PCSO board director, Atty. Aleta Tolentino, said a 2009 Commission on Audit report showed there were several checks representing the amount that were taken from the charity fund.
"Based on the COA report, may violation ng Republic Act 3019 (Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act). Siguro kung may kasalanan ang bishops, dapat parusahan sila. We should be God-fearing, not bishop-fearing," she said.
Tolentino added the previous PCSO board should also be held liable.
"Sila ang in charge to take care of the funds of PCSO, they are mandated to see to it that there is prudent utilization of the funds," she said.
Tolentino, PCSO chairperson Margie Juico, and other PCSO board members have been summoned by the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee to shed light on the controversy.
"Kailangan maimbestigahan ang PCSO dahil pera ito ng bayan at dapat malaman kung may katotohanan ba sa mga alegasyon na nalustay ang pondo," Blue Ribbon committee chairman Teofisto 'TG' Guingona said.
If the PCSO is determined to hold everybody who benefitted from the funds accountable, Guingona does not see the need for the bishops to be summoned.
The controversy over some bishops receiving vehicles from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office during the Gloria Arroyo administration may top the agenda at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines' plenary assembly in Manila on July 8 to 10.
CBCP President and Tandag Bishop Nereo Odchimar said “We will discuss [the matter] at the plenary assembly. I still have to listen to the opinions of the other bishops."
In an article posted Friday night on the CBCP news site, Odchimar also said he would try to personally get the sides of the bishops linked to the mess.
He pointed out he has no personal knowledge of the supposed “grants" given to some bishops by the PCSO.
The plenary assembly, to be held at the Pius XII Center in Manila, is the highest decision-making body of the bishops’ conference.
It convenes every January and July.
Earlier, the PCSO claimed some bishops received donations and vehicles from then President Gloria Arroyo, allegedly as political patronage.
In the January 2005 statement, bishops made it a collective policy “to refrain from soliciting or receiving funds from illegal and legal gambling so as not to promote a culture of gambling."
“But as I said, this was not generally followed for the benefit of the poor. The needs of the poor are primary important," he said.
“For example, if someone sick and in critical condition comes to me, would I still hesitate to recommend him to Pagcor (Philippine Amusement and gaming Corp.)? It’s a matter of life and death," he added.
Besides, he said bishops and their dioceses are independent of one another and are still directly responsible to Pope Benedict XVI.
"Let's see how the story plays out first. We will ask them to comment or we could invite them, but we will not force them to attend."
Documents on the controversial multimillion-peso allocations of Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) funds to allies of the past administration lead to no other than former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
This was according to Sen. Panfilo Lacson, citing the initial batch of documents he has reviewed for this coming week’s Senate investigation into the controversy involving the dole outs allegedly given by the PCSO.
“Nakita ko ang ibang dokumento, siya nag-apruba... May nakita akong dokumentong may pirma siya (I saw some of the documents, and they bore her signature indicating she approved of the allocations)," Lacson said in an interview on dzBB radio Sunday.
“Makapal ang dokumento pero pag may graft at siya nag-apruba meron siyang culpability dito. Kung di administrative, criminal liability. Pero dahil pera ng bayan pinag-uusapan dito at kung may graft and corruption na kaso, criminal ang kanyang liability dito," he added.
(The documents are rather thick but if it is proven that there is graft involved in the allocation of the PCSO funds, she may be culpable because she approved the release of the funds. Her liability may be administrative and criminal. But since we are talking of graft and corruption, there is a possibility she may be criminally liable.)
He said it is also possible that Arroyo, now Pampanga congresswoman, may have given “verbal instructions" to the then PCSO Board to release such funds to lawmakers allied with her.
The Arroyo camp has yet to comment on the controversy.
But Lacson also admitted the Senate could not invite, much less summon, Arroyo to its Blue Ribbon Committee investigation on the controversy because of inter-parliamentary courtesy.
The Senate is to hold on July 6 and 7 its initial hearings on the PCSO controversy, where millions of pesos in PCSO funds were given to lawmakers and even bishops who were allegedly allied or associated with Arroyo.
Under the principle of inter-parliamentary courtesy, a lawmaker may voluntarily attend an investigation of the other chamber and give his or her side, but is not compelled to do so.
“Sa tingin ko di naman maga-appear si Congresswoman Arroyo kasi sa tingin ko malaki ang tama niya rito (I don’t think Congresswoman Arroyo would attend because she will have much explaining to do here)," Lacson said.
On the other hand, he said Arroyo risks letting the public perceive her as guilty if she continues to refuse to air her side on the matter.
“Kung dito may katiwalian at may kasong graft and corruption at ayaw niya humarap wala siyang immunity na, pwede siya makasuhan. Kung di siya magpapaliwanag dahil di maliwanagan sa kaisipan ng mamamayan baka matanim sa isipan na guilty siya kung di siya magpapaliwanag," he said.
(If there is proven to be graft in these transactions and she refuses to air her side, she may soon find herself charged once her immunity lapses. Besides, the more she refuses to explain, the more people will think she is indeed guilty.)
Lacson noted initial reports reaching the Senate indicating that the Arroyo administration had left the PCSO some P4 billion in debt. He said some of the documents indicated Arroyo’s approval of the release of some P33,000, “subject to the submission of requirements."
When asked if the dates of the release showed the funds were released at a time Arroyo needed allies to protect her from impeachment or from the “Hello Garci" scandal, he said, “Parang (it appears so)."
On Sunday, a newspaper report quoted the PCSO as saying lawmakers allied with Arroyo supposedly received P92.2 million in endowments. They included:
* Then presidential son Rep. Diosdado Arroyo of Camarines Sur (P500,000 for Naga City hospital);
* Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez (P68 million for 16 hospitals);
* Negros Oriental Rep. George Arnaiz (P11.5 million);
* Bulacan Rep. Ma. Victoria Sy-Alvarado (P8 million);
* Nueva Ecija Rep. Antonino (P5 million);
* Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rodriguez (P5 million);
* Then Bulacan Rep. Lorna Silverio and then North Cotabato Representative Emmylou Talino Mendoza (P1.2 million).
He said that while there is nothing wrong with lawmakers referring indigent patients to the PCSO, there is something questionable with the PCSO giving amounts of as big as P68 million to a single lawmaker.
Bishops not likely to be invited on 1st day
Lacson said Catholic bishops who allegedly received high-end vehicles from PCSO will not likely be invited to the first day of hearings on Wednesday. He said those likely to be invited are PCSO chairperson Margarita Juico and Commission on Audit officials, including those who prepared the 2008 and 2009 reports.
Also to be invited are present PCSO board members, as well as those that served under the Arroyo government.
He said they will grill the old and new PCSO Boards and the Commission on Audit teams that prepared the 2008 and 2009 reports, to validate the names of the recipients and the amounts they received.
“Sa unang araw palagay ko di pa kasi wala pang basehan until ma-validate ng PCSO na talagang ang sasakyan at perang nabigay talaga sa mga obispo by then pwede sila imbitahin na mag-appear sa pagdinig," he said.
(At least on the first day we will not likely invite them to the hearing because there is no basis yet. We first have to validate from the PCSO board if the bishops were indeed the recipients. Only then can we invite the bishops.)
PCSO law amendments
Lacson said the Senate investigation will explore possible amendments to Republic Act 1169, the PCSO charter. He said the present charter places the PCSO under the Ministry of Human Settlements, although the Office of the President remains the approving authority.
Also, he said the Senate may ask the PCSO Board for its annual report, which it submits every month to the Office of the President and to Congress.
“So bukod sa naka-focus tayo doon lang sa sinasabing pagbibigay ng mga Pajero at mamahaling sasakyan mga SUVs sa Obispo at pati kongresista titingnan natin kung kailangan i-review at amyendahan ang RA 1169 (Aside from focusing on the giving of vehicles and cash to bishops and congressmen we will review RA 1169 and see what can be done to amend it)," he said.
No anti-RH witch-hunt
Lacson also belied claims by some bishops that the investigation aims to get back at the Catholic Church for its rejection of the Reproductive Health bill, which is being backed by President Benigno Aquino III.
“Ang unang-unang tanungin nakatanggap kayo o hindi? Yan ang pinag-uusapan dito. Pag hinaluan mo ibang issue di pa rin malilingap sa isip ng kababayan natin kung ang katanungan nakatanggap ba sila o hindi yan ang bottom line (The bottom line is, did they receive or not? Muddling the issue with other issues will not help)," he said.
He also rejected claims that the bishops should be spared from the investigation due to the time-honored principle of separation of Church and State.
“Kung invoke nila ngayon separation of Church and State parang masyadong unilateral ang application. Pag sila sa receiving end may separation of Church and State pero kung estado nalalagay sa alanganin at sila naghihimasok e hindi binabanggit ang separation of Church and State," he said.
(If they invoked that now, that would be too unilateral. They invoke the separation of Church and State when they are at a disadvantage but they forget about it if they meddle in the affairs of the State.)
“Walang above the law, maski alagad ka ng simbahan saklaw ka pa rin ng batas (No one is above the law. Even if you are a prince of the Church, you are not immune from the law)," he added.
Lacson also chided some bishops for suggesting that they got something from the PCSO under the administration of Aquino’s late mother Corazon.
“Namayapa ang tao, bakit ihahalo sa usapan para pasaringan ang anak? ... Hindi ko dine-defend ang Malacañang pero I think medyo unchristian ang namayapa na dating pangulo isasama sa usapan parang gusto balikan ang anak namayapa na ang tao. Parang nagdadamay ng iba na di na dapat idamay (Mrs. Aquino had died but why drag her into this? I am not defending Malacañang but I think it is unchristian to get back at the child of a late former leader)," he said.
Malacañang on Saturday reminded Catholic bishops they are not above the law in the ongoing row over donations allegedly received by some prelates from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO).
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte also “cleared" other religious groups from the mess, saying the Commission on Audit found no sign of donations to them.
“Certainly if it’s a criminal offense, nobody is above the law and nobody is immune from suit," she said on government-run dzRB radio, when asked about the possibility of bishops facing criminal charges.
She cited Article VI Section 29 (2) of the Constitution, which decrees that "No public money or property shall be appropriated, applied, paid, or employed, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, sectarian institution, or system of religion, or of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher, or dignitary as such, except when such priest, preacher, minister, or dignitary is assigned to the armed forces, or to any penal institution, or government orphanage or leprosarium."
“Hindi lang sa Catholic Church, (but) for any religion, sect or denomination. Ipinagbababawal ng Constitution yan, may separation of Church and State," she said.
Valte also reiterated the Palace is not singling out the Catholic Church on the PCSO mess.
She said it just so happened that the Commission on Audit (COA)’s 2008 and 2009 reports had detected donations to some bishops.
“It’s not something personal, it’s just that the 2008 and 2009 COA report mismo ang nagsabi. The money should not have been disbursed [in that manner] because it is violative of the constitutional prohibition," she said.
Valte also said the Palace would have favored an investigation by the PCSO of other religious groups had they been tagged as recipients of donations.
Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos, who allegedly requested and received a luxury vehicle from the Arroyo administration, was the same bishop who told President Benigno Aquino III to resign less than a year in office.
In his statement against Aquino that hogged the headlines last month, Pueblos said he knew dissatisfied personalities who are already plotting an attempt to remove Aquino from the presidency.
"I'll just be waiting for them to share the result of their output and see ano ba talaga ang the best for the Philippines without bloodshed and without violence," the bishop was quoted in a report as saying.
Pueblos also criticized the President for appointing friends and allies to government positions, and supposedly treating with a kid glove those who get embroiled in controversies.
"He is not interested to be President. I can see that. He does not plan, does not study, does not make his own decision, and just lets his friends [make] it. Poor Philippines," Pueblos said.
Reacting to the bishop’s statements, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda described Pueblos as "ignorant" for meddling in political affairs.
"Instead of pastoral concern, he seems ignorant of the virtues of charity, humility, and prudence, and instead fires from the hip, armed with a fanciful imagination, and utterly without any effort to discern the truth," Lacierda said in a statement.
Late last year, Pueblos also criticized Aquino for supposedly zeroing in on only former President Arroyo in his anti-corruption campaign. "Why [focus] it [on] just one person, on Arroyo? Why not [focus] on Ramos, Erap, kay Cory, dahil I believe all presidents mayroon talaga," Pueblos said over the Church-run Radyo Veritas.
Donations in exchange for support
In a telephone interview with GMA News Online last week, activist priest Robert Reyes said politicians usually give donations to bishops in exchange for their support, as the Church leaders wield some influence over their respective dioceses.
Reyes, a staunch critic of the previous administration, said the "support" that Mrs. Arroyo extended to a number of bishops softened their stance on calls for the former president to step down. The CBCP did not directly call for her resignation.
In the case of Pueblos, the bishop assured Mrs. Arroyo of his "constant support" when he wrote the former president requesting an SUV, according to a letter revealed during Wednesday’s Senate hearing on the vehicle scandal at the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office.