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Aquino ally charged as Philippine graft scandal widens

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Philippine investigators recommended criminal charges Friday against the country's customs chief, the first political ally of President Benigno Aquino to be implicated in a widening corruption scandal.

Bureau of Customs Commissioner Rozzano Biazon and seven fellow former members of the House of Representatives were accused of taking part in a complex scam lasting many years to syphon off 10 billion pesos ($230 million) in government funds.

The National Bureau of Investigation accused Biazon of taking 1.95 million pesos in kickbacks to allow the diversion of money from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), intended for infrastructure projects in the legislators' congressional districts.

"The... legislators (knew) fully well that their act of receiving the large amounts of cash... for their private use resulted in the corresponding diminution of the funds," the formal complaint read.

The bureau asked the justice department to file criminal charges of direct bribery, graft, and misuse of public funds against the eight former legislators and 26 other people.

Three sitting senators, five former House members, and several former government agency chiefs were among 38 people charged earlier in connection with the scam, including its alleged mastermind, businesswoman Janet Napoles.

The bureau alleged the scam played out with legislators conniving with executives of government agencies to hand over their PDAF allocations to non-government groups controlled by Napoles supposedly as payment for implementing nonexistent projects.

Biazon said Friday he was ready to answer the complaint against him.

"I had always exercised prudence and fidelity in the performance of my duty as representative... as well as in other responsibilities to the public, and pursued 'projects and programmes' that benefited my constituents," he said in a statement.

"But as we have seen in some instances, the processes involved have been vulnerable to abuse by certain parties."

The scandal has shone a light on corruption within the political system centred on so-called "pork barrel" funding, where members of parliament receive huge sums of money from the national budget to spend in their constituencies.

It has also threatened to tarnish the reputation of President Aquino, who was elected in 2010 on a pledge to fight corruption.

After his stint in the legislature, Biazon was named by Aquino, a fellow member of the Liberal Party, to the customs post in 2011, tasked with cleaning up a government agency that is held by many Filipinos as among the country's most corrupt.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/131129/aquino-ally-charged-philippine-graft-scandal-widens