MANILA, Philippines (July 7, 2011) - In what is an emerging pattern of behavior, former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo keeps her silence on anomalies she is perceived of having a lead role, leaving her minions to defend her.
At yesterday's Senate hearing, officers of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) and the Commission on Audit (COA) enumerated alleged anomalies committed by the previous management with probable involvement of the former president.
PCSO Chairperson Margie Juico said that when the agency was turned over to her they discovered questionable contracts and agreements, through a 2009 report of the Commission on Audit, which "indicates a compelling need to institute policy or even structural reforms."
During the same hearing, it was revealed that PCSO has still unpaid bills amounting to 3 billion pesos in hospital expenses incurred during the term of Arroyo.
Juico confirmed news reports that the previous PCSO management issued five bank checks worth P6.9 million to at least five Catholic dioceses and archdioceses in 2009 for purchases of luxury vehicles.
On Feb 11, 2009, a Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP) check was issued to the Diocese of Cotabato City for the purchase of vehicle amounting to P1,440,998.
Another LBP check was issued to the Zamboanga Archdiocese on June 19, 2009, amounting to P1,540,835, also for the purchase of service vehicles.
An LBP check dated July 2, 2009 amounting to P1,704,147.90 was issued to the Diocese of Butuan, care of Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos, another for the Catholic prelate of Isabela, Basilan and a P720,000 check to Caritas Nueva Segovia on Feb, 22, 2010.
The PCSO had earlier confirmed it donated four-wheel drive services vehicles for the dioceses of Butuan, North Cotabato, Sorsogon, and Iligan City.
The request of Father Roger Lood of Iligan City was coursed through Archbishop Fernando Capalla of Davao, who, in turn, endorsed the letter to President Arroyo on May 29, 2009. At the hearing it was revealed that the donation to Lood has not been delivered.
Senate Blue Ribbon committee chairman Sen. Teofisto Guingona III said that the committee will determine if the vehicles given to bishops were used for charitable works or for religious purposes, which is against the Constitution.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) had said that it is willing to cooperate in the Senate's investigation.
But the CBCP maintains the donations from the PCSO was aboveboard.
In a letter to the Senate, Archbishop Nereo Odchimar, president of the CBCP, said any donation to a bishop goes to the diocese and is not the clergy’s personal property.
“Whatever benefit the Catholic Church may draw from the gift is purely incidental,” he said.
Odchimar added they were willing to “face the consequences” of receiving financial aid from government because he said it is channeled to the needy.
“Our conscience is clear,” Odchimar said.
Odchimar said the CBCP took the initiative to look into the 2009 COA report on the PCSO where the revelations of fund misuse made by Juico were based.
The COA report indicated that the grant of the five vehicles to Catholic Church archdioceses charged to the Charity Fund of the PCSO is“contrary to Article VI, Section 29 (2) of the 1987 Philippine Constitution.”
“In response to allegations regarding the impropriety, if not illegality, of PCSO financial assistance being extended to the Catholic Church, we truly believe there was no violation of the law,” Odchimar said in his letter.
At the Senate hearing, a letter from Butuan bishop Pueblos requesting for 4 X 4 vehicle from Arroyo was read by Francisco Joaquin, PCSO board member.
"At present, I really need a brand new car, possibly a 4x4, which I can use to reach the far-flung areas of Caraga. I hope you will not fail to give a brand new car, which will serve as your birthday gift to me," the bishop’s letter read.
Yes, indeed he received money for the purchase of vehicle but he requested it from the then President Arroyo, not from PCSO, said Pueblos in an interview after the Senate hearing.
"I did not ask from the PCSO. I asked from the president… personal funds from the president. Whoever she asked (from), that’s no longer my concern," he said.
Pueblos also tries to connect the PCSO investigation to the Aquino administration's supposed animosity to the bishops because of the Church stand against the RH bill and same sex marriage.
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda earlier dismissed similar insinuations that drag the RH bill issue to the probe of PCSO anomalies.
"That is totally baseless. We didn't even know about the COA (Commission on Audit) report until they revealed it," he said.
"Whatever action PCSO is taking, it's part of the program of good governance. Lahat ng sangay ng government, naghahanap ng natirang problema. Isa ito sa natirang problema," Lacierda said.
The Senate hearing is not all about the questionable donation to the bishops.
Former PCSO general manager Rosario Uriarte was also issued a subpoena to appear before the panel to explain the allegations that she encashed a total of P315 million in intelligence funds from the PCSO. She is expected to appear at today's continuation of the Senate hearing.
PCSO board member Aleta Tolentino told the hearing that the amount encashed by Uriarte was converted into an intelligence fund.
Tolentino claimed the authorization was contained in a memorandum of Uriarte to former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo dated Jan. 4, 2010 requesting for intelligence funds for the charity agency.
Uriarte reportedly requested for intelligence funds to finance personnel in monitoring illegal gambling activities aimed at countering the Small Town Lottery (STL) operations in the countryside.
An amazed Senator Juan Ponce-Enrile said the intelligence fund withdrawn by Uriarte could be bigger than the intelligence funds of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
“These are sizable funds which, if cannot be properly explained, could be plunder,” Senator Franklin Drilon remarked.
Drilon and Enrile urged the committee to make the necessary representations to the Bureau of Immigration to place Uriarte on the watchlist.
But at almost the same period when the Senate hearing was going on, Uriarte was bravely giving a press conference, seated beside Archbishop Oscar Cruz and Manoling Morato.
While not addressing the issue of the intelligence fund, she said the Senate hearing was misleading.
Admitting that the previous PCSO board gave financial donations to Catholic bishops, Uriarte said these were meant for medical and charity purposes only.
"To my knowledge, none of the bishops used that assistance to buy a Pajero, although some of the vehicles they purchased were four-wheel drive vehicles needed to navigate the rough terrain in many of their remote parishes," she said.
Denying that only Arroyo supporters benefited from PCSO donations, she revealed that even critics of Arroyo and allies of President Aquino also partook of PCSO funds.
A check of records showed that while majority of the recipients of PCSO funds during the previous administration were Arroyo allies, 8 were from P-Noy's Liberal Party namely Reps. Antonio Roman, Antonio Diaz, Rodriguez Dadivas, Reynaldo Uy, Lawrence Wacnang, Solomon Chunglao, Miles Roces and Jose Antonio Roxas.
She also denied that they left the PCSO in debt. She said the former board members increased the PCSO's revenues from P7 billion in 2003 to P26.7 billion in 2009 and PCSO's cash balance increased from P700 million to P3.3 billion during her term as general manager.
Even before the Senate hearing, former Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) chairman Manuel "Manoling" Morato had been defending the distribution of utility vehicles to 4 Catholic bishops because these are being used for feeding missions. He also said that the PCSO monitors the use of donated vehicles.
"Bakit nila minamasama yun? 4 lang ang nabigyan dun. Hindi naman namin binigyan ng Pajero. The headlines say Pajero daw ang binigay, to make it sound terrible that they are luxurious. Hindi eh. They are utility vehicles. We evaluated their needs and they report also where they are using it. Dumadaan sa SPD yan, the Special Projects Department. Hindi yan basta-basta binibigay rine-report where they are using it. They are supervised even after we have given them away," he said.
Morato also accused incumbent PCSO officials of waging a smear campaign against their predecessors to cover up their own wrongdoings.
He accused Chairwoman Juico and Board Member Mabel Mamba of giving away ambulances to local priests instead of utility vehicles.
"What would priests do with ambulances? Religious groups need utility vehicles to go to the mountains to bring food and medicines and help the poor," he said.
He also questioned Juico's decision to relocate the PCSO office from the Quezon Institute to the Philippine International Convention Center despite an existing contract with the Philippine Tuberculosis Society.
He also claimed that during Juico's earlier stint as a PCSO Director, she used up P25 million in yearly discretionary funds for public relations.
He also accused Juico's husband, Philip, of trying to claim P800,000 in payables from PCSO after airing PCSO ads in his TV program on Channel 9 two years ago. He said the request was turned down because the airing of the ads was not approved by the Board.
He also lambasted Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman who in 2005, with the support of Chairwoman Juico, was proposing to then president Arroyo to give all PCSO's charity funds to the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
"Hindi yan pu-pwede because DSWD has different mandate. DSWD is supposed to help entire community especially during calamities such as landslides, floods and earthquakes. The PCSO is different and concerns individuals who need money for dialysis, liver transplants , etc. Doon nag-umpisa ang Hyatt 10. That is why they hate me because I know too much. Hindi naman ako papayag sa kalokohan nila," he said.
On PCSO's 3 billion pesos debt, Morato said "Nagpatong-patong yung payables. Nagsisingilan yung mga ospital. Ang sabi namin, 'Teka muna. Willing kami magbayad pero dapat tignan muna namin."
At the Senate hearing, current PCSO general manager Jose Ferdinand Rojas II attributed the P3 billion in payables left by the previous board to overspending of operating funds and issuance of guarantee letters.
The senators also heard the testimonies of two advertising executives who accused a former PCSO manager and board member of receiving millions of pesos worth of kickbacks in exchange for approving advertisement contracts.
Alexander Quisumbing of Quizgem Ad Agency and Ludovico Yuseco of Crosschannel Advertising Services testified that Manuel Garcia, former public relations and advertising manager of the PCSO, received a 40% cut from every contract from the period 2003 to 2008.
A quick mental computation by the senators in the panel revealed that Garcia might have accumulated 1.2 billion peson in kickback money over the years. "Congratulations to Manny Garcia. He is a billionaire," said Sen. Enrile.
Manoling Morato had a ready defense for Garcia. In a TV interview after the Senate hearing, he said Garcia told him that he gave back the money.
"Palagay na natin tumanggap kung sakali pero ang sabi ni Manny Garcia na hindi ko naman appointee nung ako ay chairman binigay daw nya sa kanila. Pag na-summon siya, magsasalita siya. He said he has evidence to show that he gave it back," he said.
"They are not without sin is what I mean," Morato said.
Not a word has come from the former president on the PCSO mess, not even from her spokespersons.
The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee has been mulling inviting former President Arroyo to appear at the Senate hearing, but the senators admit she cannot be forced to do so because of inter-parliamentary courtesy, the former president being now a congresswoman. She can of course voluntarily submit herself to Senate investigation, which is a long shot by all count.
The Senate hearing resumes today with members of the previous PCSO board up for grilling. (From philstar.com, Vox Bikol)