Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Plunderers’ row

Anyone with an Internet connection can check the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) website to find out if his or her favourite or most detested public official, whether a police chief or mayor, governor or cabinet member, has faced charges of graft and corruption. The PCIJ website has accumulated a database of Sandiganbayan cases against Philippine public officials from 1979 to 2012.
It’s no surprise if you find in the PCIJ database the three highest ranking government officials ever charged with plunder: former presidents Ferdinand Marcos, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo-Macapagal.  
Protests against corruption in government heat up as Napoles, 37 others face
plunder, graft raps. Click link to view press conference of the Dept. of Justice,
Ferdinand Marcos had been implicated in several cases involving bribery and other forms of corruption in government for all the years he had ruled the country with an iron fist. Whether by a stroke of luck or aggressive lawyering by his defence team, the Sandiganbayan simply failed to find any liability against Marcos.
Take the case of Herminio Disini, a Marcos crony who was found by the Sandiganbayan in 2012 guilty for receiving bribes in connection with the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP). Disini was ordered to return to the government $50.6 million in commissions he received for helping two foreign firms win the BNPP contract. While the Sandiganbayan found Marcos to have had a “personal financial interest” in the transaction, the court could not find evidence to show that either Marcos or his wife, Imelda, received any part of the commissions from the BNPP deal.
Disini is still a free man and rumoured to be living somewhere in Europe in a castle he bought for himself. Marcos died a long time ago but his family is back in political power. Although there is no statute of limitation in recovering the Marcos’ ill-gotten wealth, the government has simply not done anything as if this has been a forgotten issue.
Everyone knows what happened to Joseph Estrada. Two years into his presidency, he was charged with plunder and convicted by the Sandiganbayan. Estrada was sentenced to life imprisonment or reclusion perpetua until he was pardoned by his successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Arroyo, who herself would be charged with plunder after her presidency and more than two years into her supposed trial by the Sandiganbayan, remains in hospital custody while eagerly waiting for her day in court. Estrada has been elected mayor of Manila while Arroyo has been re-elected as her district’s representative in Congress.
The Sandiganbayan as an anti-graft court was established during the term of the dictator Marcos, apparently not a serious feature of his repressive government, or to be expected to become an effective arm of the government in combating corruption of public service employees. According to Senator Frank Drilon, the current Senate President, there are at least 2,600 graft cases still pending before Sandiganbayan, which is only able to resolve less than 100 cases yearly.
Overwhelmed with an enormous number of unresolved cases, how then can we expect the Sandiganbayan to speed up the much-awaited trial of the senators and members of Congress who were named in the complaint filed by the Department of Justice in the recent pork barrel scam? Judging by the Sandiganbayan’s appalling inefficiency, there is virtually no hope for the public for a swift and early dispensation of justice for the nation’s collective indignation. What a waste for the people’s hue and cry?
The unpleasant track record of the Sandiganbayan merely confirms that morality is rigged in favour of the powerful. The mighty that have stood up in trial for their high misdemeanours against the nation are either pardoned or simply locked up for the moment until everyone has learned to forget, even perhaps, to forgive. Or better yet, waiting for the right moment for all their charges to be swept under the rug.
Public consciousness has been aroused about the evils of corruption in government. The people are now getting more and more exposed to the various camouflages that conceal corruption that goes unrecognized. But it is the government and the powers it yields that now prove weak in wrestling with this conundrum. Or maybe, the government and our current crop of leaders are not serious enough, like their predecessors, in combing out corruption because if they were, they would similarly be the object of public lynching. Not by the organized opposition but because their own hands are also dirty and the public knows it.
This is clearly evident in the current complaint filed by the Department of Justice against 38 defendants—three senators, some members of Congress, and others allegedly involved in scamming the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). All lawmakers named in the complaint are known stalwarts of Noynoy Aquino’s opposition, which could rightfully infer bias and political motivation to stymie the potential rivals of the current government’s anointed successors.
The information contained in the complaint is very shoddy and alludes to pieces of evidence yet to be gathered. It smacks of a fishing expedition, a careless preparation just to allay a restive public that is bent on holding more and bigger protests against the government’s feeble response to the nation’s outcry.
According to the special report of the Commission on Audit (COA) for the years 2007 to 2009, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been violating the use of funds under PDAF without an appropriation law or ordinance earmarking such amounts for their projects. NGOs were simply endorsed by legislators, thus funds were allowed to be transferred to NGOs whose status and existence turned out to be questionable, such as those run or incorporated by Janet Napoles, the alleged pork barrel queen.
It is also doubtful that the named defendants in the complaint were the only ones involved in the PDAF fiasco. The current president who was a congressman for nine years and a senator for three years before being elected president would certainly have received his share of PDAF allocations, whether through his own network of supporters or NGOs. Besides, as president, Noynoy Aquino has the discretionary spending power without audit and oversight which could tap into almost P1.5 trillion of revenues from the Malampaya fund and PAGCOR operations through regulation of amusements and gaming facilities. PDAF makes up only about 1.3 percent of the yearly national budget. It means that there are other potential sources for massive corruption that remain untouched if we simply focus on the PDAF scam.
But then, all the president’s loyal men claim Noynoy Aquino is incorruptible, honest and super clean—therefore, he should be spared of the people’s collective indignation against corruption in government. Of course.
In the same COA report, it also identified 54 PDAF-funded projects which were constructed on private properties belonging to members of Congress not named in the complaint. Obviously, these members of Congress are affiliated with the president’s party or known to be supportive of the current administration. Such use of funds, as pointed out by COA, is prohibited. According to law, public funds must be used to promote public welfare or purposes, and not individual advantage.
In the grand scheme of public corruption, we might as well declare all members of Congress in both houses, and the office of the president, or even the entire bureaucracy, as a big plunderers’ row. But as official morality seems to reside in the hands of the powerful, the sitting president and his party and supporters control the government. They have at their disposal all agencies and offices, including the media, to prosecute and persecute those they have deemed as enemies of the state.
Janet Napoles and the PDAF scam have become our national morality play. From the perspective of institutionalized corruption, this entire mess, according to the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG), “dramatizes only one aspect of a long entrenched tradition of lack of accountability by politicians and a culture of impunity enjoyed by the powerful.”

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