NPA links or pork barrel? Why the CA rejected Taguiwalo

MANILA, Philippines – When the powerful Commission on Appointments (CA) rejected Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, there was no clear reason given for the decision.

Days after, at least two CA members and one insider said the "main" reason was her close connection to the Left.

With the new rule on secret voting, there was no clear information on who voted for and against her. There is also no final count, as the CA stopped counting ballots upon reaching the majority of 13 negative votes. 

"The counting of the votes was stopped when rejection reached 13. No official breakdown was done," CA member and Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III said in a text message.

Some senators took to the floor and expressed their support for Taguiwalo. But with secret ballots, there is no sure way to prove that they indeed walked their talk. (READ: Is someone lying? CA votes on Gina Lopez don't add up)

The public is left on its own to speculate why the CA rejected the former DSWD chief. The overarching suspicion was that Taguiwalo was rejected because of her fight against pork barrel, which some lawmakers allegedly park in the agency. Even Taguiwalo herself believes her stance against the discretionary funds and the tax reform bill caused her downfall.

In 2016, lawmakers confronted Taguiwalo when she issued a memorandum reminding DSWD personnel that recommendation letters from politicians have no bearing in granting aid. (READ: Congressmen on DSWD's 'anti-padrino' memo: We hold the money)

But CA members refuted this, saying there is no point in blaming Taguiwalo for that because the pork barrel controversy and the tightening of policies happened under the past administration.

“It’s unfair that they say the reason for rejection is only because of PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund). We’ve long adjusted with the new rules. We’re living with it,” one CA member, who refused to be named, told Rappler.

The main reason, according to at least two CA sources, is Taguiwalo’s links to the Left and the alleged use of the agency to “employ” and “recruit” new members of the New People’s Army.

One source said: "Others have reservations, that of course, you don’t also want to have under your nose those threatening the government."

"It's for security purposes. They are moving already," another source said.

They claimed they could not say this in public for fear of their lives. They also claimed that the Left is known for attacking those who oppose them, citing the burning of Lapanday-managed farms and the takeover of government housing by Kadamay to prove their point as examples.

“They even attacked the Presidential Security Group, and that’s the President already. How much more those below him?” one member said, referring to the firefight between PSG and suspected New People's Army members in North Cotabato on July 19.

House contingent requests security briefing

According to 3 CA insiders, the House contingent asked for a security briefing on the NPA, as well as its allies, weeks before Taguiwalo’s confirmation hearing.

"Yes, because we got an avalanche of reports from the ground, from members of Congress also. You know, politicians, especially in provinces, they know these people and now they're up there already in DSWD," one CA source said.

CA Majority Leader and Isabela 1st District Representative Rodito Albano confirmed the briefing and said the peace panel was among those who were present.

“Yes, that was public knowledge. Yes, House contingent. Even the peace panel briefed us also,” Albano said in a text message to Rappler.

Two CA sources said there were two briefings. Aside from the briefing with the peace panel, another one was conducted by the Department of National Defense, Department of the Interior and Local Government, and the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

During the briefings, security officials discussed how the DSWD is supposedly used to “employ” and “recruit” new NPA members.

One CA member said they were told by the military about "food packs and ATM cards" used in the government’s cash transfer program found in seized NPA camps.

Another CA member said the security officials discussed the DSWD's supposed hiring of NPA members and officials as consultants and undersecretaries. The CA member said some of these people were actual contacts of local officials in provinces, especially when paying “permit to campaign” taxes in NPA-controlled areas.

The same member also claimed that Left-backed groups are “exerting influence” on beneficiaries, especially in far-flung areas, in an attempt to recruit them to join the movement.

But Taguiwalo denied all these and questioned why the issues were never raised before any CA hearing. (READ: Taguiwalo to CA: Why no explanation for rejection?)

"I never gave anything to the NPA. I know the demarcation line between the people who have to be served [given] our relationship with the rebels – whether this is the NPA or the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) or the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front). I'm sad that was not even heard during the committee hearing," Taguiwalo told Rappler when asked about the issue.

“They never opened it. I think I deserve due process. I was a victim of Martial Law. I was tortured, I was imprisoned. If the military [has] charges against [me] during [my] time as DSWD secretary, [they should] have opened it up. But nobody asked me,” she said.

Fear of life? But where’s accountability?

A nominee of the Left to the Duterte Cabinet, Taguiwalo was an activist during the Martial Law years and was tortured during the term of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

She said her links with the Left "have never been a secret" and that these never affected her capacity to serve.

"Is being categorized as Left a deterrent to good public service? I dont think so. I’ve used the resources of this office and department for the people," she said.

Taguiwalo slammed lawmakers for not stating reasons for her rejection.

But at least 3 CA members said they could not say it out in the open for “fear of their lives.” They also said they could not even raise the issue with her because they would be “marked” as enemies.

“[If you ask that or raise that,] you're putting the member at risk. That’s the reason why di na binabanggit yan (it's no longer mentioned). It’s because their lives are at stake. whoever starts pointing out that it is difficult to give resources to somebody who is Left-leaning, or to give somebody with deep connection to the Left that far-reaching powers of hiring people,” one source said.

With secret voting, no one could really be sure who voted for and against Taguiwalo. Some showed their ballots to the others while some did not.

“Others decided to speak for her, maybe even if they didn’t really vote for her, just to register na di ako kalaban, di ako magiging kalaban. (I'm not an enermy, I won't be an enemy.) Who knows?” one member said.

Contrary to what people think, 3 CA sources said the House contingent, known for bloc voting, did not vote as a group against Taguiwalo’s confirmation.

This was seconded by Davao Oriental Representative Joel Mayo Almario, who said such practice is only true for non-controversial appointees.

“But for controversial ones like Gina Lopez and Judy Taguiwalo, it’s not the case. Each one has his or her own standing,” Almario claimed. But with concealed voting, there is no way this could be confirmed.

Eight senators have so far claimed that they voted in favor of the DSWD chief – Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto, Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III, Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, Senators Juan Edgardo Angara, Loren Legarda, Juan Miguel Zubiri, Paolo Benigno Aquino IV, and Francis Pangilinan.

With the secret voting policy in place and with two more controversial appointees to be heard – Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial and Agrarian Reform chief Rafael Mariano, another Left-leaning official – questions on accountability and transparency are likely to hound the powerful CA. – with reports from Mara Cepeda, Bea Cupin, Patty Pasion/Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com

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