Trouble at the top
President Benigno Aquino III’s nationally televised speech last week on the pork barrel scandal has set off a new round of infighting among the Chief Executive’s inner circle, sources told the Manila Standard Sunday.
The sources said the President’s men were elbowing each other to do damage control and to arrest the decline in Mr. Aquino’s public approval rating in the wake of the scandal and revelations that the Palace channeled billions in off-budget funds through the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), including extra allotments of pork in 2012 to lawmakers who helped oust his political enemy, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court.
These same sources added that the President’s speech Wednesday night aggravated the rift between Interior and Local Governments Secretary Manuel Roxas II and Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr.
In the aftermath of the televised address, the Roxas camp claimed “75 percent of Filipinos felt positive about the speech” while the Ochoa camp referred to it as the “speech fiasco” that triggered more public outrage over the misuse of discretionary funds.
“It was Mar [Roxas] who persuaded President Aquino to make that speech to address the nation ahead of the three-day holiday,” one of the Palace sources, who was privy to the brewing power struggle, told the Manila Standard.
“The idea was to steer the public discourse in favor of the administration and the outrage to be directed at the opposition whose three senator-members were accused of plunder,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Roxas, the source said, assigned Palace historian Manuel L. Quezon III to draft the speech that the critics claim was patterned after the 1973 “I am not a crook” speech by US President Richard Nixon, who was hounded out of office in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
Ochoa was opposed to the President personally defending the DAP, sources said.
He blamed the leaders of the ruling Liberal Party, specifically Senate President Franklin Drilon and Budget Secretary Florencio Abad for “miserably mishandling” the pork barrel scam crisis.
Weeks before the speech, Ochoa already made some changes in the communications group of Malacanang, assigning Herminio Coloma as the presidential spokesman in place of Edwin Lacierda, who engaged former senator Joker Arroyo in a verbal spat that tarnished the image of the President.
“The reshuffle was triggered by the sudden drop of the President’s approval rating by 15 percent in national surveys done by the Social Weather Stations,” the source said.
“But panic ensued when after the SWS survey, an independent and internal survey showed a huge drop of 35 percent. Both camps went into panic with the Ochoa camp pinning the blame even more on the Liberals and the Liberals strategizing how to arrest the flagging ratings,” the Palace source said.
While the speech was being drafted and reviewed by the President, the source said, Roxas’ camp tried to keep Ochoa in the dark.
Ochoa opposed having the President defend the DAP now that its legality was being questioned before the Supreme Court.
“Jojo Ochoa only learned that the President was to deliver that speech when the Palace announced shortly before noon that it asked all TV networks to spare airtime for the President’s announcement at 6:30 p.m.,” the source said.
“Jojo demanded that he be given a copy of the speech to check on its content as the Palace announced it was all about PDAF [the Priority Development Assistance Fund or pork barrel] and DAP, which was against his advice,” the source said.
Roxas, he said, did not immediately accede to Ochoa’s demand.
“It was not until 5 p.m. that Ochoa saw the speech and so he told the Roxas camp to move the schedule until after he had gone through the speech and made any necessary revisions,” the Palace source said.
Ochoa, the source added, made some “last minute revisions” and took out lines that would make the President sound too defensive.
Ochoa, he added, also took out some lines that had been used already when he also defended the DAP in a presidential forum hosted by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines.
Ochoa tried to reason with the President, saying “there was nothing new in the speech.”
“Ochoa thought it was to save the Liberals from the public outrage because of the blunders committed by Drilon and Abad on the DAP issue. Ochoa said it was at the expense of the President,” the source said.
“The general sentiment from the Ochoa camp was that the Liberals were using the President’s clean and untainted name to salvage the tainted image of Drilon and Abad, whose trust rating dropped significantly,” the source said.
President Aquino, however, said he needed to address the public and make it clear that the outrage should not be directed at him since he was the one running after the corrupt government officials.
The President was able to deliver his address to the nation at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday.