|FORMER CONGRESSMAN Mark Cojuangco and his wife incumbent Congresswoman Kimi Cojuangco face plunder charges filed by tobacco farmers|
ALCALA, Pangasinan—For allegedly misspending over P569 million in tobacco excise-tax shares from 2010 to 2012, former Rep. Mark Cojuangco of the province’s Fifth District and now a candidate for governor is now facing plunder charges before the Office of the Ombudsman.
A group of tobacco farmers, belonging to the North and Central Luzon Tobacco Farmers Association Inc., filed on March 16 a complaint-affidavit against the former solon for violation of Republic Act (RA) 7080, plunder law; RA 3019, or the anti-graft and corrupt practices law; and RA 6713, otherwise known as the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standard for Public Officials and Employees.
There were no immediate reaction from the Cojuangco couple on the charges filed against them.
The farmers’ group, represented by its President Ruben Lagmay and Secretary-General Virginia Salta, also accused Cojuangco’s wife, Carmen Kimi, incumbent Fifth District congresswoman, of similar offenses.
In their complaint, Lagmay and Salta accused the Cojuangco couple of “conspiring to defraud the tobacco farmers of the proceeds of the tobacco excise tax by taking undue advantage of their official position, authority, connection and influence.”
“We have the right to know where the money intended to benefit us was spent,” Lagmay said in an interview after the filing of the complaint at the Office of the Ombudsman in Quezon City.
The complainants alleged that of the Cojuangcos’ P569-million tobacco excise-tax shares, P503.7 million was appropriated for farm-to-market roads, palay-and-corn drying facility, repair and construction of small bridges, solar dryers, irrigation canals and purchase of farm equipment, among others, in the towns of Alcala, Santo Tomas, Sison and Villasis.
A portion of the tax shares from native- and burley-tobacco growing was also used in putting up a big dairy farm in Laoac, Pangasinan, which closed shop recently after a year in operation, the complainants said.
Close to P1 billion was spent in the milk-farm project with other budgetary outlays the Cojuangco couple reportedly sourced from their Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), the National Dairy Authority and the Department of Agriculture.
Lagmay said the dairy farm was mismanaged by officials of a farmer’s cooperative that the Cojuangcos helped organize, composed mostly of business traders resulting in nonpayment of farmworkers and depletion of the stock of milking cows imported from Australia.
With no more milking cows in the barn, the farm was abandoned and is now a “white elephant,” Lagmay said.
Most of the projects transacted by the Cojuangco couple out of their shares from the tobacco-excise tax were in violation of the provisions of the tobacco law, the complainants said in their affidavit submitted to the Ombudsman.
Under the law, projects funded by tobacco excise-tax shares are those engaged by farmers’ cooperatives that will enhance better quality of agricultural products and increase the productivity and income of farmers.
Also qualified for funding are livelihood projects, particularly the development of an alternative farming system to enhance farmers’ income, and agro-industrial initiatives that will enable tobacco farmers to manage or own business ventures, like cigarette manufacturing and by-product utilization.
The law on tobacco-excise tax mandates an 80-percent share for congressmen, and 10-percent share for governors and mayors.
In 2009, when he was a congressman, Cojuangco chaired the Congressional Oversight Committee on Comprehensive Tax Reform Program, a body that sponsored a measure empowering members of the House of Representatives to propose “relevant projects” in tobacco-producing towns within their respective congressional districts to be funded by the tobacco excise-tax shares.
Cojuangco was also behind the monetization scheme of the tobacco excise-tax shares to allow beneficiaries to use the fund, instead of waiting for the annual schedule of releases by the Department of Budget and Management.
Cojuangco is running for governor, while his wife is a reelectionist in the May elections.