Miriam on warpath

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — SENATOR Miriam Defensor-Santiago is expected to file charges before the Ombudsman against Cabinet members who will fail to satisfactorily explain the source of funds for their TV infomercials.

She pointed this out after conducting yesterday the first hearing on the controversy behind the infomercials of some Cabinet members which some sectors believe were designed to push their political ambition in next year’s election using government funds or resources.

Santiago had invited 12 Cabinet members and other officials who are running the infomercials, but only six came to the hearing. Present were Vice President Noli de Castro, Finance Secretary Margarito Teves, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, Education Secretary Jesli Lapuz, Pagcor (PhilippineAmusemen t and Games Corp.) Chairman Efraim Genuino and Metro Manila Development Authority Chairman Bayani Fernando.

Absent were Interior and Local Governments Secretary Ronaldo Puno, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro, and TESDA Chairman Bobby Syjuco. Santiago is set to subpoena them in the next hearing as she dismissed their explanation, through their respective excuse letters, that no government funds were used in their infomercials.

De Castro, Puno, Teodoro and Fernando were reportedly eyeing the presidency in the May 2010 national elections while Duque, Genuino and Syjuco were supposedly seeking a seat in the Senate.

“It is highly likely that these senatoriables and others are using public funds, by hiding it behind so-called ‘extraordinary and miscellaneous expenses,’” said Santiago, chairperson of the Economic Affairs Committee which handled the probe.

Santiago said that there is no law which requires Cabinet members to publicize their departments, and that it is illegal for them to feature themselves in alleged infomercials.

She added: “It is highly likely that hundreds of millions of pesos in public funds have already been paid for infomercials, because the rate card of a prime TV channel charges some P435,000 for 30 seconds of a commercial”.

Asked what was the source of his funds for his housing infomercial, De Castro said: “The corporate fund of Pag-Ibig madam chair. And we spent P172 million for radio and TV since 2007 up to present.”

“The rest of the Cabinet members who did not appear and who did not even give me the courtesy of specifying what their so-called previous appointments were, are simply scared stiff. Their absence indicates that they are probably guilty of using public funds,” she said.

“Eto naman si Puno no public funds daw. Really? Tapos sabi n’ya may appointment s’ya sa Lingayen, Pangasinan. All right, we’ll subpoena him. Lahat itong absent ngayon i-subpoena. Eto naman si Gilbert Teodoro, who is a Cojuangco, no public funds (din ang ginamit). I have to say this, kapani-paniwala dahil Cojuangco s’ya. Eto naman si Secretary Syjuco (ang sabi),’I have a flu here in Iloilo. Eh panu natin ma-check ‘yun (kung totoo)?” Santiago said.

One by one the Cabinet members present during the hearing explained the funding sources for their advertisement. For his infomercial on influenza A(H1N1), Duque said: “Our source of our funding is the budget of the National Center for Health Promotion which was approved by both houses of Congress.”

Lapus said: “We have two sources of funding. One is the General Appropriations Act where specifically there is a provision for advertising. We spent P5.7 million on the GAA. A bigger amount, P20.4 milllion, is donated by the networks under RA 8525 which is the Adopt-a-School program.”

For his part, Genuino said: “We spent about P82 million and these are all PAGCOR projects because we are not getting fund from the government.”

Fernando said that he spent P5.8 million for his infomercials which he got from MMDA’s “public relations funds.”

Santiago noted that the national budget specifically provides that “extraordinary and miscellaneous expenses” include “other similar expenses not supported in the regular budget allocation.”

“The Cabinet candidates are probably padding their miscellaneous expenses to camouflage their payments to the TV stations. They are entered as ‘extraordinary and miscellaneous expenses’ or as ‘other maintenance and operating expenses,’” she said.

Santiago noted that it is the job of the Commission on Audit to check that there are no false entries in the liquidation of public funds, but CoA Chair Reynaldo Villar refused to attend the hearing.

She said that TV ad payments could also have been taken from the confidential expenses which are allowed for the DILG-PNP, and DND; and also from donation expenses, which are allowed for the public works, health, and environment departments, for MMDA and for Makati City.