By Karol Anne M. Ilagan
Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
ON ANY given day, the corridors of the East Avenue Medical Center (EAMC) in Quezon City leading to the Medical Social Service are filled with patients and their relatives seeking financial assistance through their congressman’s Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork.
Highly popular, the hospital’s Medical Social Service is open 24/7 to process charity applications, including PDAF assistance. “I can’t imagine not having the PDAF for these patients,” says one social worker. She adds that 90 percent or about 675 of EAMC daily volume of patients are charity clients, including those benefiting from legislative pork.
The scene looks like a good example of pork, which is essentially taxpayers’ money, finally working the right way – providing services to those who need it the most. A closer scrutiny, however, often reveals strings attached as well. For medical assistance like those offered at the EAMC and various government hospitals, pork usually comes in the form of mock cheques and guarantee letters affixed with the congressman’s photo and signature, giving the perception that the funds came from his own pocket.
PCIJ’s survey of PDAF projects in the last two years reveal that if “hard” or public works projects have been particularly notorious for corruption, “soft” projects like medical assistance and scholarship programs have become means for lawmakers to reinforce patronage between themselves and their constituents.
Budget Secretary Florencio B. Abad, himself a former legislator and whose wife is a member of the current House, says soft projects tend to be more effective in favor a congressman who wants to get re-elected because these are more “personal” – unlike, say, constructing a road, which is targeted to benefit more people.
He notes that scholarship money that is personally handed over to the parent or the child in cash is most politically effective because the recipient would think that the money came directly from the congressman. “The idea is indebtedness,” Abad says. “You want them to remember that it came from you. Elections (are) contests among who is the better patron, ‘di ba?”
PCIJ had wanted to know if this may be among the reasons why Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr. has taken a liking to using a sizeable chunk of his pork for scholarships. Upon his re-election in 2010, Tupas had continued his “Iskolar Sang Quinto” or ISQ program. In the past two years, he has so far allocated P36.3 million of his PDAF for scholarships for students of the Leon Ganzon Polytechnic College (LGPC) and the seven campuses of the Northern Iloilo Polytechnic State College (NIPSC). In a span of 13 months, three releases were made to the local government of Barotac Viejo, Iloilo – the congressman’s hometown – to fund scholarships for a cumulative total of 11,500 students in these colleges.
Currently, about 700 of LGPC’s 1,200 students are scholars of Tupas.
The Iloilo representative, however, declined to interviewed, citing prior engagements.
In any case, his 2009 accomplishment report states that “direct benefits” are felt by the ISQ scholars because “the miscellaneous fees of high school students are given directly to their parents.” An official from one of the schools covered by the program also says that applicants for the scholarship are required to submit a copy or proof of his or her registration with the Commission on Elections (Comelec). It could well be that document is needed to check if the applicant really does belong to Tupas’s district. But that could also be determined through other documents such as a barangay clearance, a community tax certificate or cedula, or postal ID.
Abad meanwhile recalls the case of one representative who swaps her PDAF allotment for hard projects for the soft-project funds of other lawmakers so that she can have as much as P70 million worth of pork for scholarships. Guidelines in the spending of PDAF provides that P40 million should be implemented on hard or infrastructure projects, while P30 million should be for the delivery of soft or education, health, and social services projects.
Abad, who says “swapping” of projects is allowed for as long as the prescribed equation is still followed, says the legislator apparently believes “that’s how she wins the election.”
Unfortunately, the budget secretary says, the beneficiaries themselves may be encouraging this thinking since they would want to make sure that the congressman who helped them would stay in power because their children, for example, are in school because of that congressman.
As a result, scholarships along with medical assistance, are among the favorite soft projects for a sample set of 26 congressmen selected by PCIJ to find out how congressmen, oldtimers and newcomers, of different political parties, and cities and provinces in Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao, spend their PDAF. They include House leaders, committee chairpersons, party-list representatives, and lawmakers who have been in the news in recent months. These total P307.8 million and P255.9 million, respectively.
For medical assistance, PCIJ has observed that some congressmen have become creative with the guarantee letters issued to indigent patients to allow them access to their PDAF.
At the EAMC, the PCIJ found mock cheques with the photos and signatures of San Jose del Monte City Rep. Arturo B. Robes and Quezon City Rep. Winston Castelo, together with niece Quezon City Councilor Jessica Castelo Daza.
At the Amang Rodriguez Memorial Medical Center, PCIJ found cash vouchers issued by Rep. Romero Federico S. Quimbo with the congressman’s photo. The vouchers also contain the name of the indigent patient, the amount “chargeable against my (Quimbo’s) PDAF,” and the congressman’s signature.
Asked how he came up with the idea of the cash voucher, Quimbo says he “thought about it long and hard” and decided he wanted it to be a “benchmark.” He explains that the cash vouchers are tightly guarded and serialized to help ensure that it doesn’t get into the wrong hands. He says there has already been a case wherein about P1.5 million has been misused because of fake and duplicated guarantee letters.
The lawmaker also clarifies that the document is not really a guarantee letter because he is not guaranteeing anything. “That is cash coming from the national government that is deposited in the coffers of the hospitals,” he says.
If pork barrel funds will be used as a political tool, Quimbo himself says that congressmen could play around with their soft projects rather than the hard to ensure re-election. Hard projects even become a source of criticisms, he says.
But Quimbo says that politicians who think PDAF is a blessing are mistaken. “It is a burden,” he says. “Whatever you do, you cannot satisfy the requirements of your district with the small amount that is given to you. It is not small, per se, but relative to the requirement, it is so insignificant.”
“You try to carry it out in the best way possible where you think it will have an impact based on a set of criteria,” he says of pork projects. “The only burden is you need to be able to communicate it well with your constituents why you’re doing that.”
For Deputy Speaker Lorenzo R. Tañada III, there are no guarantees that would ensure that PDAF does not result into an extension of patronage politics. Even with the reforms done by the DBM, i.e., setting of priority municipalities and sectors, he says people have a way of going around those rules. “The reality is, projects are delivered first and foremost in areas where the votes are actually delivered which coincidentally are vote-rich areas,” he says.
Asked which type of projects that lawmakers should spend their PDAF on, Secretary Abad cites rural health units and water system projects as among those that should be prioritized. For Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson, meanwhile, a farm-to-market road is a good example of a PDAF-funded project.
DBM data however reveal a different set of priorities for the PCIJ’s sample set of 26 congressmen. Based on amounts spent, multi-purpose buildings, roads and bridges, and educational facilities were the top three projects chosen by the sample group. It’s possible, though, that these three types of projects had higher totals because they may cost more in the first place.
Multi-purpose building projects, which could be a gymnasium, a relocation site, a barangay hall, or a covered court, among others, are at No. 1 with P682.9 million. Next are roads and bridges with P518.9 million, and educational facilities such as school buildings and classrooms with P181 million.
Of the 26 congressmen, 11 allocated the highest amount of their fund for hard projects on multi-purpose buildings. The top three are Quezon City Rep. Banal with P60.8 million, Iloilo Rep. Niel C. Tupas Jr. with 54.3 million, and Davao City Rep. Karlo Alexei B. Nograles with P45.7 million.
Meanwhile, projects on water system were allotted with P76.9 million, farm-to-market roads with P65.4 million, and health facility, P8.8 million.
Just a few of the 26 congressmen allocated substantial amounts on water-system projects. These include Batanes Rep. Henedina R. Abad (P16.6 million), Quezon Rep. Tañada (P7.8 million), Bayan Muna Party-List Rep. Neri J. Colmenares (P7.4 million), Akbayan Rep. Bag-ao (P6.3 million), Cavite Rep. Abaya (P5.8 million), and Iloilo Rep. Tupas (P4.6 million).
Cavite Rep. Jesus Crispin C. Remulla, Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo V. Umali, Batanes Rep. Abad, and Quezon Rep. Tañada meantime allotted fairly significant amounts on farm-to-market roads at P18 million, P10.8 million, P11.6 million, and P8.4 million, respectively. – With additional research by Jessa Mae B. Jarilla, PCIJ, July 2012