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Investigating the pork barrel scandal

Aug. 06, 2013 at 12:01am
The pork barrel is not a unique Philippine phenomenon. In the United States, pork barrel allocations are known as earmarks that are funds provided by members of Congress to be spent on specific projects in their home districts. Because such projects are not vetted more rigorously as federal spending, pork barrel projects are easy targets of critics against wasteful government spending. For example the Citizens Against Government Waste has been publishing an annual “Pig Book,” taking note of the silliest projects funded by earmarks such as a $1.65 million grant to “improve the shelf life of vegetables” and $50 million for an “indoor rainforest” in Iowa.

That recent brouhaha about the misuse of the Priority Development Assistance Fund or the pork barrel funds is a cyclic phenomenon. As a matter of practice, Congress enacts the Appropriation Act but the PDAF is given in lump sum with no specific projects listed where they will be allocated. While the Department of Budget and Management is given a list of projects for pork barrel funding, the legislator is given enough latitude in identifying his or her pet projects. Along the way, kickbacks and commissions change hands. That to this day no lawmaker has been directly linked to corruption involving the PDAF is, according to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), not due to congressmen’s best behavior, but on a technical detail in the audit system: it is the implementing agency that is audited.

In the book “Pork and Other Perks,” the PCIJ reveals that as early as 1998, then Finance Secretary Salvador Enriquez said that “up to 45 percent of pork barrel funds might have been lost to ‘commissions,’ especially in the case of the money set aside for school and other instruction materials.” He added that kickbacks from public-works projects eat up an average of 30 percent of the total project cost. One will just wonder -- how much of these funds have been lost to corruption since then?

That the use of PDAF by some senators and members of Congress is now again the subject of controversy is not surprising. For so long, the misuse and abuse of pork barrel allocations have been the fodder of rumors and have in fact become the accepted norm. That is why the resolution filed by Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago that would phase out pork barrel of lawmakers by 2016 might just be a step in the right direction. Yet even President Aquino, who is supposedly a staunch anti-corruption advocate, is not so keen on scrapping the PDAF. Irrespective of the merits or demerits of pork barrel politics, when back scratching, pork-barrel rolling are prerequisites to win in an election, compounded by too much discretion on the part of legislators, lack of transparency and accountability, corruption becomes an inevitable by-product.

In the meantime, who will investigate the loss of the P10 billion PDAF funds supposedly used by some senators and congressmen for phantom projects? Logic dictates that Congress cannot launch a probe on itself because of conflict of interest. To quote a Facebook post of the respected journalist Marites Vitug: “An independent and credible body should investigate the pork barrel scam, get to the bottom of this multi-billion peso theft of public coffers. If congress or the senate does it, it would be like asking the mafia to probe themselves and police their ranks.” Indeed, it would certainly be a mistake for the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee or its counterpart body in the House of Representatives to conduct a probe that will eventually implicate many of the members of both bodies. One option is for the investigation to be conducted by the Ethics Committees of both houses of Congress but that would still be questionable as the same conflict of interest obstacles would still be present. Likewise, a probe conducted by the Executive branch would be suspect because many of the departments are perceived as active conspirators in the misuse of PDAF funds.

In my view, the way forward is for Congress to pass a resolution creating an independent and non-partisan fact finding body that will investigate the scandal with impartiality and independence. Such a resolution is necessary because that body must be given adequate powers (to subpoena witnesses and documents, for example) to get to the bottom of the scandal.  Once the investigation is completed, the report of the body containing recommendations on who should be prosecuted and suggested legislation to prevent repetition should be submitted simultaneously to Congress and to the Ombudsman for appropriate action.

A final note: as upset and angry as the citizenry should be about the pork barrel scandal, there is need to caution everyone not to make a sweeping indictment of the whole of Congress or the Executive department. Universalizing corruption is not only unfair but, ironically, such over-generalization will result in no one being held accountable. It would be absurd to investigate everyone. And if everyone were corrupt, who would do the investigating?

Facebook: Dean Tony La Vina Twitter: tonylavs
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