MANILA -- Pampanga officials defended former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as President Benigno Aquino III identified Monday details of alleged "misdeeds and misuse of funds" by the previous administration.

Aquino, in his first State of the Nation Address (Sona), said he was "shocked" to discover in his first three weeks in office that the previous administration had spent huge amounts of money before the end of the term.

Updates on President Benigno Aquino III's presidency

Aquino said out of the P2 billion worth of the calamity fund, Aquino said P1.4 billion or about 70 percent was already spent despite the fact that the country is still to enter the rainy season.

He added that the past administration allotted P108 million of the calamity funds for the entire Pampanga province. But of this figure, P105 million went to only one district.

"Ibinigay ang naturang halaga sa buwan lamang ng eleksiyon o pitong buwan pagkatapos ni Pepeng (The funds were released on election month, which was seven months after the Typhoon Pepeng)," Aquino added.

With this, six mayors in the second district of Pampanga, along with the governor, stood in common ground to defend Arroyo, who was elected congressman of the district, from Aquino's statement that "only a single district in Pampanga benefited from the calamity funds."

The town executives included Mayors Eduardo Guerrero of Floridablanca, Mylyn Pineda of Lubao, Ricardo Rivera of Guagua, Yolanda Pineda of Sta. Rita, Condralito de la Cruz of Porac, and Josefina Leoncio of Sasmuan.

They said the P105 million calamity funds intended for their towns has not been released by the Department of Budget and Management. They added that it took them several years of following it up before their request for such funds was approved.

Governor Lilia Pineda, likewise, came in defense of former President Arroyo and supported the stand of the said six mayors.

Pineda said they are willing to forgo those calamity funds if Aquino thinks he could use the money for some other more priority projects.

Pineda said facts will show that projects in the six towns in Congresswoman Arroyo's district were pending as they were still waiting for the release of funds from the Department of Budget and Management when President Aquino took over.

Reached by Sun.Star Pampanga, some political and business leaders in Pampanga, however, reminded Aquino that he is no longer campaigning and is now President of all Filipinos, including the Kapampangans.

Arroyo did not attend the first Sona of President Aquino as she left for Hong Kong to accompany her husband Jose Miguel Arroyo for a medical check-up.

She however was not spared from the protests at home as Filipino militant groups in Hong Kong conducted a protest rally against her.

The group United Filipinos in Hong Kong said it has become a trademark of Arroyo "to fly off somewhere and turn tails when the heat of her crimes is bearing down on her."

No rotting excess rice

Another issue exposed by Aquino on Monday was the National Food Authority's (NFA) P177 billion debt incurred due to the agency's alleged over-importation of rice in 2004 and 2007.

Aquino said that in 2004, the Arroyo government imported some 900,000 metric tons of rice even if the shortage then was only at 117,000 metric tons.

"Even if you multiply for more than seven times the amount of shortage, they still bought more than what was needed."

This incident was not the last since in 2007, the past administration bough 1.827 million metric tons while the rice shortage was just 589,000 metric tons.

"What hurts is, because they keep purchasing more than what they need year after year, the excess rice that had to be stored in warehouses ended up rotting, just like what happened in 2008," added Aquino.

But, Arroyo's former Agriculture secretary and now Bohol Representative Arthur Yap denied that there was "rotting excess rice" in the NFA during his term.

He also said that there was no over-importation that happened in the previous administration as the import volume is recommended by the interagency committee on rice and corn, which is a collegial body.

Yap said the interagency committee is composed of representatives from the NFA, Department of Agriculture, National Economic and Development Authority, Department of Trade and Industry, Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration of the Department of Science and Technology, and the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics.

The committee is chaired by the Secretary of Agriculture but Yap said that during his term it was the assistant secretary and undersecretary of policy that sits and conducts the meetings and chairs the meetings.

But he clarified that the committee members were given enough "freedom and transparency in discussing the issue."

"The discussion is never muzzled. Whatever recommendations or figures that they give us they are allowed to discuss this in an environment of freedom and transparency," he said.

Yap said in a television interview Monday that the recommendation of the interagency committee still passes through the approval of the NFA Council, which is another board. The members of the council include the Department of Finance, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, and representatives from the farmers group.

"You've got two collegial bodies that first have to approve any figure that we act on... For you to say na nagkaroon ng over importation, kaninong figures yung ginamit," he said.

He said the farmer representatives won't approve the importation if the timing is not right as it would affect the prices of locally produced grains.

In a related development, the Baguio-Benguet branch of the NFA issued a statement Monday in response to the President state address.

"As far as the NFA Baguio-Benguet is concerned we do not have excess rice here that is not marketed by the end of the year," NFA provincial manager Rolando Rufo said.

Rufo added they have a marketing plan for all the rice being stored in their warehouses in the province.

"We have targeted resellers of these stocked sacks of rice, which I believe are properly distributed to our retailers in public markets," he said.

Rufo also assured a stable rice supply as the lean months start because of the agency's intensive palay buying during the summer harvest.

As of the first week of July, NFA Administrator Angelito Banayo said the NFA has some 40.7 million bags of rice or 2 million metric tons, which will be sufficient for the next 10 months based on the agency's average daily rice sales of 110,355 bags.

Specifics needed

Filipinos who watched the first Sona of President Aquino was impressed by the President's fiery speech but for some, the speech should have also contain specifics.

"The President has outlined a very good direction and it has to be implemented. The question is how," Baguio Vice Mayor Daniel Fariñas said.

"Filipinos now have a very high expectation from the President," Fariñas added noting that the speech fell short of giving out specifics about how to fulfill his priorities.

Cagayan de Oro Councilor Alexander D. Dacer felt Aquino has given Filipinos "too many promises" in the Sona. He warned that Aquino may end up like US President Barack Obama who lost his popularity because of broken promises.

But Baguio Representative Bernardo Vergara sees a glimmer of hope for Baguio in Aquino's speech saying the President's declaration of improving road networks in the north, would help boost Baguio's tourism industry.

Compostela Valley Governor Arturo Uy, for his part, said Aquino was sincere and said about the truth in his first Sona. "We as public officials should heed to his call for transparency," he said.

Misamis Oriental Vice Governor Norris C. Babiera described the Sona as "simple yet unconventional," that it contained exposés of alleged anomalies in the past administration and delivered in Filipino.

"For me it was a good speech especially that he did not forget to tackle the problems in Mindanao. He showed that he has a good grasp of what's going on among the Lumads, Muslims and Christians," Cagayan de Oro Representative Rodriguez said.

However, the lawmaker said he would have wanted to hear the President mention the budget for Mindanao. Rodriguez has been an advocate of bigger allocation for Mindanao, dubbed as the country's food basket.

Disappointing

Meanwhile, Abigail Anongos, chairperson of Cordillera Peoples Alliance finds the President's Sona disappointing.

"It was disappointing to hear no clear policy statement on indigenous peoples' rights, mining, human rights and climate change," she said.

Anongos said the President also failed to mention how former President Arroyo will be held accountable for alleged irregularities committed during her nine-year term.

For the Tongtongan ti Umili, another peoples' organization, many of their expectations were not mentioned in the Sona.

Tongtongan chairperson Geraldine Cacho said they expect the President to make a statement concerning prosecution of the former president, release of political detainees, mining policies, pull-out of government troops in the Cordillera, import liberalization and environmental preservation, among others.

For Joel Virador, national executive vice president of Bayan Muna party-list, said his group would have wanted to hear Aquino's commitment to send Arroyo and her "repressive and corrupt administration" to jail.

Virador said Aquino failed to mention the long standing problems on landlessness, foreign policies and corruption. (Herbert P. Mapiles/Sun.Star Pampanga/JM Agreda and Rimaliza Opiña of Sun.Star Baguio/Anabelle L. Ricalde and Nicole J. Managbanag of Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro/Sun.Star Davao/Sunnex)