Palace presses panic button

Two crisis teams tasked to do ‘damage control’

THE Palace now has two crisis management groups to do damage control in the wake of a “quick and huge dip” in President Benigno Aquino III’s approval and trust ratings as a result of the pork barrel scandal, a Palace source said Monday.

The Palace announced Monday that the President has also scheduled provincial sorties to sell his Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), which critics have labeled as presidential pork.

It also denied reports of infighting between the two groups headed by Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. and Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II, over the President’s nationally televised defense of the DAP last week.

“There is no factual basis [to the reports] as far as I am concerned,” Presidential Communication Operation Office Secretary Herminio Coloma said in a text message.

But the Palace source who revealed the rift within the President’s inner circle said the two groups shared a common goal of arresting the decline in Mr. Aquino’s popularity.

“It will be like a 2010 media campaign again or a glimpse of the 2016 campaign, with all political and PR strategists being recalled to mount the massive media campaign, going back to the old platform of governance and slogans against corruption and for transparency and good governance,” the Palace source said.

“But this time, while the strategies are worlds apart, the focus is the President because he was dragged down by the mishandling and bungling of pork barrel issue, particularly caused by the [leaders of] the ruling Liberal Party... such as Senate President Franklin Drilon and Budget Secretary Florencio Abad,” the source added.

The two groups, often at odds, have mobilized hoping for a “quick turnaround,” the source said.

“The pork barrel issue is a concern of the middle class. But the latest survey showed a huge dip in the President’s approval rating even among those in the E-class. These are supposedly the poorest of the poor that are recipients of the controversial Conditional Cash Transfer program, yet the huge drop was recorded in this class,” the Palace source said.

“This is no laughing matter anymore,” the source added. “The two groups are racing to arrest the flagging survey ratings of the President from a drop of 15 percent to 49 percent in September to only 35 percent in October.”

The latest survey also showed that more people now disapproved of how the government was being run when it came to taxpayers’ money.

Ochoa, who leads the so-called Samar group, has replaced presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda, who is identified with Roxas’ Balay group, with Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma.

Ochoa has also recalled all the Samar group involved in the 2010 presidential campaign, including Maria Montelibano and some former staff of Senator Francis Escudero, who also ran a parallel presidential campaign with Ochoa.

Roxas, on the other hand, has tapped Secretary Ramon Carandang and Palace historian Manuel L. Quezon III to work for the Balay campaign group, the source said.

Roxas also tapped as political strategist LP stalwart and former Alaminos City mayor Hernani Braganza to take care of the LP concerns.

Ochoa’s group was only concerned about the ratings of the President while Roxas had to arrest the sagging popularity of the ruling Liberal Party as well, including the negative ratings of Drilon and Abad.

Abad was the first to admit that the “savings” that were channeled through the DAP were used to disburse additional pork allotments to senators and congressmen who helped oust the President’s political enemy, then Chief Justice Renato Corona.

Opposition lawmakers accused Abad and Drilon of bribery because only those who supported Corona’s impeachment were given extra allocations from the DAP.

“Ochoa believes Drilon and Abad are dragging down the President along with them,” the source said.

Palace sources said Ochoa became concerned when Roxas started to assert his role as a Liberal Party leader by going straight to the President without passing through him.

“Roxas had to bypass Ochoa because Ochoa was already complaining about the wrong political strategies being done by the LP in handling the pork barrel issue,” the source said.

The Roxas group kept Ochoa in the dark last week and only gave him a copy of the President’s speech at the last minute.

“Ochoa is becoming worried because the LP wanted the President to save their necks when it was supposedly their job to take the bullet for the President. In this case, it’s the other way around,” the source said.

The source said Roxas was able to persuade the President to deliver his speech last week, which also focused on protecting his allies by asserting that he and his allies were no thieves but were running after thieves.

“True enough, after the President’s speech, Drilon and Abad were all around town echoing the Chief Executive’s lines that the administration was judicious in disbursing and allocating the funds and those in the opposition were the ones who stole the public funds,” the source said.

Drilon, the source said, exerted a separate pressure on the President after the Senate President was convinced that he could not deliver his promise of abolishing the pork barrel allocations of the senators.

“In their being overzealous to extricate themselves from the controversy, the LP leadership committed one blunder after another.

“To make up for his failure to deliver the promise of scrapping the Senate pork, Drilon even tried to salvage the impounded money by getting around the temporary restraining order issued by the Supreme Court and declared these funds as savings that the President can use for calamities. But this move elicited a word of caution from Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr., who said the Senate could not do that without the concurrence of the House,” the source said.

After antagonizing the Supreme Court, Drilon as well as Roxas convinced the President to send a message to the Supreme Court through his speech that the DAP was legal and free from anomalies.

“President got nothing but flak from the public because there was nothing new in what he said and that was precisely the warning issued by Ochoa, but the Roxas camp was aggressive and insistent, a sign that the Liberals are already in panic mode,” the source said.

Asked why the President listened to the Liberals and allowed them to call the shots, bypassing even Ochoa, and to the point of defying the public clamor, the source said the Liberals kept reminding Mr. Aquino that he won the presidency because of the party.

“The President is a Liberal. His fall is also the fall of the Liberals and so he believes he owes it to them to keep the party on top or its leadership beyond 2016 will not be sustained,” the Palace source said.

In a press briefing at the Palace Monday, Coloma denied the Manila Standard account of infighting in the President’s inner circle.

“I would like to make it clear, if we are going to take a look again the at speech, the speech is about the DAP and it is not about PDAF (the Priority Development Assistance Fund or pork barrel), and most especially it was not made to defend PDAF,” Coloma said.

The Standard story did not say that the President defended PDAF.

Coloma also denied rumors that Lacierda will be transferred to the National Economic and Development Authority after engaging former senator Joker Arroyo in a public spat.

Lacierda’s assistant, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte, also denied the rumors.

“No, not true,” Valte briefly said in a text message.

Lacierda, she said, will arrive on Monday night after he had led the Philippine delegation in Open Government Partnership in London last week.

However, when asked if Lacierda would resume his press briefings when he returns, Valte said: “I don’t think so. I know he is representing government in the Bali Democracy Summit.”

Lacierda is the presidential spokesman but Mr. Aquino had earlier ordered Coloma to preside over a noontime media briefing in Malacanang.

This was a departure from a previous system in which Lacierda and Valte conducted press briefings.

Coloma said earlier that he was only helping the Communication Group to communicate with the people about Mr. Aquino’s programs and messages in the “most effective manner”.

Earlier, the Malacañang Press Corps had complained about the lack of immediate and substantial responses from the Palace on issues confronting the Aquino administration on a daily basis.

Also on Monday, Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Zarate said he was not surprised over reports of infighting in the President’s inner circle.

Zarate said that the Aquino government should be able to learn a lesson from the past administration, whose leader was “now residing at the Veteran’s hospital,” in reference to the hospital arrest of former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Zarate said there is no way that the President and his administration could recover from their tattered image, especially President Aquino, who has been labeled the “Pork Barrel King.”

“The only way to arrest the decline of President Aquino’s rating and prevent his further isolation from the people is for him to stop defending the indefensible corrupt-laden pork barrel system, including this now infamous DAP,” Zarate said. – With Sara Susanne Fabunan and Maricel V. Cruz

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