Editorial & Opinion

Where will the buck stop?

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Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was not found liable for the P728-million fertilizer fund scam that occurred during her administration elicited profound disappointment among those shocked by the bare-faced gall that surrounded it.

In a decision signed by Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales that was released last week, the Office of the Ombudsman said there was no “factual or legal basis” to declare the former president culpable because the “complainant failed to present any documentary or testimonial evidence proving respondent’s alleged knowledge of, or participation in, the scheme perpetrated by Lorenzo and Bolante.”

Lorenzo and Bolante are Luis Lorenzo and Jocelyn “Joc-Joc” Bolante, former agriculture secretary and undersecretary, respectively. They are two underlings in the Arroyo administration whom the Ombudsman has pinned down as the masterminds of the fertilizer scam, which allegedly diverted millions of pesos of agriculture funds meant for farm inputs nationwide into Arroyo’s campaign war chest for the 2004 elections. The resulting plunder case was filed at the Office of the Ombudsman by former solicitor general Frank Chavez (since deceased), who noted then that the timing of the fund’s release - Feb. 3, 2004, or a week before the start of the presidential campaign - indicated “evident premeditation” in the “systematic plunder of the nation’s coffers.”

Was Chavez exaggerating? Here are the facts: Bolante was the agriculture undersecretary put in charge of disposing of P728 million in fertilizer funds that were required by law to be distributed to farmers through their elected officials. The fund was indeed released to 105 congressmen (P465 million), 53 governors (P405 million) and 23 city and town mayors (P56 million) - who turned out to be allies of Arroyo, or at least supportive of her candidacy against a formidably popular opponent, Fernando Poe Jr. Another presidential candidate, Panfilo Lacson, accused Arroyo of “virtual vote-buying,” with designated governors reportedly allotted P5 million each from the fund; congressmen, P3 million to P5 million each; and city and town mayors, P2 million to P5 million each.

 

In an apparent preview of the much larger pork barrel scam that would explode years later and make a household name of Janet Lim-Napoles, a number of lawmakers and mayors listed as beneficiaries of the fund eventually said they received no money. No farmers also benefited from the largesse. In an election year, the money meant for agricultural development went instead to a raft of lawmakers and local government executives identified with Arroyo; listed among them were then Speaker Jose de Venecia, Roque Ablan, Salacnib Baterina, Enrique Garcia, Wilfrido Villarama, Jose Salceda, Augusto Syjuco, Raul Gonzales, Gerardo Espina, Juan Miguel Zubiri, Robert Ace Barbers, Prospero Pichay, Prospero Nograles, Luis Villafuerte, Faustino Dy Jr., Tomas Joson III - and even Florencio Abad and Benigno Aquino III, then representatives of Batanes and Tarlac, respectively.

So generous was the government with the funds that it even allocated P3 million each to Malabon-Navotas Rep. Federico Sandoval II and Quezon City Rep. Ma. Theresa Defensor, whose jurisdictions were highly urbanized areas with no discernible need for farm fertilizers or implements.

Bolante resigned from the agriculture department in September 2004 and fled to the United States, just before the opening of a Senate inquiry called by Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr. into the anomaly. His request for asylum repeatedly rejected by the US government, Bolante was deported back to the Philippines; he finally appeared before the Senate in November 2008, where he cleared his boss Arroyo of liability in the fund scam. He claimed that the distribution of the P728-million fund “was approved [by the budget department] without the President’s approval.”

 

Now the Ombudsman has declared that in the absence of any incriminating signature on any paper, Arroyo - the main beneficiary of the shower of money distributed to her allies right before her presidential run - cannot be held culpable, even as the facts of the scam themselves remain incontrovertible. As the legal reckoning so far goes, the culpability reaches only as high up as Bolante and Lorenzo - one an undersecretary and the other a department head, working directly under Arroyo and considered by law as her alter ago. Would they have had the temerity to do what they did on their own? And would this administration let the buck stop with them? Inquirer.net

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