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Monday, March 4, 2024

Senator, Bohol solon face ouster over ‘pork’

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THE Ombudsman ordered Senator Joel Villanueva dismissed from service Monday for grave misconduct, serious dishonesty and conduct prejudicial to the interest of the service for misusing P10 million of his pork barrel in 2008 when he was still a member of the House of Representatives.

Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales also ordered the filing of two counts of graft, one count of malversation of public funds and another count of malversation through falsification of public documents against Villanueva before the Sandiganbayan, the anti-graft court.

Senator Joel Villanueva. (Lino Santos)

Also included in the charge sheet were former Department of Agriculture secretary Arthur Yap, now Bohol representative; Villanueva’s staff Ronald Samonte; agriculture employee Delia Ladera; National Agri-business Corp. representatives Alan Javellana, Romulo Relevo, Ma. Julie Villaralvo-Johnson, Rhodora Mendoza, and Maria Ninez Guanizo, and Aaron Foundation Philippines Inc. president Alfredo Ronquillo.

Morales directed Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III to implement the dismissal order on Villanueva, saying he was found liable for the misuse of his Priority Development Assistance Fund when he was still a party-list representative for the Citizens’ Battle Against Corruption.

But Pimentel said the Ombdusman should settle the matter of jurisdiction before he acts on the dismissal order.

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In the meantime, he said, he would refer the Ombudsman’s letter to the Senate rules committee.

In a statement, Villanueva noted that as far as he can remember, as a minority congressman then, he did not receive that amount. 

He also remembered the National Bureau of Investigation concluded that the signatures on the related documents were forged.  He noted that one of the documents even used a Buhay party-list letterhead, when he was representing Cibac.

“I already filed a motion for reconsideration before the Ombudsman, and will leave it to the Senate President to act on the Ombudsman’s order,” he said.

The Ombudsman said that on June 10, 2008, the Budget Department released P10 million as part of Villanueva’s PDAF to  be used “for the implementation of agri-based livelihood projects in the various congressional districts in Region XI.”   

Two days later, on June 12, Villanueva requested Yap to release the amount to Nabcor as the implementing agency with the AFPI as non-government organization-partner.  

On June 19, Yap and Nabcor entered into a memorandum of agreement.

The respondents used the P10 million to buy various vegetables, such as pechay, radish, string beans, okra and hybrid yellow corn seedlings; liquid fertilizers, and threshers from MJ Rickson Trading Corp. to benefit the municipalities of Pantukan, Nabunturan, Tambongon, Bongabong, Napnapan, Mipangi, Anislagan and Magsaysay in Compostela Valley.

But in-depth field validation and investigation showed these localities were not suitable for farming since the vast majority of land was occupied by banana and coconut plantations, and that not a single name in the list of beneficiaries was a registered voter or resident of the province.

Moreover, the towns’ local officials attested and certified that no agri-based livelihood projects were ever implemented by AFPI. 

The Ombudsman said AFPI did not have the  financial capability to implement the P10-million project with a measly capital stock contribution of only P68,000.

Field investigators said the supplier could not be located in its business address on Martiniko Street, Malabon City, neither was the business entity licensed by the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority or registered with the Department of Trade and Industry.

Villanueva and company submitted fabricated and undated documents to support the “ghost project,” such as accomplishment reports, disbursement reports, acceptance reports and liquidation documents. 

The Commission on Audit issued notices of disallowance on the P10-million transaction on Aug. 12, 2014.

Villanueva, for his part, said his signatures were forged.

“Laws and regulations were disregarded by public respondents when Villanueva directly selected Nabcor and AFPI to implement his livelihood projects and the implementing agency officers accepted and accommodated Villanueva by facilitating the processing and approval of the PDAF releases,” Morales said.

“NabCor officers did not even bother to conduct a due diligence audit on AFPI as to its technical and financial capability and simply accepted and relied on the representation of Villanueva and AFPI to undertake the projects in contravention of existing procurement laws,” the Ombusman said.

Citing Supreme Court jurisprudence, Morales said “in a congressional pork barrel system, it is the legislator who exercises actual control and custody of the PDAF share.” 

Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III and Senate President Pro Tempore Franklin Drilon argued the Office of the Ombudsman has no jurisdiction to order Villanueva’s dismissal.

Sotto and Drilon cited Section 21 of the Ombudsman Act, which excludes members of Congress and the judiciary from the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman.

As chairman of the Senate Rules  committee, Sotto said he will call its members to discuss the latest Ombudsman order.

He said the committee will also study the reasons the Ombudsman ordered Villanueva dismissed.

Interviewed before the start of the session, Villanueva said he was hurt and disheartened by the Ombudsman’s order dismissing him from public service, but remained hopeful that truth and justice would prevail in his favor.

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