Thursday, May 17, 2012

Plea to stop release of pork barrel to lawmakers junked

THE Supreme Court (SC) struck down an attempt by a lawyers’ group that sought to stop the release of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), widely known as “pork barrel,” to lawmakers. In its petition, the group cited alleged misuse of allocations via kickbacks given by favored contractors to corrupt officials. But the SC en banc dismissed the petition for certiorari that Lawyers Against Monopoly and Poverty (Lamp) filed in a bid to stop the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) from releasing the PDAF to lawmakers. “While the court is not unaware of the yoke caused by graft and corruption, the evils propagated by a piece of valid legislation cannot be used as a tool to overstep constitutional limits and arbitrarily annul acts of Congress,” the decision Associate Justice Jose Catral Mendoza penned for the SC en banc read. Lamp members, numbering 25 lawyers, filed the petition against the DBM secretary, Senate president, and treasurer of the Philippines, Commission on Audit and speaker of the House of Representatives. The lawyers’ group, which was formed to “dismantle all forms of political, economic or social monopoly” in the country, includes Justice Abraham Sarmiento, Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., and Bartolome Fernandez Jr. among its board of consultants. Constitutionality In their petition, Lamp questioned the constitutionality of the implementation of PDAF, which is provided for in Republic Act 9206, or the General Appropriations Act of 2004. The lawyers argued that the provision in RA 9206, particularly on the use and release of funds, is “silent” and, therefore, prohibits an automatic or direct allocation of lump sums to the senators and congressmen for the funding of projects. The above provision, Lamp pointed out, does not empower congressmen to propose, select and identify programs and projects to be funded out of PDAF. The petitioners also argued that the solons’ act of spending the public funds for their chosen projects “intrudes into an executive function.” They added that congressmen cannot “virtually tell or dictate” the executive branch of the government how to spend taxpayers’ money. The petitioners further said the appropriation power of Congress does not include proposing, selecting and identifying projects that lawmakers intend to fund. Such power, the lawyers said, “essentially and exclusively” pertains to the executive branch of government. Lack of legal basis But the respondents sought the dismissal of the petition for lack of legal basis. The government agencies clarified that the perception that pork barrel is a source of corruption among unscrupulous lawmakers is baseless. The allegations of the petitioners should not be based on mere speculations, the defendants said. In its decision, the high court said the petition lacks proof. “No convincing proof was presented showing that, indeed, there were direct releases of funds to the members of Congress, who actually spend them according to their sole discretion,” the high tribunal said. While it acknowledged the “patriotism and good motive” of the lawyers in filing the petition, the high court ruled “all presumptions are indulged in favor of constitutionality.” “One who attacks a statute, alleging unconstitutionality, must prove its invalidity beyond a reasonable doubt,” the high tribunal said.