REMEMBER the Million People March? Remember Janet Napoles and the pork barrel scam? All these seem to be a century ago, when in fact these just happened about a decade ago. Recall that in 2013, the media exploded with exposes of graft and corruption involving the so-called Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), otherwise known as pork barrel. Simply put, when the Executive Branch prepared its yearly budget, the legislative branch or congress was allowed to allot lump sum “special funds” for projects in their districts. But as the very entrepreneurial Janet Napoles showed, through her fraudulent non-government organizations, these projects did not exist at all. And the funds allotted? They would go to the pockets of the scammers and the conniving politicians. 

As a response to this damning expose, the public rose in protest and in August 2013, on the National Day of Heroes, hundreds of thousands rallied at the Luneta Park and in other cities outside Manila, as well as cities abroad through the initiative of overseas Filipino worker organizations. Even Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila at that time, showed up at Luneta and made a call for Filipinos to choose to be “marangal” (honest) and for politicians to think always of the poor, who, deprived of underfunded basic services are ultimately the victims of government corruption. What became known as the Million People March that day became a sustained and relentless grassroots-protest movement for the abolition of the pork barrel system. In November 2013, the Supreme Court declared that the PDAF system was unconstitutional. Janet Napoles and several prominent lawmakers were brought to court, found guilty of graft and sent to prison. 

It is good to revisit those heady days of 2013. If only to be reminded of the democratic power and strength that people possess if they would only unite and join hands. Also, because like Voldemort, the evil that we thought we have vanquished back then is certainly back. It may have taken a different name or form but essentially is the same stinking pork. Started by the past administration, the so-called Confidential or intelligence funds are scattered all over the proposed gargantuan 2024 national budget amounting to P5.768 trillion. Of this, P10 Billion is confidential fund. Asked to explain, cabinet secretaries say it is confidential because it is discretionary in nature; and asked further, they say it is also intelligence fund because the entire government apparatus needs to gather information about the spread of communism or terrorism in the country. Really? Is that still an issue? Does the communist boogeyman still work today, when China is already one of the most capitalistic countries now and Russia’s Putin owns and controls most of business in the Iron Curtain?  

But whether you believe these wild tales, here is the rundown of these intel funds: DA – P50 M; DFA – P50 M; DICT– P300 M; DOJ – P471.29 M; Ombudsman – P51.468 M; Defense – P1.89 B; DILG– P906.62 M; DOF – P111 M; DSWD– P18 M; DOT – P15.6 M; DENR – P13.95 M; COA – P10 M; CHR – P1M; Dep Ed – P150 M; OVP – P500 M; OP – P4.51 B. The exact total is P10.142 Billion, which is an increase of P120 M from last year’s intel funds. As Congress continues to deliberate on the proposed budget, in the spotlight is the Vice President who is asking for a total of P650 M intel funds for her office and cabinet portfolio. Expectedly, the House of Representatives has given her a pass, with Rep Sandro Marcos moving that the “budget (discussion) be terminated” unceremoniously and abruptly as a “parliamentary courtesy” to the office of the Vice President. On the other hand, grilled before the Senate, with a coterie of officials beside her, the Vice President could not substantially field the questions on why her two offices needed such intel funds. The DepEd’s spokesperson would mention though that 16 public high schools in the National Capital Region are “involved in recruitment activities.” Although the hearing ended cordially, the Vice President would later dismiss in the media what she calls Senator Risa Hontiveros’ “flair for drama.” The Senator, on the other hand, would respond by telling the Vice President that “you are not special”; that is how the budget is done; the cabinet secretaries need to defend to Congress how they plan to spend people’s money. For his part, Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri, President of the Senate, promised to propose a bill defining what intelligence and confidential funds are. 

As this controversy intensifies, we, the general public, must rightfully be concerned. As mentioned already, this so-called confidential or intel fund is essentially the outlawed pork barrel system. The only difference is that aside from the smaller amount (the pork barrels before totaled at P200 B per year), the beneficiary of the intel funds is the executive and not congress. Also, the rationale for so-called intelligence funds, which is to spy on the public, is insidious, if not dangerous. Already, red-tagging by government in recent years has victimized many, including Sr. Patricia Fox who was summarily expelled by government for her allegedly suspicious work with indigenous peoples in Mindanao. Beyond this of course, there is the fundamental issue of accountability. The 1987 Constitution sets a whole chapter for this key democratic principle entitled “Accountability of Public Officers,” which begins with “Public Office is a Public Trust. Public officers and employees must at all times be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency… (Sec 1, Art XI.)” Perhaps the Biblical counterpart of that is Jesus’ admonition: “Whoever can be trusted with small things can also be trusted with big things; whoever is dishonest in little things will be dishonest in big things too… (Luke 16:10).” On the other hand, the opposite of accountability is impunity, which is the behavior of populist leaders today.  Buoyed by the popular support that gave them their position, they feel they can just flout the law. And it is in this context then that this controversy over this so-called intel or confidential funds becomes a test case or a portent of things to come for this country. “Be vigilant!” warns our Lord. Watch this space!