September - December 2007
Power and poisons
Public Eye

No coming-out party for PLLO

PLL…WHAT? Medy who?

It had always been an obscure office, at least as far as the public was concerned. But now that the Presidential Legislative Liaison Office (PLLO) seems to have suddenly emerged from the shadows and pushed under a very glaring — and very public — spotlight, few are liking what they think they see: yet another government office that has developed a habit of getting involved in scandals.

SHOW ME THE MONEY. Pampanga Governor Ed Panlilio holding a bundle of the “cash gift” he was given in a meeting in Malacañang. [photo by Joe Galvez]

Just recently, for example, PLLO Undersecretary Mercedes ‘Medy’ Poblador and the office’s de facto manager, Undersecretary Joaquin ‘Jake’ Lagonera, were named as among those who distributed the now infamous bundles of cash to local government officials visiting the Palace. A few weeks earlier, at a Senate hearing, Poblador was also mentioned as being allegedly instrumental in preventing then intelligence service agent Vidal Doble Jr. from revealing more about the ‘Hello Garci’ tapes.

Poblador has since lashed back, telling the Philippine Star newspaper that she was being “pilloried” and “vilified” for her perceived power and close ties with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. She also said she was not even at the Palace last October 11, when the likes of Pampanga Governor Ed Panlilio and Bulacan Governor Jonjon Mendoza each received a bag containing P500,000. Lagonera, who is also the senior deputy executive secretary, meanwhile told PCIJ that he knew nothing about the cash “gifts” and denied that the PLLO had anything to do with these.

If the public is still insisting to think the worst of Poblador and Lagonera, however, that could be partly because few really know what the PLLO is supposed to be doing. Which is a shame because it is an office that is expected to accomplish crucial tasks for the executive branch — tasks that obviously have repercussions for the rest of the country.

Twenty years ago, the PLLO was directly under the Office of the President. In fact, it was formed by then President Corazon Aquino in 1987 to “provide the conduit and the mechanism in promoting presidential legislative initiatives and maintain close liaison with the Congress of the Philippines.” In nongovernment speak, the PLLO was supposed to get lawmakers to act on legislation needed by Malacañang to achieve its goals. Among its first liaisons to the Senate was law professor and Aquino’s special assistant Flerida Ruth Romero, who would later become a Supreme Court justice.

In August 2004, however, President Arroyo abolished the Legislative Office, which was also under the Office of the President. That office’s functions were transferred to the PLLO, which in turn was placed under the coordinative and oversight responsibility of the Office of Presidential Political Adviser. Today the PLLO has 36 staff members, three of whom are undersecretaries, including Poblador and Lagonera. It has offices at the Senate and the House of Representatives, as well as in Malacañang. When the president delivers her State of the Nation Address, she usually drops by the PLLO, near the office of the speaker of House.

Budgets, bills, and building relations

When it is working efficiently, the PLLO fosters closer executive-legislative relations and helps ensure the passage of the budget before the end of the fiscal year, as well as the confirmation of cabinet secretaries in record time. One former PLLO official says that among its achievements have been helping see the passage of what he describes as “quality bills” such as the Securities Act and the ratification of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States.

The PLLO had a budget of P22 million last year, modest for an office that has to deal with over 250 lawmakers and all departments that require legislation. Half of its annual budget goes to the “promotion of presidential initiatives and maintenance of close liaison with Congress, nongovernmental organizations and other interested groups, including monitoring of progress of administration bills.” (An ex-PLLO senior staff member translates that to “phone calls, meetings, and conferences with lawmakers and other interest groups.”) The expansion of its scope of lobbying work, which “includes NGOs and other interested groups,” was put into place in 2005, when Lagonera was given the task of with managing the day-to-day activities of the PLLO.

Gabriel ‘Gabby’ Claudio became the office’s chief in August 2004, when he was appointed President Arroyo’s political adviser. When he resigned due to an ailment last August, the president named National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales as the PLLO’s acting head. Last month, Interior and Local Governments Secretary Ronaldo Puno was given a concurrent post as presidential adviser on political affairs, thereby putting the PLLO under his supervision.

To political analyst Ramon Casiple, Puno’s presence at the PLLO is enough to make it suspect. After all, he says, Puno is “a known operator.” Puno, though, is known to resent being called such, and has repeatedly denied being one. Late last week, he was also busy telling ABS-CBN that it was House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr.’s fingerprints, not his, that appeared to be all over the recent scandals (including the Palace payoffs) dogging the Arroyo administration.

Yet just a few days later, on Oct. 22, fingers seemed to be pointing again in Puno’s direction, at least with regard to the Palace money-giving. In a hastily called press conference, Bulacan Governor Mendoza announced that he was about to be punished for confirming he had been given money at Malacañang. According to Mendoza, the Department of Interior and Local Governments (DILG), which Puno heads, was poised to suspend him.

DILG Undersecretary Austere Panadero has denied this, saying they have no pending case against the freshman governor. But while the attention has now shifted somewhat to the DILG, the PLLO is not yet exactly free from scrutiny, with some observers remaining convinced that its Puno connection means it is part of the Palace money puzzle.

Recipient of requests

In truth, this is not the first time that the PLLO has been accused of handling “tainted” money. In the impeachment trial of President Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada, one of the allegations brought up was that then PLLO manager Jimmy Policarpio received P2 million in jueteng money per month, which he was said to have used “for the media.”

One PLLO insider does say that during the time of President Estrada, the office had to deal with various requests from lawmakers, ranging from the political to the personal. One such request was for a helicopter for a sick lawmaker to be brought to Manila, which Estrada was able to comply with by asking for help from one of his businessmen-friends.

“Sure, he also gave away money,” says the insider, referring to Estrada. “But he did it himself.” And, says the PLLO member, “the highest (amount) was P100,000.”

Former congressman Gilbert Remulla, who was representative of Cavite’s second district for two consecutive terms beginning 2001, says he has “no personal knowledge” of any money being given by the office, although he notes that he was with the opposition when he was at the legislature and “am not known to brown nose.”

“The PLLO is the liaison of the president, who holds the purse strings,” Remulla points out in an emailed reply to PCIJ’s queries. “When it comes to political survival, it is necessary for most legislators (as they believe) to ‘bring home the bacon’ — or pork. The PLLO assists them in this regard….(The) favors are handed out liberally to those who are in positions of influence and those who know how to brown nose.”

Remulla says that the PLLO was “very active in the two impeachment complaints during the 13th Congress.” Then still under political adviser Claudio, the PLLO “would ensure that the opposition would not have the numbers,” says Remulla, and would offer or give the administration’s allies “projects and appointive positions in government…to ensure their loyalty.”

But what about giving away money? One PLLO staff member will only go as far as saying that any cash being given out could not have come from the office’s coffers, considering its relatively small budget.

One thing’s for sure, though, say some ex-PLLO staff members: Their former office has been underperforming and lacking in direction in recent years. They note that for one, the budget has not been approved on time for the past four years. The 2007 budget was approved only last February, right before the 13th Congress ended its session. Priority measures like the one for cheaper medicines remain unapproved. Also gathering dust in both chambers is the Land Use Act and the Public Debt Ceiling Act.

The bumps on the road encountered by Malacañang’s priority bills could have been smoothed over by regular meetings of the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC). It is the PLLO that coordinates with lawmakers to attend the LEDAC meeting and “shepherds” them when they arrive in Malacañang. The council, composed of 20 members from both the executive and legislative branches, had regular meetings during the Ramos administration. But according to Lagonera, LEDAC has met only thrice so far this year.

Unconfirmed appointees

On top of this, most cabinet members have yet to be confirmed by the Commission on Appointments (CA). Last week, 11 Cabinet members were deemed bypassed when both chambers went on recess; they had to be reappointed, even though some of them have been occupying their positions for over a year now. Last February, the president had to reappoint 12. Among those whose appointments have yet to be confirmed are Finance Secretary Margarito Teves, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr., Trade Secretary Peter Favila, Environment Secretary Lito Atienza, Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya Jr., and DILG Secretary Puno.

When Policarpio was still managing its affairs, the PLLO was active in pushing for the confirmation of cabinet appointments, says a CA insider. “This time,” he says, “the CA even had to issue a memo to get Cabinet officials to submit documents so hearings on their confirmation can start.” He adds that the PLLO has even become so scarce that he no longer knows who is calling the shots there.

Yet there was a time when the office’s low profile was not considered a problem at all. Former senator Rene Saguisag, who was part of the first post-EDSA Senate, doesn’t even remember ever dealing with the PLLO. He says that even amid the intractable debates on the fate of the U.S. bases in the Philippines, the PLLO’s brand of lobbying in the Senate was “based on the merits” of keeping the U.S. facilities.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. also recalls the PLLO personnel during the Aquino administration as “very low-key” and “hardly visible.”

“They just informed us of the priority bills needed by Malacañang,” says Pimentel. “Hindi tulad ngayon na parang nagma-manipulate (Unlike these days when they seem to be manipulating us).”

Casiple puts it this way: “The PLLO was a good idea during the time of President Aquino. Marami nang bad idea ngayon (Today there are many bad ideas).”