Palace cool to lifestyle checks

By Aurea Calica, The Philippine Star

Posted at May 30 2014 05:01 AM | Updated as of May 30 2014 01:01 PM

MANILA, Philippines - While it has "consistently advocated" openness, transparency and accountability among public officials, Malacanang made clear yesterday there are laws governing lifestyle checks and opening bank accounts of those implicated in the Priority Development Assistance Fund or pork barrel scam.

Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. issued the statement in reaction to calls for all government officials named in the pork barrel scam, including allies of the administration, to undergo lifestyle checks and bare their bank accounts.

Coloma said that in line with the administration’s advocacy, the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) of President Aquino and Cabinet members had been released and made available to the public.

“We note the call for a lifestyle check of public officials, as well as the call for the opening of bank deposits. There are, however, requirements under existing laws, such as the Anti-Graft Law (Republic Act No. 3019) and the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards of Government Officials and Employees (RA 6713) before such check can be lawfully conducted. This is in line with the Constitution’s guarantee to due process of law,” Coloma said.

Aside from lifestyle checks and opening of bank accounts, there are also calls for the resignation of Cabinet secretaries tagged by suspected pork barrel scam mastermind, Janet Lim-Napoles in her affidavit.

Coloma said the allegations against the officials should not be taken hook, line and sinker and that these should not affect their work too.

Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, Technical Education and Skills Development Authority director general Joel Villanueva are in Napoles’ list of those she had supposedly dealt with.

“The President reiterates that mere allegation does not affect the presumption of regularity in the performance of their current duties,” Coloma said.

“Moreover, there is need to recognize their rights to presumption of innocence, specially while no concrete proof of wrongdoing has been presented against them,” he said. “As the President has always emphasized: Let the evidence point to the direction of the inquiry and let justice be carried without fear or favor.”

The President, he said, believes that filing weak cases based on speculation or supported only by unverified information would be an exercise in futility.

“Given the proliferation of lists and scenarios surrounding the testimony of Mrs. Napoles, it is likely that certain quarters may be deliberately muddling the issue,” he said. “They may be carrying out a strategy of ‘burn the whole house down’ by implicating as many political personalities as possible, thereby misdirecting the inquiry and dissipating efforts to make those involved accountable before the bar of justice,” Coloma said, without naming names.

Cases weakened

For Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr. of Dasmariñas City in Cavite, the so-called “tell-all” affidavits of Napoles do not strengthen the cases already filed against senators and congressmen but actually weaken them. Napoles is facing plunder charges before the Office of the Ombudsman, along with Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla Jr.

“Instead of advancing the cause of the government, Napoles actually supports the position of the legislators that they were not aware that their PDAF was part of the scam,” Barzaga said.

Barzaga, a practicing lawyer-accountant before seeking public office, said Napoles did not make a “direct imputation” that the more than 100 senators and congressmen she linked to the irregularity received money from her, except for a few.

“She stated under oath that practically all cash rebates, commissions or kickbacks were given to the different agents of the legislators and in most cases, she does not know or have not met these lawmakers,” he said.

He added that if Justice Secretary Leila de Lima is considering endorsing immunity from prosecution for Napoles or sparing her children from liability, the official should rethink it.

“Her supposed tell-all strengthens not only her defense but also the defense of her co-accused lawmakers and other bureaucrats. That is crystal clear even to a law student,” he stressed.

Several congressmen and officials of agencies used as PDAF conduits before the funds ended up in bogus Napoles foundations are facing graft cases.

Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales has told Filipinos in the United States that her office has strong evidence to support plunder charges against Enrile, Estrada and Revilla.

Not yet guilty

Barzaga also said the demand for the resignation of Abad, Alcala and Villanueva was “uncalled for” because the accusations against them have yet to be proven.

An “independent” group of congressmen led by Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez had called for the resignation of the three officials.

“All those officials from both the executive and the legislative branches of government who were mentioned in the affidavits of Napoles are presumed innocent until proven otherwise,” he said.

“Besides, the allegations against them are incredulous and mostly based on hearsay,” he said.

He chided the Romualdez group for zeroing in on the three Cabinet members, when Napoles has linked more than 100 lawmakers and officials to the pork barrel scam.

Meanwhile, Gabriela party-list Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan said President Aquino’s rushing to defend the three “only showed that ‘daang matuwid’ (straight path) is going nowhere.”

Ilagan said Aquino’s haste in defending the officials could mean there would be no more investigation into their possible involvement in the pork barrel scam.

She also said Aquino’s action bolsters suspicions that he himself is involved in the scam.

“Will Abad and Alcala’s trail lead to the President?” Ilagan said.

“Where will the buck stop? Public clamor has been for pinpointing the mastermind of the anomalies. It is totally unacceptable that the buck is passed without finally leading to the highest official where it should stop,” she said.

“It is not President Aquino’s task to defend his allies. If they are indeed guilty, then they should be made accountable,” Ilagan said. – With Paolo Romero, Jess Diaz