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Plunder eyed in ‘pork’

Palace vows convictions, plays down 9/11 vigil The Palace on Sunday assured the public that cases filed in connection with the pork barrel scam will result in convictions, even if the lawmakers involved are administration allies. “President Benigno Aquino III has given strict instructions that the investigation must result in strong evidence against those involved. The President does not want the filing of cases to be for PR,” said deputy presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte. She also disputed the opposition charge that the cases would be filed only for show. “What the President wants is that when we file a case against a certain individual, the case is solid and will result in a conviction,” she said. In a television interview, lawyer Romulo Macalintal said lawmakers who are involved in the misuse of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), the official name of pork barrel, may face plunder charges. “If the amount involved is P50 million and above, that can be considered plunder,” Macalintal said. Plunder carries a punishment of life imprisonment and perpetual absolute disqualification from holding any public office, and no bail is allowed. The alleged mastermind of the pork barrel fund, Janet Lim Napoles, has been accused of siphoning off as much as P10 billion in PDAF and channeling it to bogus non-government organizations, while kicking back a percentage of the money to the lawmakers. Valte said the Aquino administration is resolved to ensure that justice is served and those who abused public funds will be held accountable. “We cannot have preconceived notions and preconceived assumptions,” Valte said when asked if the Palace is ready to sever ties with its allies who are found guilty of abusing their pork barrel as well. “What is important is that we will go wherever the evidence will take us,” she added. Valte also said the Palace has no reason to fear the Sept. 11 EDSA Tayo demonstration calling for the abolition of the pork barrel in any form, including Aquino’s own President’s Social Fund and the lump sumps in the Special Purpose Funds. “It is not that the Palace is afraid. But what concerns us is the traffic it may cause as well as the peace and order situation,” Valte said. Organizers of Wednesday’s prayer vigil have already decided to limit the activity from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. as a “traffic management measure to avoid rush hours.” They also denied that the date was chosen because it was the birthday of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos. Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines president Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma said the CBCP is in full support of the peaceful demonstrations against pork barrel. “It’s about time that the people manifest their own conviction. Ours is an expression of solidarity,” Palma said. Valte also expressed doubt that the Zero Remittance Day call for Sept. 19 can also be carried out by overseas Filipino workers, saying it is not the government but the families of the OFWs who will bear the brunt of such an action. According to Bangko Sentral, Filipinos working overseas sent home $10.7 billion in the first half of 2013, 5.6 percent more than a year ago. This means that on a daily basis, the more than 10 million Filipino migrants and contract workers sent an average of $58 million or more than P2.5 billion a day to the Philippines during a six-month period. Earlier, the President said he is open to itemizing his P5.2 billion President’s Social Fund, but said he found calls for its abolition illogical. “Did you notice that no one is saying that the PSF has been abused? But they want it abolished. I could not understand the logic of such calls,” Aquino said. An off-budget trust fund, the PSF is handled by the Presidential Management Staff. “I will authorize the PMS to release to public where we have spent the PSF over the three years that I have served as President and how the PSF has increased during our term because of our careful use of it,” he added. The Palace has also said it will not let go of the lump sum SPF which stands at P957 billion this year, saying it is needed to deal with unforeseen events such as typhoons and other natural disasters. But Social Watch Philippines lead convenor and former national treasurer Leonor Briones said the government must also abolish the SPF. “These are not as detailed and specific as the budget proposals of regular agencies. Once these are approved, they are vulnerable to reductions, transfers, and adjustments since these are lump sums,” Briones said. “As citizens, we should also monitor the other larger lump sums. It is high time to expand the scope of our advocacy from a small portion of the special purpose fund, which is the pork barrel, to the whole SPF itself. In other words why not target the ‘queen bee’ and not just some soldiers and workers?” she added. The chairman of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee on Sunday said his panel would summon Napoles after the whistleblowers against her have testified. Napoles is detained at Fort Sto. Domingo in Sta. Rosa, Laguna, on charges of serious illegal detention filed by her former employee and distant relative, whistleblower Benhur Luy. Before the Senate calls Napoles, Guingona said, Luy and the other whistleblowers must be made to testify before the Blue Ribbon Committee. “There is a need for us to first hear their story before we call on Napoles,” said Guingona. The senator added that his panel is waiting for the whistleblowers to submit their sworn statements to the Justice Department before calling them to the hearing. Last week, officials from two state-owned firms linked to the pork barrel scandal, ZNAC Rubber Estate Corp. and National Agribusiness Corp., told the Senate they were unfamiliar with rules regarding the release of congressional pork barrel. But Senator Francis Escudero, chairman of the Senate committee on finance, said the officials were feigning ignorance, and noted that their companies often appeared as conduits for non-government organizations linked to Napoles. The senator said he was baffled when Allan Javellana, former Nabcor president, admitted before the committee that the mere endorsement by a legislator would prompt them to award a contract to a particular NGO. Escudero said it was incredible for these officials to claim ignorance of the existing procurement lawm which has been in place since 2007. With Macon Ramos-Araneta and Francisco Tuyay
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