First of Three Parts
If Palace spinmeisters and pro-administration media are to be believed, President Benigno Aquino 3rd has launched another massive crackdown on corruption with the ongoing probe into pork barrel anomalies and the sweeping revamp in the Bureau of Customs. But that’s a big, big if, especially for well-informed and critical-minded citizens.
Even the more enlightened Aquino supporters cannot but wonder in public or private about some nagging issues. At least those who value truth and really care for good governance and unblemished public service.
Take Chiz Escudero. After both house of Congress declined to investigate the pork barrel anomalies, the popular senator allowed: “I am frustrated and share the people’s disgust in the ‘non-investigation’ of the PDAF [Priority Development Assistance Fund] scandal. … I cannot help feeling that there is a seeming double standard in our common fight against graft and grafters in the government.”
Escudero was comparing the impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona for failing to list all his assets to the congressional spending scam in which billions of pesos in project funds were actually lost to sleaze, rather than simply misdeclared or hidden.
Well, Mr. Senator and other seemingly true believers in President Aquino’s Tuwid na Daan campaign for good governance. Let’s play a game of 20 questions and see how much of that faith and trust will remain.
Question No. 1: Speaking of double standard, why were administration legislators and Cabinet officials cleared even before the NBI investigation was done, while opposition senators like Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and Gregorio Honasan were implicated in the first week that the probe came to light? In fact, to eliminate any suspicion of political agenda, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, an administration stalwart, should turn over the inquiry to the constitutionally independent Office of the Ombudsman.
No. 2: Why is the Aquino administration acting only now to investigate pork barrel, when the practice has been widely known and acknowledged for decades? Rather than instituting proper PDAF auditing as perennially urged by good governance advocates, the President instead used the anomalous funding scheme to pressure the House of Representatives into passing bills and impeaching officials.
As for the current probe, it sweeps off the headlines the recent expose implicating presidential sister Ballsy and her husband Eldon Cruz, as well as the latest Transparency International survey with nearly two-thirds of respondents saying that corruption has stayed the same or worsened under Aquino.
No. 3: Also lamented for years, why was the corruption, smuggling and mammoth revenue losses at the Bureau of Customs denounced only last month by Aquino? In fact, he had the perfect opportunity back in his first weeks in office to take a giant step toward cleaning up the BoC by bringing back its former chief Guillermo Parayno, who had drastically reduced corruption and lifted collections in the Ramos administration.
Aquino could have done the same for the campaign against jueteng if he had put the Philippine National Police directly under his chosen Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo, who had eradicated the illegal numbers game during his many terms as Naga City mayor. Instead, Aquino ran the PNP through his shooting buddy, then Undersecretary Rico Puno, despite being accused by name of receiving jueteng payoffs by anti-gambling crusader Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz.
In keeping Parayno out of Customs and Robredo off the PNP, President Aquino clearly did not care for them to demonstrate their proven mettle against smuggling and jueteng.
No. 4: Why is there no investigation of Customs anomalies amounting to some P200 billion in revenue losses, as cited by Aquino himself in the State of the Nation Address, along with the flood of contraband including lethal guns and drugs? Come to think of it, the President ordered no probe either of the several thousand containers lost in transit between Manila and Batangas ports—the worst spate of smuggling in the country ever—even though it would have been so easy to pinpoint responsibility in the BoC.
Rather, officials are allowed to resign without investigation. Or in the case of incumbent Customs Commissioner Ruffy Blazon, kept in his post to revamp the bureau, despite having failed to reform it after more than two years. Since no one is being taken to task for the Customs mess, no one has anything to fear even if the anomalies continue. As they will, no doubt.
No. 5: Why is there no independent investigation of the Metro Rail Transit extortion scandal, despite the possible involvement of someone close to the President himself? Anyone who thinks the NBI or the Department of Transportation and Communications could properly and thoroughly investigate Aquino’s sister and brother-in-law has zero idea of overarching social and political dynamics in the Philippines.
As for the supposed letter and remarks by Czech Ambassador Joseph Rychtar clearing Ballsy and Eldon Cruz, no newspaper has ever published a categorical statement in which the envoy named the couple and said they were not involved. Indeed, when he met with Justice Secretary de Lima recently, neither could say in unequivocal terms that the discussion exonerated the Cruzes —something that would have been immediately made public by de Lima if Rychtar had said as much. But he didn’t clear the couple.
No. 6: Looking beyond the current controversies, one has to ask: Why is the Freedom of Information Bill, which can help fight pork barrel and other spending sleaze, absent in the fourth SONA, as it had been in the previous three? Indeed, its enactment wasn’t even in the vast program for government transparency which Aquino submitted to the Open Government Partnership in New York two Septembers ago. This despite Aquino’s campaign statements that the FOI measure would be a priority of his administration.
Fourteen other quandaries will be covered in the next two installments of this article. But really, does any clear-thinking, independent-minded Filipino need more queries before he can form a true assessment of President Aquino’s anti-graft efforts? Well, for those who do, two more batches of seven will be coming in future columns. And far more important: the responses that upright, patriotic Filipinos should muster in the face of these disturbing questions.