“They could only claim that it is an ‘executive’ session if they admit to an illegal act. But even then, the said session would not be considered by the court as an executive session because the privilege cannot be used to commit or cover up a crime or an illegal act.” – Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – When ACT Teachers’ Partylist Rep. Antonio Tinio disclosed last February that the PDAF is inserted in this year’s budget through another mechanism (namely through recommendations’ or nominations by legislators to certain government agencies), House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte and other lawmakers swiftly denied it, saying there is no proof to back that claim.
Now Rep. Tinio has provided the public with the smoking gun, through an audio recording of the House Committee on Appropriations hearing last Aug. 4 in which the Chair of the Commission on Higher education (CHED) Patricia Licuanan, inadvertently revealed the existence of legislators’ scholarship funds being coursed through the department.
Each congressman has P14 million ($318,834) each for scholarships. This is clearly pork, said Judy Taguiwalo of CONTEND (Congress of Teachers/Educators for Nationalism and Democracy), adding that these funds should have been allocated to state universities and colleges instead to be able to roll back tuition and create additional regular items for faculty and staff.
In the impeachment complaint against Aquino filed by Act Teachers Partylist Rep. Antonio Tinio on Aug. 11, he exposed that PDAF practices have continued under Aquino. Tinio accused President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III of breaking the law by perpetuating the system of congressional pork barrel in the budget despite the Supreme Court decision declaring it unconstitutional.
Hitting the messenger
Reacting to Tinio’s expose’ of the existence of PDAF in the 2014 budget, a member of a Party List group threatened him with an ethics case. Ako Bicol party-list Representative Rodel Batocabe was quoted in a Sunstar report that the Party-list Coalition Foundation in the House of Representative might spearhead the filing of an ethics complaint against Tinio for recording a supposed executive session between lawmakers and Cabinet members.
Batocabe and his group of partylist groups distanced themselves from the impeachment raps against the president, describing it as “futile.” Batocabe also reportedly said the ACT Teachers’ Party impeachment complaint may not be consolidated to the three earlier impeachment complaints against Aquino.
Two of the three earlier impeachment raps cited Aquino’s violation of the Constitution as he insisted on the mostly unconstitutional DAP-like use of ‘savings.’ The third also cited Aquino’s constitutional violation, this time manifested in the signing of the Enhance Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
The fourth impeachment rap, filed by ACT Teacher’s Partylist, is the first to point out the alleged insertion of PDAF, which was declared as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, in the budget.
Batocabe was quoted by Sunstar as saying that “PDAF no longer exist. Our P70 million ($1.59 million) allocation before is now scattered to different line agencies of the government,” which was precisely one of ACT’s disclosures – the PDAF funds are said to be “scattered” via the new mechanism but legislators still exercise discretion over its use.
ACT submitted as evidence using as evidence the recorded proceedings of the House Committee on Appropriations’ hearing regarding the problems of members of the House of Representatives in accessing the scholarship slots allotted to them through the CHED budget in the 2014 General Appropriations Act.
In the said hearing, CHED Chair Patricia Licuanan discussed how lawmakers could access the P14 million allotted for the “PDAF” for the scholars they selected.
Another set of evidence consisted of the recorded “briefing” where DOH Undersecretary Janet Garin discussed how members of Congress could access funds allotted to them for “medical assistance” of their constituents under the DOH Budget in the 2014 GAA. Both Chairwoman Licuanan and Undersecretary Garin categorically said the funds for scholarships in CHED and medical assistance in DOH, respectively, are under the discretion of congressmen. “It was made clear to us,” as Garin said.
In having submitted and proposed to use such recording, Tinio was threatened with an ethics complaint for violation of Anti-Wiretapping Law. But in a legal memorandum issued to the media, Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares noted that “Rep. Tinio or anyone using or possessing the recorded hearing did not commit any violation of RA 1400 because the said hearings or briefings are excluded from the ambit of the law and were not the private conversations the wiretapping of which is prohibited under the wiretapping law.”
Colmenares also emphasized that former Pres. Gloria Arroyo had used the same tactic also to threaten the opposition during the “Hello Garci” scandal—by using the wiretapping law against the whistleblowers and the people in general.
The Anti-Wiretapping bill is meant to protect the privacy of communication between one person and another, based on Congressional Record on the deliberations of RA 4200 Anti Wire-Tapping Law (Vol. III, No. 33, p. 626, March 12, 1964).
According to Colmenares, both the briefing by DOH Usec. Garin and Sec. Licuanan were not private conversations. “In fact, no one is raising the issue of ‘executive session’ in this hearing because this is practically a public hearing,” Colmenares said.
The hearings involved “a discussion between public officials, on the allocation of public funds, in a public place and no court of law will declare this otherwise,” said Colmenares.
Batocabe claimed that contents of an executive session are prohibited to be revealed unless permitted by the House leadership. He questioned the legality of recording the session.
But even the claim that it was an “executive session” is also without legal and factual basis, Colmenares said. He cited how under the Rules of the House, sessions or hearings should be public in nature, that Sec. Licuanan herself has declared on Aug. 12 that “There was nothing clandestine about the subject” (meaning there was no basis for an executive session), and that nowhere in the House Rules is a rule that allows for transforming a public hearing into an executive hearing.
Colmenares said those who wanted to charge ACT Teachers’ Rep. Tinio with violation of Anti Wiretapping Law has a problem. It is not just revealing their bogusness as partylist groups supposedly sworn to represent the marginalized and not the likes of those in power like Aquino. “They could only claim that it is an ‘executive’ session if they admit to an illegal act. But even then, the said session would not be considered by the court as an executive session because the privilege cannot be used to commit or cover up a crime or an illegal act,” Colmenares said.
Meanwhile, how will the legislators’ pork be probed now? After Tinio uploaded on Youtube his office’s recording of the budget hearing, CHED, for example, one of the alleged recipients of realigned PDAF, denied in a statement on Tuesday that it had pork barrel funds. But it said it got P4.1 billion ($93.18 million) in “supplemental funds” to administer in 2014 for scholarships and other grants.
Dr. Jannet Garin of DOH, also told DZMM that she was “misquoted in the transcript” of the executive meeting of the HOR Committee on Appropriation, where she said the DOH funds in question during that meeting were actually for legislators.