What Fertilizer Scam

For five years, ever since he left the chairmanship of the Landbank, former Agriculture Secretary Cito Lorenzo has been reported to be out of the Philippines. In the course of his absence, he gained the term “fugitive” from media. Yet, in that same period, no legal case was filed against him, nowarrant of arrest issued against him, no legal order mandating his presence in the Philippines. In other words, Cito had not been running from the law, only from media.

Before Cito Lorenzo became Secretary of Agriculture, when he was a presidential adviser tasked with generating one million jobs, Cito already supported GawadKalinga (GK). Today, Cito is not only supportive of GK but has become an advocate and volunteer for the great work for the poor. In his reported absence, or “flight” as the more speculative of reporters would describe it, I know he had visited the Philippines a number of times. I know because I, and others, had met with him to discuss GK matters and accompanied him to visit GK villages.

Respecting his wish to spare his family undue media attention, I chose not to write about his visits to the Philippines even though some media outlets or writers reported the opposite. Yes, there were Senate investigations which claimed there was a fertilizer scam and Cito’s non-appearance all throughout these investigations led some new reports to call him a fugitive. But after the Blue Ribbon investigation, headed by Senator Gordon, submitted its findings and recommendations to the Ombudsman, Cito Lorenzo was not included. Neither was he one of those accused by the Ombudsman after the first review of the controversy later known as the “fertilizer scam.”

Throughout all these years, accused of running and staying away, Cito Lorenzo guarded the privacy of his family from the glare of media. It was obviously not guilt which drove him to avoid media attention. After all, the Blue Ribbon Committee and the Ombudsman did not find it necessary to include him among those recommended for prosecution after both public and quiet investigations. There are now efforts by the Ombudsman to get a deposition from Cito to tell what he knows of the fertilizer program and funding which has qualified to be called a scam. It is a request for Cito to tell his story, not an accusation or a case.

The basis of the scam appears to be from a Special Allotment Release Order (SARO) from the Department of Budget Management (DBM) which showed that funds amounting to more than 700 million pesos were released to the Department of Agriculture. In that SARO was a long list of names of members of Congress and governors. This SARO with the names of congressmen and governors who were supposed to be recipients of 3 or 5 million pesos worth of fertilizer had been submitted to the investigation bodies of the Senate. If the officials involved received the money or the goods as intended for by the program, there is no scam. Some of the congressmen and governors could have misused the funds or the fertilizer, and then be liable for graft and corruption.

The scam is less about the kind of fertilizers that were given to congressmen and the Department of Agriculture than whether they received any at all. During the investigations, there were some instances when a congressman or two were invited by the Senate to relate what happened to the fertilizers they were supposed to have received, at least from the point of view of the SARO. But at the end of both Senate investigations, the public was never informed about the core details of the scam, if at all it was one.

The SARO points to more than a hundred congressmen and governors as intended recipients of the fertilizers, valued at either 3 or 5 million each. From those listed in the SARO, the investigating committees of the Senate never divulged the complete names of those who actually received fertilizers, how much fertilizers they received, and those who never received fertilizers at all (or the equivalent value in cash). The number of congressmen and governors who themselves were victimized by being short-changed or not receiving anything at all can qualify whether there was a scam or just instances of graft.

More than the Senate, or the Ombudsman, congressmen and governors mentioned in the SARO are the best source of the proper information. They are also the ones who should first file cases against the DBM or the Department of Agriculture as they had their names listed but received either nothing or less fertilizer than the amounts reserved for them. The list is not only long, it is also illustrious as some names mentioned are quite popular and very highly placed in the current administration.

Is it not strange to the media and the Ombudsman that congressmen and governors mentioned as intended recipients of fertilizers worth either 3 or 5 million pesos each do not themselves file complaints or cases for not receiving their allocation, or for not receiving full value? Unless many do, there may be no scam at all, just congressmen and governors who may have misused their share and themselves accountable to the law.

The Ombudsman must have been gathering crucial information these past years. By now, the Ombudsman should be able to tell the people who among the congressmen and the governors received fertilizers in the right or wrong amounts, or not at all despite being listed down as intended beneficiaries. Asking Cito Lorenzo for his story is less material than asking intended recipients what they received or not received.

But then again, Cito is only a private citizen who has taken, and still does, the flak that investigators should be pointing towards congressmen and governors. The real story of graft and corruption of the system is not in the life of Cito Lorenzo but in the life of Philippine politics and governance. It is easier to harass or condemn one innocent man than one hundred or more congressmen and governors. Yet, only their stories more than Cito’s can tell us if there was a scam in the first place and who participated in it.

“There is always a philosophy for lack of courage.” Albert Camus

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