Witnesses tag Joc-joc, Paule in Fertilizer scam

January 20, 2009

They kept on denying their role in the P728-million fertilizer fund scam, but “surprise witnesses,” who appeared before the Senate blue ribbon committee hearing yesterday, bared the clear links of the scam to former Agriculture Undersecretary Jocelyn “Joc-joc” Bolante as the brains behind the scam whose funds were diverted to the campaign kitty of then presidential candidate, Gloria Arroyo, as well as showing up Jaime “Jimmy” Paule as the alleged fertilizer fund bagman and the link to Malacañang.

Surprise witnesses yesterday through their testimonies, bolstered charges leveled against Bolante of his being on top of the scam operation and dragged too, the alleged bagman, businessman Paule, who in his prepared testimony, insisted that he was not involved in any way with the fertilizer fund scam, or even that he knew Bolante.

Paule, while issuing a blanket denial on all of the charges, including his participation in the fund scam as well as his connection or of his being acquainted with some other purported key players, however, was debunked by those who testified before Senate probers – at least six of them who affirmed his involvement in the transactions.

“He dropped the name of Bolante,” witness Natalio Castillo Jr. who voluntarily testified before the blue ribbon committee said, referring to Paule when the latter approached him and lured him into acting as a financier to the fund scam several years ago.

Castillo was told that the amount of P738 million was expected to be released by the government and that Paule would be handling everything for their undertaking.

“The thing that turned me off was that…it would come out that (I had to put an ‘up front’ equivalent to) 75 percent of the (amount in the) transaction (involved). What if I would not be paid in the end? I would end up empty-handed after the elections. That really turned me off. So I did not push through with it. I decided to decline the offer,” he said.

Castillo came out in the open along with Joselito Flordeliza, president of the National Organization for Agricultural Enhancement and Productivity Inc., (NOAEPI) the foundation allegedly tapped by Paule to act as beneficiary of some of the fertilizer supposedly distributed for the farmers’ program.

It is the same foundation that an earlier witness, Maritess Aytona claimed to have served as a consultant when she first appeared before Senate probers during a hearing last Dec. 22 and which was supposedly supplied by Feshan Philippines Inc. with the farm inputs.

Castillo and Flordeliza was called upon by committee chairman Sen. Richard Gordon after Paule’s denial on all of the transactions and an “interruption” on the testimony of another witness, Marilyn Araos.

A common friend, a certain Iñigo Lim, introduced Castillo to Paule in a luncheon meeting held at Alfredo’s restaurant in Quezon City where the former was asked to infuse a 25 percent “up front”, automatically engaging him to the transactions.

Castillo helped set up the NOAEPI, a foundation that assists farmers in agri-related projects. Its president, Flodeliza was offered three percent commission for every “successful transaction” at that time, senators were told.

In that meeting, Castillo claimed Paule boasted of an impending release of funds intended for a government project that the latter would supposedly handle.

It was then that Paule dropped the name of Bolante to convince Castillo when the latter asked the former for an assurance that the deal is for real.

“At that time, he dropped the name of Bolante. But if this 25 percent is for Bolante, he did not categorically say that to me,” Castillo said.

Flordeliza also attested to the involvement of his foundation, saying that he met up with Aytona in another meeting also held at Alfredo’s restaurant “and that’s how the foundation started.”

“I was between jobs at that time, working on a per project basis and receiving a monthly allowance. It was suggested to me, to increase my livelihood, to lead this foundation,” Flordeliza said.

But practically all of the witness, with the exception of Bolante, admitted to knowing one another but Paule insisted that he never entered into any of the deals with the Department of Agriculture, adding that he had been involved only with projects of the Department of Public Works and Highways and the Light Railways Transit.

But Castillo, Flordeliza, Araos, Aytona and previous witnesses, Leonicia Llarena who allegedly was sought by Paule to act as financier and self-confessed “runner” Jose Barredo Jr., pinned down Paule.

Llarena maintained her business partnerships in the past with Paule that led her to the DA program where she met Aytona and Gregorio.

Araos who formerly worked under Aytona, told the Senate that Paule had recruited her to act as a “runner” for the said programs in Regions 3 and 4.

Araos also told the committee that it was Paule who had ordered her to open an account for Feshan.

Initially, Araos attempted to discontinue her testimony after her lawyer Andresito Fornier interceded and pleaded to the committee that his client would be invoking the right against self-incrimination.

The belated move of the lawyer which came just when Araos was already detailing information pertaining to the bank account where she stood as the sole signatory, did not sit well with Gordon who viewed it as a move to stymie the committee from getting to the bottom of the issue.

Fornier, it can be recalled, first landed in the news when he acted as the legal counsel, along with his lawyer-brother Victor, to the petitioner in the disqualification case of the late movie icon, Fernando Poe Jr. in the presidential race in 2004 on the grounds of questionable nationality.

Following a series of heated arguments, Araos eventually submitted herself before the committee, spilling the beans, so to speak, providing corroborative statements earlier made by Feshan president Deonilla “Julie” Gregorio on the opening of the LandBank account.

Araos told the committee that she was threatened by Paule, who was practically her “employer” since year 2000, and that she would lose her job if she would not follow his instructions of opening the said account that took place on March 9, 2004.

Gregorio said in her supplemental affidavit that on the day of the opening of the account where she was accompanied by her company vice president Redentor Antolin, Llarena and Araos were already there.

“We were made to sign a secretary’s certificate in which Araos was authorized by Feshan to be the sole signatory in the said account and a memorandum of agreement (MOA) was made,” Gregorio said, stressing that she was barred from intervening in any of the bank transactions in the said account.

LandBank Elliptical branch manager Raquel Paz corroborated Gregorio’s statements, adding that Aytona and Araos were present when the secretary’s certificate was presented to her and in the opening of the said account.

“I even asked for their identification cards,” Paz said.

Gregorio decided to retract her previous testimony, confessing that before committee that the overpricing of liquid fertilizer was far worse than what she first admitted.

The selling price of her company was actually only at P150 per bottle, not P600 as she first claimed.

Also, Gregorio told the committee that she recently uncovered that it was not P105 million but some P153 million that entered into the account in Land Bank of the Philippines (LandBank) Elliptical branch in Quezon City, supposedly under the name of her company opened by Marilyn Araos.

“So out of the 90,000 bottles sold to Araos Trading at mark-up of P17 per unit, this earned (Feshan) a clear P1.7 million. And out of the P153 million, the government incurred losses amounting to at least P121 million due to overpricing,” Sen. Rodolfo Biazon commented in the hearing.

“It was my first time to have access to that account where I found out the deposit under current account No. 1032-IC-0331-101604 was the sum of P152,776,208 covering the period from March 9, 2004 to January 31, 2006. It was closed on July 31, 2006 withdrawing the measly sum of P4,333.47,” said Gregorio.

The blue ribbon committee had asked LandBank to furnished them a “microfilm” of all of the cheques or transactions, detailing the payments or deposits as well as the withdrawals made where it the “receivers” will be ascertained.

Gordon said it was clear from the proceedings that Aytona and Paule was the one running the show and Llarena acted as the financier.

“Aytona made sure she had a paper trail of the money. She made sure it will go to the intended beneficiaries,” the senator said, noting the participation of Aytona as a supposed runner

“Bolante had been connected in the past by Usec. Belinda Gonzales (introducing Paule to her) and now it is clear,” Gordon said on the supposed connection between the former DA official and Paule.

“You can deny but denial is the weakest (alibi). All of the witnesses point to him,” Gordon said pertaining to Paule.

Paule is being cited for contempt by some senators, having been evasive and “selective” in memory. His fate will be known later this week, whether he will be ordered detained by the Senate or not.

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