AS many of you would have no doubt noticed, on the same day my most recent column, “Out of Control Corruption” was published (Thursday, July 4), the Chairman Emeritus of The Manila Times was also moved to publish his thoughts on the “Ballsy story” (“Ballsy, Eldon, Prado: Victims of a Demolition Job”). In his article, Dr. Ang made a strong case for the recent allegations that Presidential sister Maria Elena “Ballsy” Aquino-Cruz, along with her husband Eldon Cruz and a couple of others tried to extort several million dollars from the Czech light-rail concern Inekon to “facilitate” the winning of the supply and maintenance contract for the Metro Rail Transit (MRT-3) were nothing more than an abortive attempt at character assassination meant to discredit President Benigno S. Aquino 3rd in one way or another.
The apparent juxtaposition of views strikes some readers as confusing, or at least a little odd, and because no matter how one looks at the story there is a much bigger problem revealed by it, I thought it worthwhile to set aside my original topic for today and explore the issue in some more detail. To clear one little matter up for readers who may have gained a different impression from following the news in “other” daily publications or networks about how media should or actually does work in this town, The Times does not—if it’s not already obvious—operate on the backwards principle of trying to fit facts and opinions to a certain predetermined perspective. My bewailing the fact that the government and so-called “civil society” personalities are apparently ignoring a very serious allegation is certainly different from Dr. Ang’s thesis, and almost certainly wouldn’t see the light of day elsewhere. But The Manila Times is not elsewhere; we give you what you need to make up your own mind, not try to do that for you.
So here’s the problem: A serious accusation of extortion related to a government contract has been made against persons very close to the President. That accusation comes from an unidentified source, and is not accompanied by any particularly compelling evidence apart from the circumstantial facts that: A) the parties involved are well-connected and certainly are privy to the details of government initiatives; B) the parties involved—three out of the four of them, anyway, one apparently having been misidentified—did in fact travel to Prague, and plausibly had an opportunity to engage in what they’re being accused of attempting; and C) the story fits a long and dubious tradition of similar shenanigans carried out by government officials and other Filipino VIPs since time immemorial.
Dr. Ang, on the other hand—who admittedly is an eminently more reliable source of information than unnamed informants being quoted by one of this country’s AM radio stations—points out a number of flaws in the allegations: Ballsy and her husband did travel to Prague in 2011 at the invitation of Czech ambassador to the Philippines, Josef Rychtar, and did attend a social event with a number of Czech government and business leaders. Even if the opportunity to make the extortion attempt had presented itself—which would have been unlikely at that event, although details of the rest of the couple’s visit are not known—the MRT project is a government-to-government contract, leaving little room for some sort of fixer to interfere. In other words, the Philippines will be making a bid award based on what is presented to it by the Czech government (or the French government, or the Chinese government, or some other country), not by the company directly.
That doesn’t make it completely impossible for attempted extortion to take place, but does make it more difficult. Given the nature of the project in question and Philippine government or government-connected personalities’ preference for low-hanging fruit, Dr. Ang’s insights make it much harder to imagine that the allegations aired against Ballsy and Eldon Cruz are based in fact, rather than his contention that they are the product of some malicious political maneuvering somewhere within the Aquino administration. And there is the rather significant fact that the bribe was never made; Inekon is not, as far as anyone knows, even remotely interested in the MRT project at this point.
I have to disagree with Dr. Ang on one important point, however: The lack of public interest in the story is clearly at least partly attributable to a careful government crackdown on it, rather than as a result of its being unsubstantiated and rather difficult to swallow. The administration-backing media outlets have been completely silent about the story, as has the President himself, and his civil society “anticorruption” supporters; it was only, one might assume, with great reluctance that Malacañang trotted out one of their talking persons to offer an offhand dismissal of the whole matter.
And just as I said earlier this week, that nonreaction—as well as the story itself, regardless of what the truth behind it really is—is a damning indictment of the lack of substance underlying the “Daang Matuwid” this President has been trying to convince the country his government is following. Corruption isn’t just about bribery and theft.
The real corruption is the dysfunction of leadership; the political infighting, bureaucratic territorialism, nepotism and influence-peddling that, while never absent from any Philippine administration, has run amok in this one.
How must this story appear to a government or investors considering interacting with this country and its administration? Even if the Cruz couple are completely innocent—and by that I mean, innocent not only of the charge of soliciting a bribe from a potential foreign contractor, but innocent of making any suggestion that their family ties would be advantageous in any way to those making their acquaintance—and the whole thing is, as Dr. Ang suggests, a character assassination carried out by a faction within the government; what does it say about the administration that even that sort of back-biting is taking place? At best, it is a warning to potential investors that they cannot be certain their efforts and interaction with one part of the government are not going to be undercut by other agencies. It’s already happening in other ways, such as the problems with unreimbursed value-added tax exemptions that have tied up the time and millions of dollars of some investors, canceled contracts such as the Laguna Lake Reclamation Project (a topic that will be revisited next week), and the ridiculous, borderline-racketeering antics of the Bases Conversion and Development Authority with regard to the disputed SM Aura property in Taguig City.
If you were a chief executive officer, would you be eager to get involved in a big-ticket investment here after hearing these kinds of stories? Of course not; your board of directors would probably skin you alive, and then send what’s left of you back to night school to freshen up your obviously insufficient knowledge of risk analysis. This is why the Philippines continues to lag behind its neighbors, and will continue to do so for as long as this government—or its successor, or the one after that—avoids taking its “anticorruption” rhetoric to heart.