Aquino’s Anti-Graft Fight Faces Hurdle Amid Protest

Philippine civic groups took to the streets today to seek the removal of politicians implicated in a graft scandal that threatens to tarnish President Benigno Aquino’s anti-corruption credentials.

The protest, coinciding with celebrations to mark 116 years of Philippine independence, called on authorities to speed up cases against those who allegedly profited from a scheme that diverted lawmakers’ discretionary funds, Renato Reyes Jr., one of the organizers, said by phone.

About 5,000 demonstrators turned out today in Manila, failing to top the more than 60,000 people who gathered in the capital in August to protest the pork-barrel controversy. Civic groups will continue to pressure Aquino to go after all those involved including his allies, Reyes said.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer exposed the 10 billion-peso ($228 million) fund scam in July, sparking a government investigation that focused on businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles as the alleged mastermind. She was arrested over a separate criminal case a month later.

The graft claims risk overshadowing Aquino’s achievements in completing a peace deal with Muslim rebels and efforts to improve infrastructure as hallmarks of his term that ends in 2016. Lim-Napoles linked at least 120 sitting and former lawmakers to the scandal in a May 26 affidavit, including some of Aquino’s allies.

‘Negative Impact’

The Office of the Ombudsman last week indicted Lim-Napoles and Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla for alleged misuse of funds. All have denied the charges. Lim-Napoles also claimed to have dealt with Budget Secretary Butch Abad while he was a congressman and said that Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala approved farm projects from which some legislators got kickbacks. Both denied her allegations.

“This scandal is having an increasingly negative impact on Aquino’s administration,” said Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “It’s also clearly diverting the Senate away from its responsibilities. At the moment, the Senate in particular, where most of the accusations are focused, is preoccupied with the scandal.”

Lim-Napoles, who sought to turn state witness, claimed to have transacted with at least 20 incumbent and former senators, and at least 100 sitting and ex-congressmen. Prosecutors said Lim-Napoles, whose husband was an ex-marine major, set up bogus non-government organizations that received congressional funds meant for development projects. A portion of the money was then routed back to lawmakers, they said.

‘Groundless Allegations’

“I have had no dealings with Napoles, either directly or through an agent,” Abad said in a mobile-phone message on June 4. He called the claims “groundless allegations that are uncorroborated.”

Alcala has denied knowing Lim-Napoles and said he never dealt with her either as agriculture chief or as a former congressman. “There’s a deliberate attempt to mislead the public by diverting their anger from the guilty to the innocent ones,” he said in a statement on June 2. Alcala did not reply to a mobile-phone message seeking a fresh comment.

“We observed due process,” Aquino, 54, said in a speech today in Naga City. “We gathered and continue to gather evidence.”

The plunder cases against opposition Senators Enrile, Estrada and Revilla aren’t spurred by politics, he said.

Today’s low turnout shows Aquino continue to have popular support, Ramon Casiple, Executive Director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila said by phone. Still, “the public is watching what Aquino’s next moves will be,” Casiple said.

‘Burn the House’

“They may be carrying out a strategy of ‘burn the house down’ by implicating as many political personalities as possible, thereby misdirecting the inquiry and dissipating efforts to make those involved accountable before the bar of justice,” Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma told reporters last month, in reference to Aquino’s political opponents.

Businessmen who say there is a lot of public sector corruption rose to 56 percent last year from a record-low 43 percent a year earlier, according to a poll released on Jan. 15 by the Social Weather Stations, a research group in Manila.

“The allegations against leading cabinet members could undermine Aquino’s image as a leader fully in control of his own house,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science lecturer at the Ateneo de Manila University. “The growing list of accused officials has increased the risk of an ineffective anti-corruption drive as innuendos and unfocused probes begin to numb the public to the scandal.”

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