Even if President B.S. Aquino 3rd’s over-marketed “anti-corruption” orientation was completely sincere and not the bunch of dog-whistling events of the past couple months have revealed it to be, the basic flaw in his thesis is that corruption flows downhill. That perspective mirrors his ideas about economic management, and is just as wrong; after all, one does not build a strong house by starting with the roof. When you read the complaint of business groups that “corruption” continues to be the biggest obstacle to investment in the Philippines, the sort of shenanigans going on in Masbate province right now are exactly the sort of thing they are describing. As regular readers of this column are aware, I’ve taken a critical interest in the activities of an energetic—and for this country, an entirely novel—group of engaged citizens calling themselves Masbate Talks; just this week, the group welcomed its 16,000th new member, and earlier this month, graduated from its still-hyperactive Facebook page to its very own website (http://masbatetalks.com/).
Incidentally, in launching its website, the group has one-upped the Masbate provincial government, which has yet to graduate from the era of the fax machine and phones with buttons and is consequently still grappling with the concept of “the Internet” (It is worth noting, however, that the government of the city of Masbate does have a website, a rather good one, to be fair). The lack of something as simple as an official website is emblematic of the failure of the administration of Masbate Gov. Rizalina “Dayan” Seachon-Lanete to come to terms with the public’s demand for “information transparency.” It turns out that’s not just a shortcoming, but an intentional and astonishingly defiant attempt by Lanete to keep public information out of her public’s hands.
The drama began in August, when the Lanete administration took offense to the publication of a “monthly status report” by Masbate Talks, which summarized the activities of the governor’s office and the provincial board, as well as a recap of the province’s financial status. It was this last part which annoyed Lanete, who quickly passed orders to her officers not to disclose any further financial information to the group without the explicit approval of her office.
That response was obviously not going to be taken sitting down, and the reaction of Masbate Talks was to seek the intercession of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG). While I am not particularly impressed with the leadership of the DILG Secretary and presumptive 2016 presidential runner-up Mar Roxas, DILG Undersecretary Austere Panadero and DILG provincial officer-in-charge Thelma Zaragoza deserve a thumbs-up for a quick and positive response.
Directives from the DILG were handed down to Lanete’s office to first of all, comply with the DILG’s Full Disclosure Policy and post the specified financial information (14 individual disclosures, essentially all the province’s required reports for 2013 to date, were noted as missing) to the department’s Full Disclosure Policy Portal website; and second, “furnish this office [the DILG provincial director for Masbate]with feedback/report” on the matter of Masbate Talks’ request for the province’s monthly financial summary, the strongly implied message being, “Tell us how you will honor this public request which we think is reasonable enough to intervene on their behalf.”
And what was Lanete’s response to this? Instead of posting the required information to the FDPP website (because, Internet), Masbate Provincial Planning and Development Officer Ramon Marcaida forwarded the documents to the DILG (although he did helpfully remind them that anyone who’s interested can go see the information posted in the lobby of the capitol building). Fair enough, but as for the Masbate Talks request for financial information, Lanete herself informed Zaragoza’s office in a letter dated October 7 that Masbate Talk’s leader, “a certain Mr. Alden Almero” made the request for the information “without signifying the purpose for which the requested documents would be used,” and “it is our view that official documents, although matters of public concerns, are not ordinary documents but vested with public interest which must be protected.”
But wait, there’s more: Later in the letter (which, by the way, is printed on stationery bearing her portrait as a large watermark), Lanete goes on to say that, “the provincial government of Masbate has been compliant with the required posting of the financial documents”—“compliant” is a sense the DILG viewed a little differently, and for documents which only the paragraph before “must be protected”—and “if he is serious enough to help Masbate, a certain Mr. Almero is also best advised to visit the Provincial Government.”
That “certain Mr. Almero” (who, the Governor should be reminded, is not acting on his own but with the endorsement of a group of 16,000 Masbateños) just so happens to be out of the country on business at the moment, which meant that some anonymously over-aggressive supporter of Lanete had to settle for the next best thing, sending a series of threatening text messages to Mr. Almero’s brother in Masbate, suggesting some personalized unpleasantness might ensue if Masbate Talks didn’t back off.
In Dayan Lanete’s specific case, her response begins to make some sense when one remembers that she is one of the 38 people lately charged with plunder before the Ombudsman, accused of having pocketed P104.8 million in public funds during her term in Congress prior to her election as governor in 2010. The same context raises some questions about Lanete’s reshuffling of key provincial financial posts as well. For example, the acting provincial accountant, a certain Norie Seachon Rosas Agunias, is a cousin of Lanete, who took her post when the provincial accountant was reassigned without much explanation by Lanete; the Provincial General Services Officer, Dante Rosas, is said to be Lanete’s nephew. This sort of eyebrow-raising management escapes official notice (until now, perhaps), because Lanete can rely on a deep roster of support at lower government levels. In one town, Cawayan, several generations of the Condor family, one of Lanete’s biggest backers (the provincial engineer is also a Condor, Nilo), have taken over the municipal government in mafia-like fashion, with a husband-and-wife team serving as mayor and municipal assessor, and little Condors either already holding or running for no fewer than eight barangay seats.
Masbate is a good example of where the corruption afflicting this country has its roots, but it is by no means extreme or unique. With very few exceptions, virtually every local government level throughout the Philippines is infected by some degree of nepotism and the feudal, proprietary attitudes of local leaders that go along with it. For business, it’s a bigger headache than corruption at the national level, because no matter what national agency policies and procedures are, every business still needs to deal with local officials on the ground in a particular physical location. Not only is business development stymied, but any benefits from investment or job generation are severely attenuated by the profit the lords of little realms are not only well-placed to capture, but believe they are completely entitled to have. Laudable as the response of the DILG officers is, a per-case, remedial approach to local government misdeeds is not a solution to a fundamentally corrupt environment. Which means that until the country finds the wherewithal to embrace a fundamentally culture-changing and evolutionary way of managing its affairs at the most basic levels, “corruption” is almost certain to remain very near if not actually at the top of the list of the Philippines’ biggest perceived handicaps.