Long after Jocelyn “Joc-joc” Bolante left the Department of Agriculture (DA), the department is still waist-deep in corruption. And four and a half years after Benigno “P-Noy” Aquino III was elected president on the crest of a campaign promise to end corruption, DA continues to be one of the most – if not the most – corrupt government agencies.
Indeed, corruption has been ingrained in DA’s operations during the past decade beginning with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s presidency. When P-Noy took over the government in 2010, corruption persisted at DA. It’s déjà vu all over again… with different “players.”
It all began in 2003 when journalist Marlene Garcia-Esperat exposed an alleged fertilizer fund scam. In her weekly column, Esperat alleged that Bolante, who was then Undersecretary of DA, engineered the scam. Consequently, Esperat sued Bolante and 10 DA officials for buying overpriced fertilizer without any bidding worth P432 million. Among them were former DA secretaries Luis Lorenzo Jr. and Arthur Yap, and DA’s public accountant Ophelia Agawin.
Fertilizer fund scandal
The following year, another scam was exposed: the P728-million fertilizer fund scandal that involved Bolante and Janet Lim-Napoles who owned Jo-Chris Trading, which was the second biggest supplier of the liquid fertilizer that was distributed to Gloria’s allies in 2004.
In June 2004, former Solicitor General Francisco Chavez filed plunder cases against Gloria and several DA officials including Bolante for alleged misuse of fertilizer funds. The following year, on March 24, 2005, Garcia-Esperat was murdered in her own home.
In my article, “The Joc-joc affair is no joking matter” (July 28, 2006), I wrote: “In 2005, the Senate Committees on Agriculture and Food, and Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations (Blue Ribbon) initiated a series of joint public hearings to investigate the alleged fertilizer scam. Consequently, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism conducted its own investigation and discovered that a large portion of the P728-million fertilizer funds was released to fictitious — or ‘ghost’ — foundations. In December 2005, the Senate joint committees chaired by Senator Ramon Magsaysay, Jr. issued a report which concluded that the fertilizer funds intended for farmers were diverted by Undersecretary Bolante for the 2004 electoral campaign of President Arroyo. According to the report, collaborative testimonies from Agriculture officials, 13 farmer groups, Commission on Audit officials, the Budget Secretary, and alleged “runners” of Bolante indicated that the “farmers did not get a single farm input or implement” in 2004.”
Fugitive from justice
The report named Bolante as the “master architect of the scam.” In December 2005, soon after the report came out, Bolante disappeared and became a fugitive from justice after failing to appear before the Senate joint committees.
On July 7, 2006, Bolante was arrested after he tried to enter the United States with a cancelled visa. Unbeknown to Bolante, Senator Magsaysay had previously requested the US Embassy in Manila to cancel his visa. However, instead of refusing him entry into the US, he was detained by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit of the Department of Homeland Security.
To avoid deportation, Bolante sought political asylum claiming that he would be persecuted if he returned to the Philippines. On June 25, 2007, an Immigration Judge denied his application for asylum and was ordered deported.
Survival of the “cheatest”
Since then, the fertilizer fund scandal had been consigned to the dustbin of history; Joc-joc Bolante unsuccessfully ran for governor; Arthur Yap was elected to Congress; P-Noy was elected president; and Janet Lim-Napoles — the pork barrel queen – is in detention.
How about Ophelia Agawin? What happened to her? Well, it’s either Lady Luck was protecting her or she had mastered the art of survival because she didn’t only avoid losing her job, she was “quietly absorbed” by P-Noy’s new DA Secretary Proceso Alcala in 2010, cleared of the P432-million and P728-million scams, and then promoted to Assistant Secretary for Finance in February 2012!
But no sooner had Agawin taken her new executive assignment than strange things started to happen again. In her new job, Agawin was responsible for accrediting nongovernment organizations (NGOs) to accept state money for livelihood projects.”
When the pork barrel scam was exposed in July 2013, the whistleblower Merlin P. Suñas named Agawin as a conduit to the bogus NGOs controlled by Napoles. Suñas also claimed that Agawin accredited Kaupdanan para sa Manguguna Foundation Inc. even though it was under fire from the Commission on Audit for having been involved in the P900-million Malampaya fund scam, which Napoles allegedly orchestrated.
A DA official also claimed that Napoles was a frequent visitor to the offices of Agawin and her immediate boss, Undersecretary Antonio Fleta, since 2011. Upon hearing the complaint, P-Noy ordered DA Secretary Proceso Alcala to respond to the allegations. And just like during Gloria’s presidency nothing came out of it.
In August 2013, Alcala relieved Agawin as head of the accreditation panel. “We have not ascertained whether she is indeed involved (in the pork barrel scam) but she will no longer handle the approval of new NGOs and projects that may come in,” Alcala said. However, Alcala, explained that Agawin would continue to perform her tasks as Assistant Secretary for Finance. In other words, Agawin would still have influence over the accreditation of NGOs since it falls under her turf.
Once again, Agawin survived another scandal.
Coco levy fund
Recently her name came out again in the news. This time around, Nestor Villanueva, a leader of the coconut levy claimants’ movement, “Coco levy Fund Ibalik sa Amin,” complained over the participation of Agawin in a Senate committee’s technical working group (TWG) that is studying several bills on the “coco levy” issue.
And all this raises the questions: Is Agawin untouchable? Who is her “guardian angel” that has been protecting her since the time of Bolante at DA? And what makes her a valuable asset to Alcala… and by extension, to President Aquino?
As the only “player” in the fertilizer fund scams that is still working at the Department of Agriculture, Ophelia Agawin is a living proof of Joc-joc’s legacy of corruption.