Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Great Escape?

DA officials admit fertilizer scam documents missing
By Marvin Sy And Jess Diaz
The Philippine Star 12/07/2005

Officials of the Department of Agriculture (DA) led by Secretary Domingo Panganiban admitted to the Senate yesterday that the documents pertaining to the release of P728 million in fertilizer funds were missing.

Panganiban, however, snubbed the initial hearing of the House of Representatives good government committee on the fertilizer fund scam totaling P2.8-billion. So did Budget Secretary Romulo Neri.

The two Cabinet members failed to send a representative to the inquiry. Also, they did they write the committee to explain why they could not attend.

During the budget hearing for the agriculture department at the Senate, the DA officials said the request document for the release of the funds by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and the "program of work" or description of the program that accompanied the funding request could not be found.

What the DA had with them was only a copy of the annex to the request made to the DBM that was signed by former agriculture undersecretary Jocelyn Bolante which contained the list of the alleged proponents of the program.

But Bolante and other key DA officials who could shed light on the controversy failed to attend the budget hearing.

According to Ofelia Agawin, director of the DA’s financial and management service, Panganiban has been seeking information about the request for the fertilizer fund from the office of the Undersecretary for Finance Belinda Gonzales, but they have not yet received any documents.

She said they remained unaware of the reasons for the release from the DBM and what happened to the funds after being released.

"We’re not aware of the request, we haven’t seen the request," Agawin said.

At the House inquiry on the fertilizer fund controversy, the undersecretaries of Panganiban and Neri — Gonzales and Mario Relampagos of budget — also snubbed the committee hearing, together with former agriculture secretary Luis "Cito" Lorenzo and Bolante.

Iloilo Rep. Arthur Defensor, committee chairman, told his colleagues they would send a second invitation to the officials.

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, whose privilege speech two weeks ago prompted the inquiry, said the controversial Executive Order 464 was most likely behind the no-show by the invited officials.

"If they do not attend future hearings, that is their own lookout. They won’t be able to give their side of this irregularity," he said.

He said based on the reports of the Commission on Audit (COA) that he has read, "this is a case of unpardonable full-scale corruption."

Lagman wanted to grill Panganiban, Neri, Gonzales and Relampagos on where and how fertilizer and farm input funds released by MalacaƱang three months before last year’s presidential election and totaling P2.806 billion were spent.

The opposition claims the money was used for Mrs. Arroyo’s election campaign, an accusation that MalacaƱang has denied.

Lagman said based on clarifications she has been making to the media about the scam, Gonzales appears to be more knowledgeable about the funds, including where they were spent, than Panganiban.

It was Gonzales and another agriculture official who met three weeks ago with Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr., chairman of the Senate agriculture committee, which has been inquiring into the fertilizer fund scam.

According to Magsaysay, the two officials told him that if he pursued the inquiry, it could lead to the doorsteps of "executive officials, congressmen and some senators." He said he considered that as a form of blackmail or threat. Gonzales denied trying to threaten Magsaysay.

As for Relampagos, he signed the budget document containing the first release of P728 million, made on Feb. 3, 2004, a day after Bolante had requested it. Bolante submitted a list of 110 congressmen, 53 governors and 26 town mayors as "proponent-recipients" to support his request.

During yesterday’s hearing, COA officials confirmed their findings in Bicol on the overpricing of fertilizer using tens of millions of pesos in funds Bolante had allocated to congressmen. They said the price padding ranged from 800 percent to 1,300 percent.

COA director Tobias Lozada said auditors discovered that fertilizer purchased with the congressmen’s pork barrel funds was also overpriced.

He said the lawmakers gave the funds to two private foundations, which procured the fertilizer from only one supplier.

He named the fund recipients as People’s Organization for Progress and Development Foundation and Philippine Social Development Foundation, and the supplier as Jo-Chris Trading.

Lozada said auditors tried to locate the foundations at their common address in Bicutan, Taguig that is listed in documents on file with the agriculture department but could not find them.

He said the two foundations also received tens of millions in the Caraga Region, Region 10 and in Cebu.

The committee decided to include these foundations and other fund recipients and suppliers in its investigation. Disappearing habit? Meanwhile, Senate President Franklin Drilon said Magsaysay is now considering placing Bolante, Gonzales, DA assistant secretaries Ibarra Poliquit and Felix Montes on the Bureau of Immigration’s hold-departure list "given the habit of certain officials to disappear."

"I am aghast at the state of things," Drilon said. "The Commission on Audit rendered an adverse opinion… meaning it is a mess, in layman’s language."

He said the DA’s fertilizer program, officially the Farm Inputs and Farm Implements Program in 2004, was described as assistance for the local government units to boost their agriculture production and to increase the income of farmers.

"When we asked what this program was, the secretary said, in effect, the program was non-existent because he could not produce the program," Drilon said.

In a deposition made for the committee on agriculture last Oct. 26, former budget secretary Emilia Boncodin confirmed the release of P728 million to the DA for the purchase of farm inputs.

The release was charged against the Agricultural and Fisheries Modernization Program as a continuing appropriation under Republic Act No. 9206.

She said the releases were made by the DBM upon the request of the DA based on a formal request submitted to the DBM.

Magsaysay noted that the DA does not have an internal audit service and relies exclusively on the reports of the Commission on Audit which comes after the transactions have been made.

He expressed disappointment over the absence of Bolante and Gonzales during yesterday’s hearing and indicated that he would ask for the hold-departure order from the BI.

As of yesterday, Magsaysay had already asked the BI to place Bolante, Gonzales and Montes on its watch list.

"Among Filipinos this is a given — when someone is hiding something, they avoid (appearing)," Magsaysay said in Filipino.

For his part, Sen. Manuel Roxas II said the government should conduct a special audit of the DA’s use of the P728 million in order to establish a money trail and
accountability of public officials involved.

"We must ensure that the intended recipients benefited from the funds and the officials involved are held accountable for any misuse," Roxas said.

"The audit should establish the money flow from the Department of Budget and Management down to the ultimate beneficiaries," he added.

The P728 million represents 26 percent of the P2.806 billion total funds of the DA.

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