MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews / 4 Oct) – Legal as well ethical questions have surfaced in relation to the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) of President Benigno S. Aquino III.
It was Senator Jinggoy Estrada who first revealed the DAP, in a privilege speech last Sept. 25 aimed to deflect the heat generated by the alleged pork barrel scam where whistleblowers have pointed to him and other lawmakers as among the biggest beneficiaries. He said amounts from the DAP were used to bribe senators who voted for the conviction of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona who underwent an impeachment trial early last year.
The senator’s exact words were: “After the conviction of the former Chief Justice, those who voted to convict were allotted an additional 50 million pesos as provided in a private and confidential letter memorandum of the then chair of the senate finance committee.”
Estrada’s allegation raises questions on the real motivation of the senators who convicted Corona, although it does not necessarily mean that the ousted magistrate was innocent of the charges leveled against him. Still, the allegation has tainted the guilty verdict as the fruit of transactional politics.
As expected, Senate President Franklin Drilon, Budget Secretary Jose Abad and other Palace officials defended the DAP. They maintained the allocation was never intended as a bribe, and emphasized that it was disbursed months after the impeachment trial had ended. As Palace spokesperson Edwin Lacierda put it, “How can there be bribery after the fact?”
Deputy Palace spokesperson Abigail Valte offered her own two cents worth to the issue by arguing the President has the authority to realign savings from the budget. And Drilon, apparently thinking of public anger at how government funds are being filched by officials, assured that the DAP allocation coursed through him was spent on tangible projects. He received the biggest amount from DAP – P100 million.
But Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, in an interview with ANC’s Karen Davila on October 3, pointed out that the money used for the DAP did not come from government savings but from projects that were either unfinished or not moving at all. Santiago said that in legal sense savings refers to money left after a certain project has been finished.
Santiago brushed off Drilon’s statement that the fund he got from the DAP was spent properly as irrelevant, saying the issue is the constitutionality of the program itself. She also refuted Lacierda’s contention that bribery could not possibly be committed after the fact. The senator said the law does not define a time element for bribery, and that the mere promise of a reward for doing or not doing something already constitutes such crime.
Father Joaquin Bernas, SJ, an expert on the Constitution, agreed with Santiago’s legal arguments on the DAP. He further cited that the DAP allocated money for projects that were not in the General Appropriations Act (GAA) last year. He said that by doing so the Palace usurped Congress’s power of the purse as defined under Article VI, Section 25 of the 1987 Constitution.
Sub-section 5 of Section 25 of Article VI provides: “No law shall be passed authorizing any transfer of appropriations; however, the President, the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the heads of Constitutional Commissions may, by law, be authorized to augment any item in the general appropriations law for their respective offices from savings in other items of their respective appropriations.”
It is clear that no new budget items may be created on top of those already provided under the GAA. The only option is to use money saved in one item for other items which may need additional amounts. Based on Santiago’s and Bernas’ explanations the DAP fails this constitutional test.
So, can Aquino be impeached for culpable violation of the Constitution? Santiago opined it is possible but only in theory as the President controls both the House and the Senate. Besides, she said, if the lawmakers impeach him they are in effect admitting their guilt too for accepting money from the DAP.
On second thought, another divisive impeachment process is the last thing the country needs at the moment. The President only needs to dismiss the advisers that have gotten him into this mess. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at email@example.com.)