Did the Philippines’ Pork Barrel Ever Disappear?

The Philippines may well be in for a replay of one of its biggest scandals in a country awash with scandals, the celebrated Pork Barrel scandal of 2013, in which 28 lawmakers allegedly pocketed illegally as much as PHP10 billion (US$191.5 million at current exchange rates) in funds allocated to provide aid for their districts.

If indeed this is a replay, there is one ominous note. None of the lawmakers accused in the original is in jail and in fact they are running for reelection. Only three were charged at the time – Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada – the son of former President Joseph Estrada – and Ramon “Bong” Revilla, are all running again for public office in elections scheduled for May. Enrile, who is 94, was ruled too old and infirm to be incarcerated although he faces trial in March along with his longtime aide, Gigi Reyes. Apparently he is not too old and infirm to keep him from running for public office.

Estrada also faces trial but is free on bail. He was given permission to fly to Hong Kong with his family for Christmas. Revilla was acquitted of the charges by the Sandiganbayan, the country’s anti-corruption court. In the meantime, Leila de Lima, the crusading justice secretary under former President Benigno S. Aquino III who brought the charges against the lawmakers, remains under remand after being arrested on drug charges on the orders of President Rodrigo Duterte. A host of rights organizations have charged that the charges against de Lima were trumped up to silence her criticism against his drug war, which has taken the lives of thousands of poor and powerless individuals shot by vigilantes or the police.

The new version of the pork barrel broke into the open in mid-December when Sen. Panfilo Lacson charged in the legislature that the budget approved by the House of Representatives contained huge additions amounting to PHP75 billion (US$1.44 billion) to be directed to lawmakers’ districts in the same manner as the original Priority Development Assistance Funds that triggered the scandal.

In the original pork barrel, each senator was to receive PHP200 million and each congressman P70 million per year. The current budget allocation is said to include as much as PHP2.4 billion (US$46.04 million) to the Pampanga district of House Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who will retire after being termed out at the end of this year, raising questions what she’s going to do for her district in the remaining few months she’ll be in office.

House Majority Leader Rolando Andaya was allocated PHP1.9 billion. Other lawmakers in Bohol, Surigao and other constituencies who are close to Arroyo also are reported to be receiving vast sums.

Requests for an interview with Lacson were denied. His press secretary instead referred Asia Sentinel to a series of press clippings.

The fight over the budget has devolved into a squabble in which both lawmakers led by Andaya and the administration’s Secretary of Budget and Management, Benjamin Diokno, are accusing each other of hiding the funds for their own favored lawmakers, who are up for elections on May 13. Andaya has repeatedly charged that Diokno has directed a long list of infrastructure projects to his in-laws, enriching them.

“I don’t think either side is clean, this is an ongoing issue,” said a source who has researched the affair extensively. “There are major developments expected, with more accusations against Diokno’s inlaws, accused of taking millions of pesos in government contracts.”

Diokno has declined to return requests for an interview.

Whatever happens, when the budget is finally ironed out and presented publicly, according to well-informed sources, the funds will be there – either to bring much-needed infrastructure spending to their districts, or for the money to be simply pocketed to enrich lawmakers, as it was last time.

The Priority Development Assistance Fund, or PDAF, as it was known, was a discretionary fund granted to each member of Congress on a lump sum basis to spend on priority infrastructure projects to benefit their districts, most of which boast the least-developed infrastructure in much of Asia.

The funds were instead routed through a woman named Janet Lim-Napoles, the wife of a former Filipino marine officer. She was said to have to have established a syndicate of non-government organizations through which lawmakers could channel the money, which would eventually find its way back into their personal accounts – with a certain amount ending up in Napoles’ own accounts.

Napoles is said to have established as many as 20 such NGOs under her JLN Group, funneling money from and to at least five senators and 23 congressmen. But Napoles wasn’t alone. According to a devastating report by the government’s Commission on Audit, the equivalent of US$141 million was disbursed to questionable aid groups and ghost projects that were identified by lawmakers as beneficiaries between 2009 and 2012 alone. How much was actually lost may never be known. The scam actually ran for a full decade from 2003.

Plunder – the charge against the three lawmakers -- is supposedly a non-bailable offense. Somehow the three escaped incarceration in advance of trial. In that, they resemble Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was elected to the House of Representatives but spent the entire presidency of Benigno Aquino, who grimly pursued her on allegations of deep corruption and vote-buying during her time in office, in an increasingly elaborate neck brace, claiming she was suffering from a degenerative affliction that was crippling her.

In July, she gathered together her allies in the 297-member House of Representatives and toppled the then-House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez after a daylong leadership row. In August, Macapagal-Arroyo was set free by the Supreme Court and discarded the neck brace publicly.

Her plans after leaving office at the end of her term are unknown. She hasn’t filed for another office. She has since become an ally of Duterte’s. According to rumor, she may be seeking to replace Diokno as budget secretary.