Aquino suspends pork barrel

"Kababuyan."

This was how President Benigno S. Aquino III expressed his utter disgust over the irregularities plaguing the pork barrel funds as he temporarily put on hold its releases to lawmakers.

The President, in an interview with GMA Channel 7, said the suspension of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) releases will be implemented until the official investigation into the alleged irregularities in the use of the fund is completed.

Let's finish the investigation first and check if there are still loopholes that must be plugged, Aquin said in Filipino.

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. rallied behind the President's decision as he asked the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to immediately address the leaks in the pork barrel system by coming up with "new guidelines."

Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab, who was also dragged into the controversy, agreed that safeguards "must be put in place" before the second tranche for 2013 PDAF will be released.

The decision of President Aquino to heed calls fro the suspension of the release of the remainder of this year's pork barrel allocations for solon should prod the House of Representatives to conduct a probe into incidences of fund misuse and lead the chief executive not to access his own share of the public fund. Buhay Partylist Rep. Lito Atienza, who was the first to make the appeal for the withholding of release of Priority Development Assistance Funds for lawmakers, welcomed Aquino's decision as a signal for the House leadership to reconsider previous pronouncements rejecting a House probe into the allged misuse of billions of pesos in PDAF, better known as pork barrel.

The President is expected to meet soon with Senate President Franklin Drilon and Speaker Belmonte to tackle the delayed release of the PDAF allocations to the lawmakers, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said.

Secretary Abad said there will be no releases (of PDAF) in the second half (of the year), said the President, who has supported the good side of the pork barrel system but has detested its bad and ugly part.

Abstain From 'Pork'

But Rep. Neri Colmenares said suspension of the pork barrel or attempts to restrict it won't do anything to solve the problem "inherent" to the controversial funds.

"There is no justification for it whatsoever and the suspension is an attempt to save the pork barrel system," said Colmenares.

"Pres. Aquino should abolish pork, including his own which currently amounts to hundreds of billions including the Malampaya Fund and channel it all directly to social services. Unjustified lump sum amounts must be abolished from the budget," he added.

"Even if no corruption takes place, pork is still inherently anomalous because it is used in patronage politics. The 138 SAROs (Special Allotment Release Order) giving P8.6 billion from the Malampaya fund in 2009 to certain lucky districts through the DPWH (Department of Public Works and Highways) is an example of this anomalous patronage politics," Colmenares said.

Akbayan party- list Rep. Walden Bello, on his part, said the President's directive suspending the second tranche of pork barrel release must lead to its total and unconditional abolition.

Bello said Mr. Aquino's decision, "effectively abolishes the pork barrel since any effort to restore it will meet massive public opposition."

"Suspension must lead to abolition. While the President has already categorically stated that he is not in favor of abolishing the pork barrel, we will not relent in persuading him to drop the pork. President Aquino must go further and scrap the PDAF completely," Bello said.

The President had earlier ruled out the abolition of the pork barrel system in the national budget despite the Commission on Audit (COA) report detailing the scandalous misuse of the PDAF of dozens of lawmakers and questionable non-governmental organizations. Aquino, however, vowed to run after the politicians and their cohorts who steal public funds while implementing more restrictions in the PDAF system to avoid a repeat of the fund mess.

Clean 'Pork'

One of the safeguards to curb abuses in PDAF, proposed by the President, is the establishment of performance-based indicators. Aquino said the budget release will depend on the performance of the lawmakers in implementing the projects.

Placing a time limit on the project implementation was also proposed by the President to prevent misuse of the funds. If the funds are left unused within the specified period, Aquino said the money should be channelled instead to departments that are ready to use them.

In defending pork barrel, the President said the money can be put to good use.

He maintained that the problem lies with persons who take advantage of the pork barrel funds, not the system itself.

Grilled 'Pork' In Senate

With the mounting public outrage against misuse of government funds, the Senate has decided to hold its own investigation into the pork barrel fund scam using the recent COA report on PDAF as basis of its inquiry.

Senator Teofisto "TG" Guingona, III, head of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, said his panel will hold its first hearing on Aug. 29, Thursday, with COA Chairman Grace Pulido Tan as the first resource person.

COA Under Fire

But COA is now under fire over doubts on its pork barrel audit report.

President Aquino doubts the accuracy of the COA after noticing some errors.

For instance, the President denied he received P40 million in PDAF when he was a senator as stated in the COA report.

"I supposedly had P40 million in PDAF from 2007 to 2009 and I was wondering, nothing was actually released to me then," the President said in Filipino in an interview with GMA Channel 7 Monday night.

The President also pointed out the COA report that then Compostela Valley congressman and now Vice Governor Manuel "Way Kurat" Zamora received P3 billion in PDAF. After a check made by Secretary Abad, Aquino said it turned out that there was a "wrong encoding" of the name in the Special Allotment Release Order (SARO). The P3-billion funds actually went to Department of Public Works and Highways for its various infrastructure projects in the region.

On the supposed ghost congressman named Luis Abalos who got P20 million, Aquino said it appeared the agency just got his first name wrong. (With reports from Charissa M. Luci, Ellson A. Quismorio, Ben R. Rosario, and Genalyn D. Kabiling)

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