Joc-joc clears Gloria; senators dumbstruck
by JP Lopez and Dennis Gadil
The former agriculture undersecretary tagged as master architect in the illegal diversion of P728 million in fertilizer funds in 2004 yesterday cleared his “benefactor” President Arroyo.
But senators, both allies and critics of the President, were unconvinced about the claim of Jocelyn “Joc Joc” Bolante, saying it is hard to accept that such huge amount would be released without presidential approval.
“President Arroyo was not involved in this particular project of the Department of Agriculture. The implementation of the P728-million farm input-farm implement program was approved by DBM without the approval of President Arroyo” Bolante told Sen. Mar Roxas.
Roxas said it is unbelievable that the President, known to be a micromanager, would not have known about the release of the amount.
“Para masabi na hindi niya inaprubahan ito, napakahirap lang tanggapin. P728 million ito… and this P728 million is equivalent to 25 percent, one-fourth of the budget of the DA at that time. Imposible na ganitong kalaking halaga ay ire-release na hindi magkaroon ng approval mula sa Pangulo,” Roxas said.
Bolante told Senate president pro tempore Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada that the amount that was released to different municipalities does not need the approval of the President.
“Ibig mong sabihin, ang Pangulo ng Pilipinas, hindi nalalaman ang pag-release ng 700 plus million pesos?” Estrada asked.
Bolante said it is part of the regular budget of the Department of Agriculture and that it was part of the 2003 budget of the department that was released in February 2004.
He insisted the amount was not intended to finance the campaign of the administration candidates in May 2004 as it was released in August 2004.
He said the amount was requested by the proponents in September 2003 and that some of the amounts were not even released after the elections.
Bolante clarified that “as far as the DA is concerned it was not a fertilizer project. It was a farm-input, farm-implement project and the project proponents were the ones who chose how they would use the fund within the scope of the definition of the farm-input, farm- implement project.”
Senators remained puzzled as to why the amount was released during the campaign period and during the harvest period.
Bolante admitted it was his office that prepared the list of project proponents of the fertilizer fund.
“The list was prepared by my office, tasked by the DA to put together all pending request from different units,” he said.
Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago warned Bolante against perjuring himself.
“I give you a fair warning, sir, that although I’m an administration ally, what I have heard today has caused me almost a heart attack. I’m suffering from arrhythmia and you will have to take the responsibility if my health deteriorates and I join you at St. Luke’s hospital,” she said.
Santiago almost flared up in disbelief when Bolante said that in his three years in exile, not one in government contacted him.
“Naiskandalo na ang buong gobyerno walang tumawag sa iyo sa gobyerno? Ahhhh!” she exclaimed.
She recalled the testimony of Jose Barredo, the alleged runner of Bolante, that 25 percent of the P728-million fund went to Bolante, 30 percent to the proponents, 20 percent to the supplier, and another 25 percent to himself.
“Kinuwenta ko itong sinasabi ng testigo. Eh di 100 percent! Wala na palang perang naiwan para ibili ng fertilizer at farm inputs! Pinaghatian na lang nila. Pinag-parte ang pera,” she said.
“Ngayon, ano pruweba mo na nabigay yung fertilizer na yun? According to that witness, under oath, lahat ng pera pumunta lang sa kickbacks. Walang ni isang katiting na pumunta sa fertilizer. That is why it is called fertilizer fund scam. Aber, pakita ninyo sa amin ang dokumento na tinanggap ang fertilizer,” she told Bolante.
Bolante denied knowing Barredo, prompting Santiago to butt in.
“Well I didn’t ask you! I asked you, give me proof that the farmers received the fertilizer,” she said.
Senators also questioned Bolante’s skills as DA undersecretary.
Bolante admitted he was the first presidential appointee of Arroyo.
He said it was the Presidential Management Staff who informed him of his appointment, apparently due to his closeness to Jose Miguel Arroyo.
On questioning of Sen. Francis Escudero, Bolante stressed the DA did not release a single centavo of the program to politicians.
“We released it to the local government units, to the chosen implementing party of the projects of the congressmen and governors, for example let say in the province of Pampanga we did not release it to the governor, we released it to the provincial government of Pampanga,” Bolante said.
He said the amount was released under the Agriculture Fisheries Modernization program under the farm-implement, farm-inputs program.
But Escudero pointed out that it was not covered by AFMA. He said his father Sorsogon Rep. Salvador Escudero, has long been secretary of Agriculture department and that it has been the practice of the DA to release fund to rural banks, cooperatives and cooperative banks and not to the municipalities.
Escudero also recalled that then DA Secretary Domingo Panganiban testified that he was not aware of the farm-inputs, farm-implement program.
Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile questioned Bolante why the DA did not directly handle the implementation of the fertilizer program and instead give it to local government units.
Enrile cited the almost uniform allocation given to LGUs regardless the population and the size of their farm lands.
“Why Batanes, Camiguin getting similar amount to Bohol or Siquijor or Pangasinan? There was so much disparity in population, size of provinces involved or size of farms involved,” Enrile said.
Bolante tried to explain by saying that a governor received P5 million allocation because it covered his entire province while a congressman got only P3 million because it would only cover a district.
The former undersecretary also said LGU leaders have committed to augment the amount with their local funds to ensure the program’s success.
In his opening statement Bolante described as “very unfair” the Senate’s move to arrest him.
“In all honesty, I really feel that the decision to cite me for contempt and the consequent warrant of arrest was very unfair and railroaded,” he said.
He said the Senate, during the 13th Congress, had indicted him and branded him as the “architect” of the fertilizer fund scam.
Bolante said that he has nothing to hide and apologized to the Senate for “whatever inconvenience” his absence has caused in the course of its investigation into the multimillion-peso fertilizer fund scam.
“First and foremost I would like to apologize for whatever inconvenience my non-appearance in this august body has caused. I assure you it was not out of disrespect, nor was it because I had something to hide,” Bolante said in his opening statement.
“I had no intention of snubbing the Senate hearings… I have made prior commitments abroad which were set long before the scheduled senate hearings,” he added.
Bolante said he was “disinclined” to show up, amid perceptions the Senate had made a “prejudgment on the issues and proceedings” and that the matter had evolved into a “prosecutorial inquiry.”
“My lawyers had advised me (that as far as the Senate is concerned) I stand as an accused and not as a witness,” Bolante said.
Bolante said he received the subpoena for the Nov. 24, 2005 hearing only on November 23, making it “physically impossible” for him “to make the necessary adjustments” to his earlier commitments.
He added that flew to Los Angeles in July 2006 because he was already committed to give a speech at “a very important conference.”
Santiago said she is peeved over the vast powers enjoyed by Bolante over the disbursement of the funds, which she never enjoys as senator.
“Mr. Bolante, you have unparalleled authority to control and dispose off the sum of P728 million even I, as a senator, does not have the power,” Santiago said.
Sen. Loren Legarda said: “You were extra powerful. I never enjoyed that when I’m senator, kahit andito sila Budget Secretary (Rolando) Andaya during budget hearings, I can’t order them around.”
Escudero said the powers of Bolante over the disbursement of the funds were not even enjoyed when his father Salvador, was minister of agriculture of Ferdinand Marcos.
Enrile was intrigued why former agriculture secretary Luisito Lorenzo gave Bolante blanket authority to administer the funds to chosen proponents mostly made up of politicians.
Enrile said department secretaries and even their immediate subordinates are usually given the power to approve the release of funds not beyond the amount of P5 million but Bolante was given authority to approve the release of P728 million.
Bolante told the Senate panel that he was receiving death threats prior to his appearance in the probe.
He said in one of the threats through text messages, he was threatened with abduction if he “says something wrong.”
He said he will bare the death threats only in an executive session.
Bolante told Sen. Rodolfo Biazon that he has no intention of putting the country in a bad light when he told a US immigration court that he had been receiving death threats in the Philippines.
“I’m just afraid. I’m just a normal person who is afraid,” Bolante said.
The Blue Ribbon committee still allowed Bolante to go home but he would remain guarded by the Senate security personnel.
“We continue to assign security to maintain your status as being under the custody of the Senate, like protective custody to make sure you’re also safe,” said Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, Blue Ribbon chair.
Bolante asked the Senate panel if he could attend the House hearings on the fertilizer scam.
But Cayetano said: “Right now, that’s not your problem. You’re still under our custody.”
He said the House has to make formal communications with the Senate and has to agree that Bolante was under the Senate’s custody.
Bolante promised to make himself available in the next hearings.