DBM exec cleared in SARO

By Aie Balagtas See, The Philippine Star

Posted at Feb 08 2014 09:16 AM | Updated as of Feb 08 2014 05:16 PM

MANILA, Philippines - The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) found no sufficient evidence to file criminal charges against Budget Undersecretary Mario Relampagos for the disbursement of fake special allotment release orders (SAROs).

“Hindi umabot ang ebidensya sa kanya (The evidence did not implicate him),” said a source from the Department of Justice days after the investigation report was forwarded to the DOJ.

In an affidavit submitted to the NBI, Relampagos had denied any involvement in the scam.

Relampagos was investigated after the NBI discovered that some of his staff, including a janitor and driver, belong to a gang responsible for the release of dubious SAROs.

A SARO is a document from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) paving the way for the release of lump sum funds like the lawmakers’ pork barrel fund.

An approved SARO guarantees the release of government funds for a certain project, like farm inputs.

When confirmed, a number assigned to a particular SARO will lead to the issuance of a notice of cash allocation (NCA), which will be used to encash the amount of money stated in the documents.

Last October, the DBM and the Department of Agriculture (DA) uncovered 12 fake SAROs intended for farm-to-market projects in Cagayan Valley, Calabarzon, Western Visayas and Soccsksargen region.

Based on two fake SAROs recovered, the signature of Budget Assistant Secretary Luz Cantor was forged.

The information was forwarded to the NBI, whose initial probe revealed the proliferation of fake SAROs is part of a multi-million extortion racket involving congressional aides and local government officials.

Last year, news reports described the scheme: A DBM insider will alert the congressional staff; the congressional staff talks to a local official where the supposed project is to be implemented; the local official, say a mayor, will talk to a contractor. The contractor, in order to bag a multi-million project, will be forced to shell out millions in kickbacks.

In reality, however, the promised projects do not exist. In some cases, while the SARO number was accurate, it was intended for another project.

In Laguna, for example, town mayors were led to believe that a P900-million SARO would be released for the creation of water treatment facilities in their communities.

But when the SARO number was verified, they found out that it was intended for a project of the Commission on Higher Education.

Another source told The STAR that the victims in this big-time extortion are the contractors, as they pay millions in kickbacks, hoping that they would corner a big government project.

Aside from Relampagos, several congressional staff were probed for the scheme.

In earlier interviews, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima was quoted as saying that members of the House of Representatives might be unaware of their staff’s wrongdoing.

On Thursday, De Lima said the NBI submitted the report of its fact-finding panel last Jan. 29.

She declined to name names, but said that the report recommended the prosecution of some government officials.