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If no one is convicted, pork barrel scandal will be forgotten by 2016 - Bernas
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA, Philippines -- If no one is prosecuted and convicted for the P10-billion pork barrel scam, the scandal triggered the current mass outrage against corruption will most likely be forgotten by the next presidential elections in 2016.

"My suspicion is that in 2016, all of these will be forgotten. We're so tolerant of corruption," Father Joaquin Bernas, one of the country's top constitutionalists, told a group of Ateneo de Manila Grade School teachers during a talk Tuesday on the pork barrel scam.

The dean emeritus of the Ateneo de Manila Law School said the challenge President Benigno Aquino III faces now is whether he has the political will to convict "big time" officials, such as the lawmakers who handed over huge sums from their pork barrel to the bogus nongovernmental organizations allegedly set up by businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles.

"If the DOJ (Department of Justice) and the Ombudsman can obtain a conviction of a high-ranking officer, it would be a big thing. (But) I have a feeling if nothing happens now, by 2016 election time, all of these will be forgotten," Bernas said.

If that happens, he said it would be like the Stonehill scandal during Diosdado Macapagal's administration, with no one convicted because of political reasons and Harry Stonehill merely deported.

And, as Bernas pointed out, no high-ranking government official went to jail because of corruption in recent history (ED’S NOTE: Ousted President Joseph Estrada was found guilty of plunder but was almost immediately pardoned by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is herself facing similar charges).

The constitution expert acknowledged it is not easy to convict a government official of a criminal offense such as plunder since the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

"But they [legislators] are not immune from prosecution," he stressed.

Napoles and those involved in the pork barrel scam can also be charged with misappropriation of funds, the prosecution of which will be "very much dependent" on the Commission on Audit's report on the 2007-2009 Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and Various Infrastructures including Local Projects (VILP).

A public official can be charged with plunder if the misappropriated funds total at least P50,000,000. Since the crime is a capital offense, bail is often withheld. Civilians acting in conspiracy with the accused officials can also be charged for the crime.

However, everything may come to naught, with lawmakers under fire now claiming their signatures were forged.

"That's why let's look at the executives responsible for the fund releases," Bernas said.

It is also the reason why the prosecution and the public must be vigilant and gather all the evidence needed to convict the guilty.

"I think the evidence is there and we just need people who know to speak out and be counted," he said.

All politics

The Ateneo Law professor said the challenge of convicting the guilty lies with Aquino.

"Can he prosecute those who violated the Appropriations Act of 2013? Will he be able to put up safeguards so that things that happened in the past will not be repeated?" Bernas asked.

But Bernas also noted a pattern he said could ensure the scandal ends up a mere political issue no different than the Stonehill scandal.

He noted that only opposition senators have been exposed as being involved with the Napoles-linked NGOs. "It has a purpose; to prepare for 2016 elections," he said.

With Vice President Jejomar Binay and Interior Secretary Manuel "Mar" Roxas II the names touted as most likely to contest the presidency in that year, Bernas said identifying the opposition senators could have an effect on Binay's candidacy, especially with the other camp urging people to scrutinize the vice president's own pork barrel.

"When you look at the initial report of the COA, it only covered 2007-2009. There is so much politics in the handling of this case," Bernas said.

Scrap pork?

The history of the pork barrel is as ugly as its true nature.

It harks back to the days of slavery in America, when barrels of pork were displayed outside the homes of masters for slaves to compete for.

It is part of the legacy left by the Americans and has existed in the local political sphere since 1902, as provided under the Philippine bill.

Bernas said that in 1935, there was a Constitutional Convention debate over whether or not to prohibit the pork barrel. The pork won and has been in the Constitution for as long as Congress appropriates funds for it.

Prior to the 1994 case that sought to have the Supreme Court declare the General Appropriations Act of that year as unconstitutional, especially the provision for pork barrel, only the president and the line agencies could execute the budget and this could not be released without the approval of the chief executive.

In the 1994 case, the Supreme Court declared that Congress has the power to recommend projects to be funded by the pork barrel.

Since then, the release of the funds does not strictly need the direct approval of the president.

"This is where the problem lies. There is now a debate on whether we can abolish the pork barrel. Theoretically, yes, but the president cannot abolish it alone. It has to be approved by Congress because all appropriation acts are approved by Congress," Bernas said.

And even if the pork barrel is really abolished and Congress is out of the loop in implementing the national budget, Bernas said the public must still remain vigilant because the executive department would be "much, much stronger than what it is now."

"If there is corruption among the members of Congress, you have to ask if there is also corruption in executive agencies," Bernas said.

Danger ahead

In case Congress does not approve the 2014 GAA, the entire government must operate on a reenacted 2013 budget and this will be a greater source of corruption, Bernas said.

For example, the appropriations for bridges in 2013 may no longer be needed in 2014 but the funds will still be there.

"Where will it go? It can be a source of corruption," he noted.

"(Remember), the amount of money is approved by Congress and nothing will come out of the national treasury if it is not approved by Congress."