POSTSCRIPT / August 8, 2004 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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GMA afraid to lose gold mine of Pagcor?

SAME DOG, NEW COLLAR?: What’s the big difference between the Arroyo administration before the May 10 elections and the new dispensation inaugurated last June 30?

Having voted for President Arroyo, I have been waiting anxiously for the first sign of true reform that would jolt this country in near-coma back to its senses.

Alas, I have not seen much, really, in her first 40 days to buoy hopes that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo — claiming a fresh mandate — will now blaze new trails as a reformist president.

In fact, I just saw one indication that President Arroyo is still afraid, or unwilling, to break away from the material distractions of traditional politics when she announced taking back the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) under her wings.

Pagcor, a cash cow of whoever rules from Malacanang, was earlier placed by the President under the finance department together with some agencies known to be big revenue earners.

Answering media questions in the open forum at the President’s Night of the Manila Overseas Press Club last Friday, the President confirmed she was taking back Pagcor.

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PILE OF GOLD: Note that like the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, another state gambling firm that operates the Sweepstakes races and the daily Lotto, Pagcor channels millions monthly to the President’s “social fund.”

This is one fat account where the President can dip and spread patronage without having to go through the usual budgeting and auditing procedures required of government funds. Even better than intelligence funds, which still pass through Congress.

Why is the President hesitant to give up Pagcor? Remember that in her inaugural speech, the newly elected Ms Arroyo even talked of using or sacrificing her personal wealth to pursue pro-poor projects.

That was a startling statement that sounded, at least to me, like a divinely inspired renunciation of the material fruits of public office.

This time around, she went down to using a mere suggestion of a newspaper columnist as a convenient excuse for changing her mind about letting go of Pagcor and its millions of gambling earnings.

Pardon me, but the President’s use of a newspaper item as basis for state policy was shallow and selective, if not downright suspicious.

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RISKY TRANSFER: But if the reason for the President’s change of mind was not basically a desire to retain control of the gold mine, is it possible that the idea was to use controls to help cover up for her husband’s loyal workers in Pagcor?

Pagcor’s removal from the protective mantle of Malacanang and its transfer to the more open Department of Finance might blow the lid off many questioned transactions made before the last May elections.

Until the justifications and the audited documentation are completed for those transactions, it would be risky to let go of Pagcor and open it to opposition or public scrutiny.

So what is new with the supposedly new Arroyo administration? Why cannot the President just let everything hang out and have the axe fall where it must?

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LOTTO RACKET: The Sweepstake office is another contributor to the President’s social fund. Among the sources are Lotto prizes not claimed within one year.

The setup makes the President the only person who wins multiple Lotto jackpots running into millions without having to place any bet. The money just rolls in.

The PCSO has this bright idea of giving Lotto winners only one year to claim prizes while the thermal paper on which the betting tickets are printed fade beyond recognition in only a few weeks. Malinis na racket yan, di po ba?

After one year, the resulting numerous unclaimed prizes are added to the President’s social fund. Neat.

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LESSON FOR CITO: Outgoing Agriculture Secretary Luis “Cito” Lorenzo may want to learn from the above Pagcor footnote about not leaving the office without first tying loose ends or covering one’s tracks.

Lorenzo, who was tapped to perform the miracle of the multiplication of jobs before the last elections, will turn over his office on Aug. 15 to National Food Authority boss Arthur Yap who has been tasked, I heard, to perform other miracles.

Suddenly Lorenzo now finds himself being accused by his own employees of milking the department of millions of pesos that allegedly went to companies owned by his family, friends and cronies.

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EL NINO FUNDS: In a letter to President Arroyo, the complaining personnel accused Lorenzo of various misdeeds that include fund diversion, graft and corruption, and defiance of the Palace ban on foreign travel.

They produced documents showing that from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources alone, Lorenzo had allegedly diverted and misused P10 million intended for a project mitigating ill effects of the El Nino phenomenon.

From December 2003 to June 2004, for instance, P1.341 million was allegedly taken from BFAR to pay Subic International Air Carrier, a company reportedly owned by the Lorenzo family, for various trips made by the secretary perennially on the move.

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TRAVEL PERKS: “The checks paid to SIAC reached P2.566 million in five months,” the workers said. “Had Lorenzo used a commercial airline, which was the correct thing to do, this amount would have been equivalent to 325 round-trip tickets from Manila to Davao and back, riding business class.”

Still on extravagance, the workers said that for his trip alone to Cancun, Mexico, the department paid P445,916 to a Budget Travel and Tours. They said the expenses grew partly because Lorenzo brought along some friends and classmates.

There were other trips listed to Abu Dhabi, Madrid, Paris and Hong Kong. For the Abu Dhabi-Hong Kong trip, the group said, “Lorenzo and each of his companions reportedly received $10,000 cash advances” taken from another agency under his department.

The group also questioned the P100,000 monthly expense allegedly taken from the Quedan Rural Credit Guarantee Corp., another firm under his department, and spent for one of Lorenzo’s mobile phones.

“At the rate of P8 per minute and computing at 30 days per month,” the group said, “Lorenzo must have made calls from this one cellular phone seven hours each day of the month.”

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EMAIL OUR LADY: You do not have to fly to France to have your prayers and intentions reach the miraculous Massabielle grotto in time for the pastoral visit of Pope John Paul II to Lourdes on Aug. 14-15.

Internet will enable you to participate spiritually in the Pope’s visit to Lourdes and leave a prayer or a plea in the grotto. If you have no Internet connection, borrow a computer with one, or go to a cybercafe for this rare opportunity.

Father Thierry Lamboley and Sister Catherine Sesboue have committed to place in Massabielle the intentions sent before Aug. 14 to the email address: lourdes2004@croire.com.

The Pope is going to Lourdes in response to the French bishops’ invitation to celebrate in the shrine the 150th anniversary of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. On this pilgrimage, the Holy Father brings with him the universal Church.

He will relaunch the message of penance, conversion and prayer that the Virgin left in Lourdes to St. Bernadette in 1858. Like Bernadette, John Paul II will also drink from the spring of the grotto.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 8, 2004)

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