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Aquino may face fund scam raps after term ends
Publication Date : 08-10-2013
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III faces possible criminal charges at the end of his term unless the Palace accounts for billions of pesos in the government’s share of revenues from the operation of oil and gas wells in Malampaya off Palawan province, Senator Ralph Recto said on Monday.
Citing his study of Department of Budget and Management (DBM) documents, Recto said the government had collected some 170 billion pesos (US43.9 billion) in revenues from the Malampaya project since 2002.
The Arroyo administration has disbursed 25 billion pesos, and the Aquino administration, 15 billion pesos, leaving a balance of 130 billion pesos in the Malampaya Fund, Recto said.
“If you ask the DBM about the 130 billion pesos that we have collected in cash, it’s gone,” Recto told reporters after chairing the finance subcommittee hearing on the 2014 budget of the Department of Science and Technology. “I’m not blaming the Aquino administration here. I’m just saying, ‘Let’s put our house in order.’”
Recto said it was about time the DBM explained how the Malampaya Fund was disbursed and how much of it remained from years of collection.
“What about income from Malampaya? Can you spend it for unprogrammed funds? All this should be clarified in the 2014 budget so we won’t make things difficult for the president. A string of charges have been filed against our presidents. In the past, we have removed two presidents. We have one who is detained. Should we allow this to happen again and again without fixing the system?” he said.
After he was ousted in 2001, President Joseph Estrada was convicted of plunder and was pardoned by President Gloria Arroyo. Arroyo, now a Pampanga representative, is under hospital arrest on plunder charges for alleged misuse of funds from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office. Like the Malampaya Fund, the PCSO fund is not part of the general budget.
Recto voiced his concerns four days after Justice Secretary Leila de Lima sent a letter complaint to the Office of the Ombudsman, charging former President Arroyo, three of her Cabinet secretaries and 20 others with plunder for allegedly stealing 900 million pesos from the Malampaya Fund allocated for victims of Tropical Storms “Ondoy” and “Pepeng” in 2009.
De Lima said Arroyo was being charged for her alleged “leniency” in the use of the fund. Her budget secretary, Rolando Andaya Jr., now a House representative, has protested that he was being charged as a conspirator in the plunder case for performing a purely ministerial function.
Recto is the first administration ally in the Senate to warn the Palace of its potential criminal liability for misuse of state funds in the wake of the 10-billion peso pork barrel scam engineered by detained businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles and the controversial Disbursement Acceleration programme (DAP)—impounded government savings from which was sourced, according to the DBM, allocations ranging from P50 million to P100 million given to senators who voted for the conviction of Chief Justice Renato Corona last year.
Former Sen. Joker Arroyo, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago and constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas have said the use of the DAP to pump-prime the economy coursed through the senators as pork barrel funds was illegal.
Fund accounted for
Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said in a text message that the appropriations used from the Malampaya Fund and the balances were all accounted for by National Treasurer Rosalia de Leon.
“The Malampaya Fund is a special account in the National Treasury. They watch over these funds and can better tell you the status of the fund. But as I said there is no 130 billion pesos missing. I am sure of that. The appropriations used are all accounted for,” he said.
Deputy Treasurer Christine Sanchez said that as of August this year, the outstanding balance of the Malampaya Fund was 146 billion pesos. “It’s under a special account in the General Fund,” she said by phone, but deferred to the DBM to further explain this.
The Palace has confirmed spending 15 billion pesos of the fund in 2011 and 2012 for energy-related projects, including the purchase, refurbishing and transport of a US Coast Guard cutter, renamed BRP Gregorio del Pilar. It also confirmed that its outstanding balance is 130 billion pesos, but did not say where the fund is.
Presidential Decree No. 910 of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos provides that royalties and proceeds from the exploitation of energy resources should form part of a special fund to finance energy development projects of the government and other projects approved by the President.
The Malampaya Fund comes from the proceeds of the Malampaya natural gas project off the coast of Palawan province that was started in 2001. It has turned over to the government more than $4 billion in revenues since, according to reports.
Bigger elephant in the room
In a speech last week, President Aquino accused the Arroyo administration of accumulating close to 1 trillion pesos in discretionary fund, including 23.33 billion pesos from the Malampaya Fund, to stay in power.
The accusation came a month after the Commission on Audit (COA) released a report showing that the DBM under Arroyo’s watch disbursed 23.6 billion pesos from the fund.
Amid the hoopla over the release of at least 50 million pesos in additional pork barrel to senators after the Senate convicted Corona in May 2012, Recto said the “bigger elephant in the room” was the Malampaya Fund.
The government collects 30 billion pesos a year from the gas project, Recto said, and has yet to fully account for the fund.
“My question is, how do we fix this moving forward? Next year, we’re going to collect 30 billion pesos. In 2015, more or less, we’re going to collect, and then in 2016, we’re going to collect 30 billion pesos again. So the issue of the Malampaya Fund should be fixed,” he said.
The government is incurring debts each time it sources money from the Malampaya Fund, he said.
It’s all up to Congress
In a news briefing on Monday, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda deferred to Congress to decide whether to include the Malampaya Fund, an off-budget item, in the General Appropriations Act.
“The Malampaya Fund is covered under a PD. Now, it’s the wisdom of the legislature. It’s up to them. But right now, whether you agree with it or not—and this is known by all reporters, known by all people—that a presidential decree is still as effective as law unless it is repealed,” he said.
Otherwise, those who misused the fund will be prosecuted, Lacierda said.