“But he himself is not corrupt, right?”
That is a common refrain in conversations with Filipinos concerned about rising sleaze under President Benigno Aquino 3rd. Ironically, the same thing was once said about Ferdinand Marcos, a frugal Ilocano unlike his extravagant wife Imelda.
After five years of Tuwid na Daan, many are disturbed, if not enraged that smuggling tripled from $7.9 billion in 2009 to nearly $27 billion last year, based on International Monetary Fund data.
Pork barrel more than doubled to over P20 billion annually, while anomalies in commuter trains, license plates, combat planes and choppers, and even office supplies are the biggest ever. And Aquino’s P157-billion Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) is the largest malversation in Philippine history.
Yet many Filipinos continue to give him the benefit of ever escalating doubt, believing or hoping he is personally honest. This despite Aquino’s constant defense of tainted allies and associates, his failure to probe mammoth scandals, and his refusal to push for the Freedom of Information bill, as he promised voters.
So on Year 6 of his presidency, let us sincerely ponder the question based on plain facts: Is Aquino corrupt? Not just his allies, appointees, aides, and other associates close to him, including family members and the favored clique of schoolmates, partymates, and shooting buddies (KKK by their Filipino initials) — but Aquino himself.
It’s in the bagman
Many instantly insist on the President’s integrity because he has never been known or shown to have personally solicited or accepted an inappropriate advantage.
Well, if that is enough to declare politicians clean, so many grafters would be exonerated simply by using bagmen to solicit, negotiate, and accept bribes. Indeed, only one Philippine president has been proven to have personally taken payoffs.
In his plunder trial, Joseph Ejercito Estrada was shown to have received illicit funds. Documents and testimony established that he was the true accountholder of the Jose Velarde false-name deposit in Equitable Bank, which once held billions of pesos, including P189 million in checks representing commissions on shares bought by state financial institutions at Estrada’s behest.
No other presidents were undeniably linked to payoffs. Hence, in pondering whether Aquino is corrupt, the apparent absence of actual money or other assets illicitly falling into his hands, pockets, accounts, or other personal receptacles is no reason to conclude he is clean. Otherwise, so many others would be deemed honest, even those currently accused of high corruption by the administration.
Before leaving this issue, one might cite an instance when Aquino may have received an unlawful gift. In December 2011 he claimed to have bought with P4.5 million of his own money a “third-hand” Porsche 911 Turbo sportscar. Seven months later, he said he sold it for the same amount.
Fellow columnist Rigoberto Tiglao, among other journalists, repeatedly pressed the Palace for car registrations and deeds of sale showing that the Porsche was really purchased then sold, and never gifted. No documents were presented. So many rightly concluded that the purported purchase never happened. But Aquino did get the luxury coupe, so it must have been a gift — and, given its high price, it violates the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.
Where there’s smoke…
The undocumented Porsche was but one of so many whiffs of Aquino smoke which got many looking for fire. In his first year alone, consider these dubous acts and omissions.
Aquino declined to put the Philippine National Police, the main weapon against jueteng, under anti-gambling nemesis Jesse Robredo. Instead of the DILG Secretary, Aquino himself supervised the PNP through his shooting buddy, then Interior Undersecretary Rico Puno — whom anti-vice crusader Archbishop Oscar Cruz named along with then PNP Chief Jesus Versoza as “ultimate recipients” of jueteng payoffs.
Aquino also kept smuggling — an even bigger source of multi-billion-peso payoffs — away from another proven sleaze fighter, former Customs Commissioner Guillermo Parayno, hired by the IMF as consultant in customs reform for his Ramos-era achievements.
What’s worse, Aquino never probed the country’s biggest surge of contraband ever — the 2011 disappearance of more than 2,000 cargo containers — even if records show who kept releasing untaxed, uninspected boxes, though hundreds already vanished.
Congress bribery and DAP malversation came in later years, along with anomalies in transport, defense, agriculture, and police agencies. Yet like townsfolk gawking at the Emperor’s new clothes in the children’s fable, huge segments of public and media, including opponents of graft in past regimes, still think Aquino is honest.
His admirers and apologists should ask themselves if his acts would not demonstrate sleaze if done by other presidents. For instance, would they think Fidel Ramos is clean if he did not back Parayno’s cleanup against political pressure, but replaced him as Aquino did to reform-minded Customs chief John Sevilla?
Would Gloria Arroyo be cheered if she kept expressing trust in Secretaries Hernando Perez of Justice, Angelo Reyes at National Defense, and Arthur Yap of Agriculture — as Aquino does with his Cabinet — instead of letting the three go amid sleaze allegations?
And what if Arroyo did not scrap the P15-billion ZTE deal, but defended it like the P157-billion DAP? Or if she stalled the transparency-enhancing Procurement Reform Act of 2003, as Aquino has done with the FOI Bill?
Would it have been fine for Estrada to treble pork barrel and shower it on legislators ousting the Chief Justice, instead of restricting the fund early in his term?
If such excesses would make other leaders corrupt in our eyes, why not Aquino? Do we need a bagman like Chavit Singson to spill the beans about presidential payolas, before we finally see the fire amid Aquino’s huffing and puffing?
Yet even smoking pistols may fail to convince segments of the public and the press. As the Filipino adage goes, it’s hard to wake someone pretending to sleep. Nor would lapdogs spurn or bite the hand that feeds them. And often, we keep believing in a false idol, rather than admit he has made fools of us.