franklin Drilon. These projects were implemented by DA, the National Livelihood Development Corporation (NLDC), Philippine Forest Corporation (PhilForest), and DPWH.
On July 4, 2011, a Special Allotment Release Order (SARO) worth P50 million of Estrada’s PDAF was supposedly released to DA as financial assistance “for livelihood projects for micro entrepreneur and small farmers for the implementation of organic farming for high-value crops in various local government units.”
Yet DBM data show a negative P50-million entry on April 18, 2012 under Estrada’s PDAF releases, which could mean that the project was withdrawn.
Estrada still chose the same type of project in 2013, albeit with the recorded worth of P40 million, still lodged under DA.
Honasan, for his part, had P55 million of his PDAF used as financial assistance to Philforest for the Upland Agro-Forestry Development Program in the towns of Mariveles, Bagac, and Pilar in Bataan, and Naquilan and Reina Mercedes in Isabela.
Sotto and Enrile chose livelihood projects to be carried out by NLDC, each costing P50 million. The recipients or the location of the project, however, are not identified by DBM on its website.
P768M via NLDC
In 2010, NLDC implemented projects worth P100 million of the senators’ pork, and P668.65 million of the congressmen’s pork. This was the last year that NLDC served as a PDAF implementing agency.
NLDC accounts head Alexis Sevidal said the agency’s delisting from the 2011 General Appropriations Act (GAA) was considered a relief and a positive response to NLDC’s previous appeals to have it dropped as a PDAF implementing agency. This was because, Sevidal said, “NLDC’s work had been mistaken for dole-outs.”
Sevidal was recently named as one of the 38 in a plunder and malversation case that the Department of Justice filed with the Ombudsman last September in relation to the multi-billion-peso pork coursed through non-government organizations being linked to Janet Lim Napoles.
According to documents secured by PCIJ from NLDC, legislators took part in the identification of NGOs that will implement their projects until actual project implementation, including monitoring and evaluation. Sotto, Enrile, and 78 congressmen then would have played a major, if not the most active role, in the projects that they chose for NLDC to carry out.
NLDC would also evaluate the documents submitted by the NGO and prepare its own evaluation report. But it appears that NLDC acted as witness only upon the lawmaker’s request. The legislator validated the progress report submitted by the NGO, then issued a certificate of inspection and acceptance and endorsed the project’s next phase with authority to release next tranche.
Senator Drilon, meantime, had a P50-million pork project in 2010: the upgrading of the Philippine General Hospital Operating Room Complex. This project, composed of the supply and installation of new surgical lights and new air-conditioning units, and rehabilitation of exhaust system and lighting fixtures, was implemented by the DPWH.
A runner-up of sorts in terms of project cost was one endorsed by Senator Edgardo J. Angara in his home province, Aurora. Forty million pesos of Angara’s pork went as financial assistance to the Aurora provincial government for the “implementation of priority programs and projects.” The same description accompanied P1 million of Angara’s PDAF to the municipal government of Baler, Aurora.
Another P40-million pork project was courtesy of Senator Honasan: rehabilitating a road in Quezon, carried out by DPWH Quezon.
A lot for barangays
In the House of Representatives, the top three most expensive projects were implemented using the pork of Rep. Rodolfo B. Albano Jr. of Isabela, then Rep. Joseph Emilio A. Abaya of Cavite, and then Rep. Ruben B. Ecleo Jr. of Dinagat Islands.
All three congressmen chose LGUs to implement their projects. Albano gave a P35-million financial assistance to Cabagan, Isabela for livelihood projects. Abaya allotted P30 million to Kawit, Cavite for various medical services. Ecleo allocated P21.2 million to Tubajon, Dinagat Islands for the purchase of 77 unspecified “units.”
LGUs are identified in the GAA as designated implementing units of PDAF projects. Barangays, however, are not specifically listed as implementing agency. Ungab, chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, says though that while barangays in towns are not allowed to carry out PDAF projects, those in cities are.
According to COA’s special audit of congressional projects from 2007 to 2009, some funds lodged under barangays were not used either because of the lack of technical capability to implement the project. This in turn had resulted in deficient infrastructure projects.
Yet from July 2010 to June 2013, senators’ PDAF worth about P43.54 million and that of congressmen worth about P1.1 billion went directly to barangays. These include infrastructure projects of Senators Francis ‘Kiko’ Pangilinan, Antonio Trillanes IV, Sotto, Juan Miguel ‘Migz’ Zubiri, Teofisto ‘TG’ Guingona III, Enrile, Pia Cayetano, Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr., and Loren Legarda, as well as various projects by at least 111 representatives.
It seems, though, that the Aquino administration is belatedly trying to put its foot down. This is why President Aquino has now proposed to disallow the use of PDAF for consumable items and short-term projects, for which lawmakers allocated some P2.6 billion in pork money in the last three years.
Over P2 billion went into the acquisition of medicine, training kits, seeds and seedlings, and fertilizer. Half a billion pesos, meanwhile, went to asphalt overlays, dredging, desilting, and re-gravelling.
These projects, in the first place, were not specifically listed in the modified menu that the Aquino government introduced in the 2011 GAA.
In an interview in 2012, Budget Secretary Florencio B. Abad told PCIJ that the menu from which lawmakers were required to choose had been revised to ensure that projects were aligned with the President’s priorities. Abad added that the menu was amended to secure the implementation of PDAF projects from possible leakages.
Despite this, 2012 and 2013 saw Congress passing a budget that had a longer menu of projects than that enrolled in 2011.
The budget in the last two years in fact allowed pork funding for new items such as medicine, sports festivals or sports tournament, school fence and stage, and surveillance and communication equipment. The executive branch’s menu did not enroll the acquisition of fertilizer and seedlings or dredging, desilting, asphalting, and re-gravelling, however.
In the PCIJ interview, Abad explained that questionable, short-term infrastructure projects had been removed because it was difficult to ascertain whether or not the projects had been implemented properly or carried out at all.
“(W)hen they say, re-gravelling, you know, after one typhoon, you’re not able to see or trace whether in fact that road was re-gravelled,” Abad said. “Another one is dredging; it’s underwater so how will you measure, di ba? So in the menu, walang dredging.”
Yet the lawmakers apparently got their way in 2012 and 2013. About P531 million — P192 million for senators and P339 million for congressmen — was spent on asphalt overlay, dredging, desilting, and re-gravelling, according to records from DBM itself.
Senators Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Manuel ‘Manny’ B. Villar Jr., Ramon ‘Bong’ B. Revilla Jr., Sotto, and Angara were among those who allotted the highest pork amounts to these short-term infrastructure projects.
Into creeks, banks, and slopes, they funneled their pork funds.
Defensor-Santiago set aside P30 million for the dredging and desilting of Lukutang Munti Creek at Sitio Lukutang Munti, Barangay San Isidro in Rodriguez, Rizal in 2012.
Revilla, meanwhile, spent P20 million for the bank improvement and dredging of Moonwalk Creek in Parañaque City in 2011. He spent another P10 million for desilting of various creeks and drainage canals in P.F. Espiritu I (Panapaan) in Bacoor City, in his bailiwick Cavite province, in 2012.
Among the House members, Pangasinan Rep. Ma. Rachel J. Arenas spent the most on dredging at P42.45 million, followed by Rizal Rep. Joel Roy R. Duavit (P14.5 million).
“Asphalt overlay” projects secured P37 million from the pork funds of Negros Occidental Rep. Julio ‘Jules’ A. Ledesma IV and P20.9 million from Cavite Rep. Elpidio ‘Pidi’ F. Barzaga Jr.
This time around, DPWH Secretary Rogelio Singson is again saying that such projects are all goners under the new pork system.
“With dredging, you push here, you push there, you earn with every push,” Singson told PCIJ in a recent interview. “But you don’t really improve the waterway. In re-gravelling projects, lawmakers bring one truck of gravel and they earn P1 million out of it.”
“These projects are difficult to track,” he said.
Entitled to pork?
According to Singson, congressmen treat PDAF as if they were entitled to it, which means they can dispense with it any way they want to. To make matters worse, DPWH had no say as to whether a project was good or bad in the old pork system, he said.
Like short-term infrastructure projects, consumable items such as medicine, training kits, seeds, seedlings, and fertilizer are difficult to monitor and are thus prone to corruption. In the first half of the Aquino regime, 11 senators and 151 congressmen spent their pork on items like these.
In the Senate, top spenders on consumables include Senators Manuel ‘Lito’ Lapid, Sotto, and Enrile who allotted P81 million, P42.5 million, and P40 million, respectively, on medical missions, which also cover the provision of medicines.
Senators Pangilinan and Marcos, meanwhile, allocated a total of P23 million of their pork on seedlings and fertilizers.
At least P18 million of Pangilinan’s pork went to the acquisition of seeds, seedlings, and fertilizer in the provinces of Bukidnon, Davao del Norte, Sultan Kudarat, Surigao del Sur, and Batangas in 2012 and 2013.
Marcos spent P5 million on the procurement of organic-based bio-fertilizer and knapsack sprayer in San Fernando, Masbate in 2012.
In the House of Representatives, Las Piñas City Rep. Mark A. Villar, Mel Senen S. Sarmiento, and Josefina L. Joson each spent more than P50 million of their PDAF on medical missions and medicines. — With additional research by Rowena Caronan, Fernando Cabigao Jr., Charmaine Lirio, Rosemarie Corpin, and Charmaine Manay, PCIJ, October 2013