PROBE  CASH  GIFTS - GMA

[PHOTO AT LEFT - With accusations of payoffs and cash gifts swirling around her, President Arroyo finds time to sample some lanzones while listening to Camiguin Rep. Pedro Romualdo at Mambajao, Camiguin yesterday. - Photo By WILLY PEREZ]

MANILA, OCTOBER 18, 2007 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - President Arroyo ordered last Friday the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission (PAGC) to investigate “very quietly” the alleged distribution of cash gifts to local officials and congressmen, Palace officials said yesterday. The order was given a day after the alleged cash distribution at Malacañang.

“The President has ordered a thorough investigation into this incident and she has directed the PAGC under Chairwoman Connie de Guzman to handle the investigation,” Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said at a press conference.

Prominent Roman Catholic bishops, however, were skeptical of Mrs. Arroyo’s call for a probe and were dismayed by the lack of public outrage.

“The scope of the investigation will be to determine who was responsible for this incident and to determine the source, but we would like to assure you that no government funds changed hands,” Bunye said.

He said nobody in the Palace is authorized to distribute such kinds of “gifts.”

Bunye added it was when the controversy appeared to have gone out of control that Mrs. Arroyo authorized him to make public her directive to the PAGC last Friday.

“As you very well know, per the rules of PAGC, investigations are confidential,” Bunye said, adding the results of investigations are only made public once they have been acted upon by the Office of the Executive Secretary.

He said Mrs. Arroyo has not given PAGC any deadline for its probe.

Bunye said Malacañang couldn’t act on Pampanga Gov. Ed Panlilio’s request to identify the source or issue receipt for the P500,000 that he received because government funds were not involved.

Presidential Political Adviser Ronaldo Puno said the President authorized the disclosure of the ongoing PAGC investigation to dispel the notion that she has not reacted to the controversy.

He said that at a meeting last Tuesday with Cabinet officials, Mrs. Arroyo appeared bothered and “a little bit upset on the notion that this thing was not receiving any attention” from the government.

Puno also debunked allegations of Makati City Mayor Jejomar Binay that the money supposedly handed out to governors was for the renewed effort for Charter change by the administration.

He said the move towards federalism was only for 2012, according to the President herself.

GMA upset

During her informal dinner meeting with Cabinet officials on Tuesday, Mrs. Arroyo was visibly upset over the controversy, Puno said.

“She was upset that there was no discussion or disclosure in an organized fashion in media, which is why, I suppose, since we were all at a loss, she wanted more substantive information to be brought to you,” Puno said.

He said Mrs. Arroyo felt that she was being unfairly linked to the controversy.

“There were some very painful statements issued and everybody’s human, you get hurt by a negative situation that is clearly very unclear,” Puno said.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) leadership earlier said the incident reflected the “moral bankruptcy” in the government.

It was Panlilio who first admitted publicly that he received cash at Malacañang last Thursday, although he didn’t think it was bribery. The revelation sparked outrage among various groups, with the CBCP calling the incident a reflection of the government’s “moral bankruptcy.”

“We are very much concerned with our youth who are looking at our leaders for models in honesty, integrity, and transparency,” CBCP president Angel Lagdameo said in a statement issued on Tuesday.

Unimpressed

Prominent Roman Catholic bishops were unimpressed with President Arroyo’s call for a probe even as they voiced indignation at what they consider public indifference to widespread corruption and dirty politics.

In an interview with Church-run Radyo Veritas, Novaliches Bishop Emeritus Teodoro Bacani said the public’s indifference is alarming, adding that there are biblical justifications for expressing outrage in the face of wrongdoing and injustice.

“We have become callous to shamelessness in politics and to the indignities the nation suffers. The people should show their anger. It’s wrong to rage, but it’s necessary sometimes,” Bacani said in Tagalog.

He said that in Matthew 23 Jesus himself was angered by the hypocrisies of the Pharisees and scribes.

Bacani said the country’s Catholic hierarchy would continue to denounce the wrongdoings in government until the people make the necessary moves.

“There is time for silence. There is time for speaking. I hope the lay people would take the cue from the hierarchy and become mature enough to echo the voice of the Church,” Bacani said. “In this moral and political development, the people should speak out loud.”

He said he believes the best thing the Palace should do at the moment is to admit that it had bribed several provincial executives and congressmen to get their support for its renewed efforts to change the 1987 Constitution.

“Politics in the Philippines has become transactional. There are those who were already accustomed to the system, but there are also those – like Gov. Ed Panlilio and Gov. Jun Mendoza – who are new to the system and are apparently not yet greedy like the others,” the bishop stressed.

Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz, for his part, said that what is “seriously wrong” with the Arroyo administration is that it “uses money to buy persons, secure support and gain loyalty.”

“When will this disgusting and even bizarre display of viciousness, hand in hand with nonchalance ever stop?” Cruz asked in his blog.

“It already began in 2004 and lately topped by the ZTE fiasco. And there was the most recent debacle of the abundant rainfall of millions of pesos in the Palace grounds. And now, immediately after, was again the tired and tiring call for Charter change,” he said.

“The means the manner and the costs are considered irrelevant, provided the principal mover will be able to continue holding power and having immunity from suit,” Cruz added.

Cruz, former CBCP president, said the giving of cash gifts to political allies was not really new: “But the disgusting event took place recently in a very rude and crude manner among many presumably honorable men and women in the country.”

Senators skeptical

Senators expressed doubt yesterday about the credibility of a PAGC investigation.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said it’s unlikely for the PAGC to be impartial in its probe because it is under the Office of the President.

Pimentel said an investigation, to be credible, should be done instead by independent institutions.

“Nothing will happen. No master can be investigated impartially by its subordinates. (It) just can’t be done culturally. That’s why you need independent bodies in law to do the investigation,” Pimentel said.

Sen. Francis Escudero said PAGC’s authority to investigate local officials, particularly the congressmen who allegedly received the bribes, should first be established. He proposed that the matter be left to the Office of the Ombudsman.

But Sen. Manuel Roxas II said it was all right for the PAGC to step in but suggested that the House leadership do its own housecleaning.

He said that what made the latest bribe scandal so despicable was the fact that it happened at Malacañang.

“There is an incident, there is a report and there are even witnesses, so there should be investigation. We have the PAGC, so it should be the PAGC which should conduct the probe, and investigate this,” Senate majority leader Francis Pangilinan said, before Mrs. Arroyo ordered a probe.

“They should start the investigation because the public is interested in what really happened, where the money originated, how much was distributed,” Pangilinan said.

Not me, says FVR

Former President Fidel Ramos denied insinuations by Environment Secretary Lito Atienza that his administration also gave out cash gifts to local officials and lawmakers.

Atienza on Tuesday told reporters there was “nothing abnormal” about cash gifts, saying even past administrations had shown the same generosity to local executives, particularly political allies. He did not specify under which administration he received such cash gifts.

Ramos said Atienza was not even the Manila mayor during his presidency from 1992 to 1998.

“There were no cash gifts during his term and if ever there were funds that were released through the Office of the President for distribution to elected officials, these funds were officially sourced from the presidential contingency fund or the presidential social fund and were made solely for the purpose of supporting the infrastructure projects of congressmen under the congressional initiative allowance and/or the development assistance fund,” Ramos said in a statement.

“I’m sorry to disappoint Secretary Atienza but my administration was never in the habit of distributing cash gifts in envelopes or paper bags. The only time we distributed paper bags was during the Christmas season when indigent families are ushered into the Palace to receive their usual gift packs,” Ramos said.

“At no time in my administration did we ever get into the practice of distributing cash gifts to congressmen for whatever purpose,” he added.

‘Among Ed’ liable

Former senator Rene Saguisag said even Panlilio could be held liable for violation of the anti-graft law, but he could also be made state witness because he was honest enough to admit the cash-giving incident.

Saguisag issued this statement at Camp Aguinaldo yesterday following the dropping of charges against his client, Magdalo soldier 2Lt. Aldrin Baldonado.

“Fr. Ed should also be charged for violation of Presidential Decree No. 46 declaring as illegal any act of any public official to accept gifts,” Saguisag said.

“He could be a vital witness in this case,” Saguisag said. He said he hoped other officials involved would follow his example and come out in the open.

The former senator said Malacañang appeared to have not learned from past mistakes, such as when Ricardo Cardinal Vidal returned a cash gift offered by a Palace functionary.

“Cash gifts ranging from P15,000 to P30,000 were distributed to the bishops by a certain F.A., a classmate of President Arroyo at the Assumption,” Saguisag claimed.

“But it’s bad for them that there was a priest present during the cash giving. They thought they could bribe everybody,” Saguisag said.

He added that it was Arroyo’s penchant for bribery that drains much-needed funds for government employees and those in the uniformed services.

Meanwhile, the military leadership belittled speculation that the recent scandal of the Arroyo administration would spark military-backed civil unrest.

“They will remain focused on their jobs and the possibility of unrest is very farfetched,” Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro, the military’s public information office chief, said.

“Indeed our soldiers are aware of these issues that are coming out and these could have been the subject of some discussions. But one thing is sure, this will not in any way affect the performance of our soldiers,” he said. - Edu Punay, Christina Mendez, Jaime Laude, and James Mananghaya


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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