One rainy night in August, then Marikina Rep. Romeo Candazo, a favorite source of mine on human rights issues, approached me from the session hall floor.
“Armand, please join me at the VIP bleacher, I have something to show you,” he said as he motioned me to head for the bleacher reserved for congressmen and their staff.
There, he first bewailed how he was at lost about his constituents complaining about the major floods in his river-fronting Marikina congressional district and how he was helpless to do something about it. He said he already went to the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) but was told they cannot give him a bigger assistance over his pork barrel allocation.
“We all suffer while these sons of bitches make away with people’s money. My constituents are drowning in floods while billions of funds are being wasted in useless projects or ending up in pockets of the wiser among us,” he said as he finally reached towards the inner pocked of his suite and fished out a folded sheet of paper.
At first I could not really figure out what he was saying, but I proceeded to open up the folded paper. It's header read: Department of Budget and Management.
Then, I started reading the names of congressmen with their corresponding pork barrel allocations. What I found strange was that while all congressmen were then supposed to get P12.5 million in Countrywide Development Fund (CDF) each, some got more than that in the form a Congressional Initiative Allocation (CIA). Many of them do not even know that such kind of pork barrel fund existed.
“Now I realized that not all congressmen are created equal. Some of us are smarter than others. The noisiest among us -- those who oppose the Ramos Administration -- were rewarded with more pork barrel funds,” a visible irked Candazo said in the Pilipino.
He then pointed to me to the names of Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora and Makati Rep. Joker Arroyo – who were very critical of the administrator of then President Fidel V. Ramos and House Speaker Joe de Venecia – but ended up getting P103 million and P38.1 million in CDF and CIA pork barrel allocation, respectively.
“They don’t even recognize or reward loyalty and support for the Ramos Administration anymore,” said Candazo, who pointed out that ironically, the loyal allies of Ramos only got P12.5 million in CDF and no CIA pork barrel funds.
He said that his colleagues were getting up to 52 percent in “standard operating procedure” or SOP from illegal commissions in road maintenance, dredging, waiting shed, medicine, textbooks and other pork-barrel funded projects.
Candazo told me to go ahead and publish the content of the letter but not to name him as the source, lest he incur the collective anger of all his 250 colleagues in Congress for starting what was later to become the "Pork Barrel Revolt of 1996."
I went home that night feeling excited like a child opening a gift on Christmas Day. I had just gotten the biggest break in my career as an investigative journalist of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. I told myself that this news about the pork barrel fund scandal would be bigger than the 1992 Little League Baseball scam.
On the personal level, I had also wanted to help the government fight graft and corruption because I was then so unhappy living alone in Quezon City and renting a small damp, cockroach and rat-infested room that used to be a dirty kitchen. I was literally sleeping between a kitchen sink and water pipes on one side; and a curtain and metal wire net separating me from the outside world on the other side.
My wife Ann was working as a nurse in Kuwait, like all poor Filipinos do, and our eldest daughter Arizza was left to our relatives in Zamboanga City so we can save up and not spend on a house helper or a decent house to rent. We then vowed to save up in five years so Ann can return soon with savings that we plan to put in business.
How often I wondered how if the Philippine economy were good and there was no corruption, my wife and child need not be separated from me. We were a family in three corners of the globe. That thought was eating and killing me inside out as I reviewed the pork barrel list.
Those days were days of rage and suffering. And as a journalist, there was only one thing for me to do: expose graft and corruption even if it means fighting the entire congress and even President Ramos who approved the pork budget.
Before we left, Rep. Candazo – who died on August 19 – asked: “Armand, I gave you that list because I believe in your investigative skills as a journalist. I also admire how you stood up to dishonest sports and local government officials when you exposed the Little League Scam. But this is something else; you are fighting more than 200 congressmen and the whole government machinery that protects corruption. Can you take the pressure?”
I recalled telling him I could although a lump also came upon throat as I swallowed hard thinking that I would be fighting the richest, most successful, smartest lawyers, doctors, foreign educated, millionaires and billionaires and gambling lords who make up the Philippine Congress.
But looking at the picture my family thorn apart by poverty, I told myself: “El Dios ya cuidao!” (Chavacano for “I leave it all to God”).
I hardly slept that night as I was overcome by both excitement and fear over the prospect of writing and exposing Rep. Candazo’s list, the Inquirer's own pork barrel deep throat.
(2nd Part: “Fury and Revolt in the House of Congress Following the Publication of the List.” Abangan ...)