Solons grill agri chief over rice scam
By Norman Bordadora
Inquirer Headlines / Nation

Date posted : September 17, 2008

MANILA, Philippines—Lawmakers rebuked Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap for alleged irregularities involving billions of pesos in agricultural funds, when he appeared before Congress on Monday night to seek approval of a P39-billion budget for his department in 2009.


Yap testified before the House committee on appropriations on the day the Philippine Daily Inquirer came out with the Commission on Audit (COA) findings about supposed misuse of P218 million meant for hybrid seeds and other farm inputs for farmer-beneficiaries.


House members referred to alleged irregularities cited in an audit report on the Department of Agriculture (DA) for 2007 involving disbursements ranging to up more than a billion pesos.


Yap told the committee the regional offices mentioned in the COA report were already working to answer the auditors’ adverse findings.


“From the answer of the secretary, he has yet to submit a report to the COA,” Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, senior vice chair of the House committee on appropriations said, referring to Yap’s failure to formally answer the COA report.


Lagman said it was important that Yap answer the COA report.


“These COA findings on an alleged scam with respect to hybrid rice certified seeds happened during the watch of the incumbent secretary,” he said.


Yap was allowed by the committee to submit at a later date supporting documents and his response to the COA findings.


‘We want the truth’


But Yap also asked that the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) be called to explain its disbursements to the agriculture department.


“We want to arrive at the truth. Let us also have the DBM on hand,” he added.


Anakpawis Rep. Rafael Mariano first confronted Yap with the off-budget disbursement of P4.361 billion to the DA in 2007, including a P1.5-billion release for the Ginintuang Masaganang Ani program 98 days before the May 14 elections.


Citing the COA report, Mariano said most of the allocations were given by the budget department to the DA even without the latter’s request.


Same money trail


The COA also said that most of the funds were difficult to account for.


“This is exactly the same money trail taken by the P728-million fertilizer fund scam in 2004,” Mariano said.


Gabriela Rep. Liza Maza questioned releases in November 2007 of almost P900 million from the same P4.361 billion disbursements, over and above the DA appropriations in under the 2008 national budget.


Maza found the off-budget releases interesting as they came at a time when the House was deliberating the third consecutive impeachment case against President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.


Maza wants proof


Maza asked Yap to produce an accomplishment report on the projects funded by the November 2007 releases.

“The COA has noted that there was no way for them to validate the actual applications of the fund allocations due to the absence of detailed activities and reports on the project outputs,” Maza said.


“The DA needs to clarify these fund allocations and report in detail on the regions and provinces where they have been allocated and who actually benefited from these projects,” she added. “We need to know whether these funds have indeed been used for its supposed purpose.”


The bulk of the disbursement Maza questioned—involving P800 million—had been earmarked for an item called Accelerated Hunger Mitigation Program. The remaining allocations were for the Agno River development (P27.5 million) and barangay food terminals (P70 million).


Curious dates


The releases that Maza questioned were made from Nov. 12 to Nov. 19 that year.


The dates roughly coincided with a House vote junking the impeachment complaint against Ms Arroyo.


Elsewhere, a coalition of farmers and non-government organizations slammed the agriculture department’s failure to arrest corruption.


In a statement, the Rice Watch and Action Network (R1) said Yap should not wash his hands off the reported scam involving agricultural funds “because it is his responsibility to ensure that the people’s money is not squandered and to give to the beneficiaries what is due them.”


“The (COA) report has proven what the people have been suspecting all along. The spirit of ‘Joc-joc’ has not left the agency and continues to haunt the farmers and (deprive) the taxpayers of their hard-earned money,” said R1 lead convenor Jessica Reyes-Cantos.


Cantos was referring to former Agriculture Undersecretary Jocelyn Bolante who had been linked to the alleged diversion of P728 million in fertilizer funds to finance Ms Arroyo’s campaign in the 2004 presidential election. With a report from Amy R. Remo






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