DOJ eyes bigger fish behind SARO scam

THE Justice Department said Monday it is not ruling out the possibility that someone higher than the so-called “supremo” is behind the syndicate that falsified special allotment release orders (SAROs) in the Department of Budget and Management.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said investigators of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) were pursuing this angle, apart from the possible involvement of Budget Undersecretary Mario Relampagos.

De Lima earlier said Relampagos was among those being investigated because some of his staff, including his secretary, driver and janitor, had been implicated as members of the syndicate.

“The investigators are particularly interested in Undersecretary Relampagos,” she said.

De Lima also disclosed that the DBM official has already submitted a statement with the NBI, explaining his side of the SARO controversy. She declined to divulge the contents of his statement.

However, a source at the NBI who spoke on condition of anonymity revealed that Relampagos merely denied any involvement in the scam.

De Lima said Relampagos would most likely be invited for questioning.

The Palace said it would wait until the Justice Department concludes its investigation before taking any action. Earlier, it said it would not suspend Relampagos while the probe was ongoing.

“At this point we will just await result of investigation. It is still in progress,” Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma said.

“What is the right thing to do now is to allow the evidence to point the direction of the inquiry,” Coloma added.

The Manila Standard tried to reach Budget Secretary Florencio Abad repeatedly but he did not take calls and did not reply to text messages.

NBI probers have already verified that the SAROs for two projects in Cagayan and Aklan provinces involving projects worth P161 million and P77 million, respectively, were falsified.

De Lima said the initial probe showed that DBM personnel led by a certain “supremo” -- who apparently is a woman -- and the staff of several congressmen were involved in the racket.

De Lima also said that evidence pointed to a consultant of Aklan Rep. Teodoro Haresco as source of the two fake SAROs. Before being elected congressional representative, Haresco was a party-list representative.

De Lima said the probers are also determining if higher officials were involved in the scheme.

“So far, there is no indication that the congressmen were aware of this. The NBI only established so far involvement of congressional staff,” she said.

De Lima gave the NBI until end of this month to complete its investigation and submit its report.

The fake SAROs were discovered in November at the height of the pork barrel mess involving businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles who allegedly used non-existent foundations to divert Priority Development Assistance Funds and Malampaya Funds with the help of several lawmakers and implementing government agencies.

Leaders at the House of Representatives said they would not conduct their own investigation into the fake SAROs and leave it to the Justice Department.

House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Jr., AKO-Bicol party-list Rep. Rodel Batocabe, 1-BAP party-list Rep. Silvestre Bello III, in separate interviews with Manila Standard, said they see no need for a congressional investigation.

“Let the NBI [National Bureau of Investigation] continue its investigation,” Belmonte said.

Batocabe agreed, saying a congressional investigation would only duplicate the Justice Department efforts.

Bello added that it would be moot and academic to put up measures to safeguard the integrity of SAROs since the Budget Department has already discarded the use of the documents.

But ABAKA party-list Rep. Jonathan dela Cruz insisted that Congress should conduct its own probe.

“Definitely, Congress should investigate this and not leave everything to the NBI and DOJ,” Dela Cruz said, even as he urged his colleagues to act on his pending resolutions on fake SAROs.

“I have filed two resolutions long ago on DBM practices including the fake SAROs. In fact the latest is in the COA [Commission on Audit] report on the 1,358 missing fake unregistered and double numbered SAROs which put into question 42,398 DBM-issued SAROs with a face value of P1.942 trillion,” Dela Cruz said.

He said the fake SAROs were “the biggest scam” that should not be left to the executive branch to investigate.

But Belmonte said he doubted if SAROs can again be falsified since they have been abolished under the 2014 national budget. -- With Maricel V. Cruz and Joyce Pangco Panares



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