By Manuel Mogato
MANILA, July 1 (Reuters) - The Philippine Supreme Court threw out as unconstitutional a fund overseen by President Benigno Aquino to stimulate the economy, dealing a setback to his bid to portray himself as a champion of the fight against corruption.
In 2011, Aquino introduced his Disbursesment Acceleration Program (DAP), devised as a means to boost government spending. His critics derided it as a tool to control Congress by buying the loyalty of its members.
Three senators are on trial on charges of misusing a separate congressional fund to channel money back to themselves. Aquino abolished that fund, known as "pork barrel" last year, portraying his action as a key blow in the drive to root out graft.
Theodore Te, a spokesman for the Supreme Court, said certain "acts and practices" under the president's DAP were illegal and unconstitutional. The vote among 13 justices was unanimous.
Te said the government had violated the constitution by allowing practices like cross-border transfers of government savings to increase funds available to other offices. It was also illegal, the court said, for the government to fund projects "not covered by any general appropriation act".
A presidential spokeswoman said the administration would not comment until it had examined the ruling.
Nearly 158 billion pesos ($3.62 billion) from 2011 to 2013 were disbursed under the president's fund.
Aquino came to power in 2010 on a platform of good governance and ridding the country of its image as one of the most corrupt in Asia. During his mandate, politicians, civil servants and top officers have been charged and jailed on corruption charges.
The opposition said Tuesday's ruling exposed attempts by the president to circumvent the law to favour his allies.
The three opposition senators facing plunder cases before an anti-corruption court for misuse of the now disbanded "pork barrel" fund say there was little difference in the way the two funds operated. Aquino's programme, they said, was little more than a smokescreen to crack down on opponents.
Miriam Defensor Santiago, an independent senator, said: "Both the pork barrel and DAP scandals are equally repulsive."
Minority congressman Neri Colmenares said the DAP "exposes the hypocrisy of the Aquino administration's hollow, selective and even deceptive anti-corruption campaign".
The programme, he said, "has drained billions of pesos from public funds to highly questionable projects".
Analysts said the Supreme Court had, in effect, upheld the principle of separation of powers.
"It's just a slap in the wrist," said Earl Parreno of the Institute of Electoral and Political Reforms. "The Supreme Court was just telling the president don't ever do it again."
Government lawyers argued in court that the administration had stopped the practice of pooling government savings into a fund and disbursing it to lawmakers after the practice was questioned in the court last year. ($1 = 43.6200 Philippine pesos) (Additional reporting by Lara Murallos; Editing by Ron Popeski)