Philippines’ ‘Pork Barrel’ Graft Probe Has Lawmakers Squealing

Public protests against rampant culture of political corruption are gathering momentum

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The Philippines' student groups stage a protest against the misuse of the country's state funds in Manila on Aug. 26, 2013

The Philippines and corruption go together like pork and mustard. But a fresh inquiry into the country’s so-called pork-barrel culture has produced some of the largest popular protests to hit the nation in years, and they show no signs of abating. Up to 100,000 people took to the Manila’s Rizal Park to protest on Aug. 26 with further marches slated for Wednesday and Friday.

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Pork barrel is a pejorative term for Priority Development Assistance Funds — discretionary annual lump sums of $4.5 million and $1.6 million provided respectively to each of the country’s 24 Senators and 289 Congressmen to pay for local infrastructure and development works. However, much of this cash is simply ferreted away through bogus NGOs and nonsensical initiatives (like $115,000 for “antidengue inoculants” although no dengue-fever vaccine is currently available). In addition, the cash is treated as a slush fund for ensuring political patronage and successful re-election. “It looks like everyone has their hands dipped in the cookie jar,” Malou Mangahas, executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, tells TIME.

Although graft is endemic in the Philippines, the sweeping scope of pork barrel has stunned even the most cynical. The scale emerged after a businesswoman named Janet Lim Napoles was accused of laundering staggering sums of money for lawmakers. From 2009 to ’12, Napoles allegedly provided at least six Senators and 26 Congressmen with $224.9 million, according to an Aug. 16 report by the Philippines’ official Commission on Audit. The 49-year-old former Laguna City housewife, who turned herself in to President Benigno Aquino III ostensibly out of fear for her own life, reportedly took a cut of 30% while delivering the bulk back to the pockets of politicians — much of it cash delivered furtively in shopping bags.

The opulent lifestyle enjoyed by Napoles — swanky houses, sports cars and a socialite daughter seen hobnobbing with celebrities including Justin Bieber at L.A. parties — spurred public outrage. “People were scandalized as you are dealing with a country where 80% of the people are poor, and the minimum wage doesn’t even reach the poverty line, only to find out that they do have money but they can’t have services because the officials are pocketing the money,” says Harry L. Roque, professor at the University of the Philippines College of Law.

In response, hordes of seething voters have taken to the street to demand an end to pork-barrel discretionary funding. So far, however, Aquino has only gone as far as to offer more transparency. Under touted reforms, each Senator and Congressman would maintain their current $4.5 million and $1.6 million allocations but must reveal where it is being spent — a half-measure described as “misleading the people” by Roque. “Unless you remove the budgetary entitlement of politicians,” he tells TIME, “there will always be pork.”

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Although Aquino remains untainted by the most serious allegations, he has not been immune to criticism. Aside from lawmakers, the office of the President also comes with a sizable discretionary budget — like calamity relief — and there are calls for this to also be abolished, as well as discretionary development funds for the judiciary and other arms of government. This comes with political risks. “There could be mutiny in the Congress if all pork is phased out,” warns Mangahas.

Indeed, pursuing legal cases will likely prove troublesome, as both allies and enemies of the executive have been implicated. “It would be difficult to file suits against so many Congressmen,” says Mangahas. In addition, complex graft cases will take several years to reach the courtroom — especially for the expected charges of “plunder” — during which time even more people could be implicated. Investigation attempts are currently focusing on a paper trail via illicit bank accounts, but the likelihood of numerous cash transactions could make gathering primary evidence extremely problematic.

Nevertheless, the strength of public feeling means that inaction is not an option. “The President wants to finish his term and he will make sure [something is done] as people are very, very mad,” explains Roque, adding that some token convictions will likely be forced through as quickly as possible. A long-awaited Freedom of Information Act is also receiving widespread public backing as it will give media the tools to properly investigate alleged impropriety. “I’m hoping that this anger will redefine Philippine politics and end the cycle of vote buying and corruption,” says Roque.

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