Ex-Makati official says Senate probe testimony 'flawed'

MANILA, Philippines – A former officer-in-charge (OIC) of the Makati Social Welfare Department (MSWD) refuted on Friday, August 21, the testimony of another city government official who alleged there are “ghost” beneficiaries in Makati’s benefit program for the elderly.

Ryan Barcelo, former OIC and current assistant department head of the MSWD, said the data that current Makati Action Center (MAC) head Arthur Cruto presented before the Senate blue ribbon committee on Thursday were based on a “flawed and questionable auditing procedure.”

Cruto said on Thursday that a special task force was authorized by acting Mayor Romulo “Kid” Peña Jr to audit the city’s BLU card program for senior citizens in all 33 barangays, following the allegations that suspended Makati Mayor Jejomar Erwin “Junjun” Binay Jr and his father, former Makati mayor and now Vice President Jejomar Binay, overpriced the cakes for the elderly. (WATCH: Lone supplier places bid on Makati's cake-giving program)

Beneficiaries of the BLU card program, which got its name from the blue color of the cards, receive P11,750 worth of benefits yearly. To qualify, one should be a bonafide Makati resident, at least 60 years old, and a registered voter.

According to Cruto, their “initial findings” of the audit in Barangays Kasilawan and Pinagkaisahan, the two smallest barangays in Makati, showed that 40% to 52% of the elderly-beneficiaries are not on the Commission on Election’s (Comelec) voters’ list, and in the place of residence they indicated in official government documents.

He added that the 12 other barangays they have audited so far showed a “common trend.”

However, a statement sent by the Binay camp to reporters quoted Barcelo as saying that the MAC special task force “simply went to the house of a senior citizen, asked if the senior citizen was there, and if told the senior citizen was not around, simply put an ‘X’ across the name of the person.”

According to him, Cruto’s team allegedly “did not bother” to ask where the senior citizen was at the time of the visit, or if he or she had already died.

"Magkaiba ho ang umalis ng bahay sa namatay. Hindi po nila ito inalam," Barcelo said. (There's a difference between someone leaving the house and someone who's dead. They did not verify this.)

He added that Cruto did not provide documentary evidence to back up his claim that almost half of the senior citizens in Makati are “ghosts.”

In a telephone interview with Rappler, Barcelo confirmed that the quotes used in the Binay camp’s media statement were his.

Ako mismo kasi I find it (allegations against BLU card program) humiliating. I find it insulting para sa aming departamento. I reacted to it moto propio,” Barcelo said, who has been working for the Makati city government since 2003. (For me personally, I find the allegations against the BLU card program humilitating. I find it insulting for our department. I reacted to it on my own.)

He said he was appointed MSWD OIC on October 5, 2012 until Peña appointed a new OIC, Remedios Ramos, when he was sworn as acting mayor.

“I probably don’t enjoy his trust and confidence,” said Barcelo.

Asked if he is an ally of the Binays, Barcelo said he is “just a humble public servant” who just happened to start serving the city government when VP Binay and his son were seated as mayor.

Strict MSWD rules                                                   

In his testimony, Cruto said that only 660 out of 1,095 listed BLU card holders were located and are registered voters in Barangay Kasilawan, while 449 out of 938 senior citizens were identified to be truly qualified beneficiaries in Barangay Pinagkaisahan.

However, Barcelo said that MSWD follows strict rules and procedures to validate reports, indicating if the senior citizen has moved to another address outside Makati or has died.

He added the department conducts “collateral interviews,” which means they speak to the elderly’s relatives and neighbors to validate the information they would put in documents submitted to the city government.

Barcelo said the validation process involves the confirmation from the president of the barangay association of senior citizens and the barangay chairman. A senior citizen will only be removed from the list if he or she has been confirmed to have left Makati and no longer plans to return.

If his or her whereabouts cannot be determined, the senior citizen’s name is marked in the database with “Hold,” prompting the MSWD to suspend the release of his or her benefits pending further investigation.

"Maibabalik lamang ito kung siya ay nagpakitang muli sa MSWD at nakumpirma na aktuwal itong naninirahan sa Makati (The benefit entitlement will only be returned if the MSWD will be able to confirm that the senior citizen actually lives in Makati),” Barcelo said.

Joey Salgado, media affairs head of the Vice President and former Makati Public Information Office head until the suspension of Mayor Binay, defended the BLU card program as well, saying the senior citizens receive their benefits “personally.”

Missing names in voters’ list

Meanwhile, Barcelo said Cruto cannot just say that senior citizens not part of the Comelec’s voters’ list are already “disqualified” from the BLU card program.

He said that senior citizens aged 60 to 79 years who applied for the benefit program submitted their voter’s identification card (ID) or certificate when they applied, which means they were alive and were registered voters when they applied for their BLU cards.

However, Barcelo said many Makati elderly may have been delisted by the Comelec for failing to vote because of their age.

Barcelo stressed that the city government simply cannot just put on hold or revoke a senior citizen’s benefits because he or she was not able to register again.

"We respect our senior citizens here in Makati. We value them. We take care of them," he said.

Barcelo added that BLU card program guidelines indicate that residents aged 80 and above no longer need to present their voters’ IDs. They just need to present any other valid ID bearing their official Makati address.

Deceased yet still receiving benefits?

Cruto told senators during the Thursday Senate hearing that cross-checking MSWD documents with the death certificates of senior citizens dated 2013 showed that some deceased elderly allegedly continue to receive cash gifts from the city government.

Barcelo then clarified the official guidelines of the city government concerning deceased beneficiaries.

"Hindi maaaring tanggalin sa listahan ng BLU card program ang pangalan ng senior citizen na naiulat lamang na namatay na... walang naipapakita o naisusumiteng death certificate nito sa MSWD. Kapag may ulat na natatanggap ang MSWD na ang isang senior citizen ay namatay na, bibisitahin ng empleyado ng MSWD ang pamilya ng 'namatayan' at kukumpirmahin ang nasabing ulat,” he said.

(The name of a senior citizen cannot be removed from the BLU card program list without a submitted death certificate to the MSWD. If the MSWD receives a report that the senior citizen has died, MSWD employees will visit his or her family and confirm the report.)

If MSWD confirms that the senior citizen has indeed died, the MSWD will help his or her family get their burial assistance if they have not received it yet. This is when the deceased senior citizen is officially removed from the BLU card program.

Barcelo clarified that the "Guidelines for the 2015 Mid-Year Cash Gift for Makati City Senior Citizens" state that BLU card holders who died between May 16 to June 30, 2015 shall still be entitled to claim the 2015 mid-year cash gift.

Ito ay dahil umabot pa sila ng mid-year at buhay pa sila noong panahon na ginawa at prinuseso ang cash gift payroll nila (This is because they were still alive in the middle of the year, when their cash gift payroll had already been processed)," Barcelo said.

However, he said that there are “isolated cases” when relatives would “hide” the fact that their elderly relative had already passed away to continue receiving the benefits.

"Naninindigan ang MSWD na hindi kailanman nito kinukunsinti ang ganitong gawain. Katunayan, kung mayroong ulat na namayapa na nga ang isang senior citizen bago ang cut-off date ng paggawa ng payroll at na-validate ito, inaabisuhan kaagad ng MSWD ang Cash Division, na siyang namamahala sa pamimigay ng cash gift, na itigil ang pagbibigay ng benepisyo sa kumakatawan ng nasabing senior citizen," he said.

(The MSWD does not condone such acts. In fact, when we receive a report that a senior citizen died before the cut-off date for the payroll, and the benefit has been validated already, we immediately ask the Cash Division, which is in charge of the cash gift, to stop giving the benefit to the representative of the senior citizen.)

Barcelo added that whenever MSWD receives a report of a family lying about a senior citizen’s death, they visit the senior citizen’s home and validate the claim through interviews. If they confirm it, they remove the senior citizen’s name from the list. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.