Saturday, April 5, 2014

Major breakthrough in anti-corruption campaign

Grafters, you better watch out, you better not pout, Barack Obama is coming to town. You may be headed to the graft court.

With the filing by the Ombudsman yesterday of plunder charges against three senators (Juan Ponce Enrile, Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada and Ramon “Bong” Revilla, Jr.) Janet Lim Napoles (the alleged mastermind of the pork-barrel scam), and six other individuals, the government shows beyond doubt the utter seriousness of the campaign against graft and corruption in the country. The timing with Obama’s visit is a bid for applause and increased economic and military aid.

But this is truly, madly, deeply, the biggest breakthrough in the anti-corruption campaign unleashed by President BS Aquino’s three-year presidency. To fess up, there were times when many of us thought he had lost his way. But this development has restored sanity and direction to the campaign.

Think of the anti-corruption campaign as a system like a three-legged stool. The filing of charges is the vital second leg wherein suspicion of wrongdoing is investigated and found as warranting the filing of charges and prosecution in court

The first leg was the exposé of the massive theft and swindle of billions of pesos of pork barrel funds, through the audit reports of the Commission on Audit, the testimony of whistleblowers, and the vigilant campaign and clamor of the media and the public for a complete halt to the appropriations and release of the congressional pork barrel. The Inquirer’s initial expose of the P10-billion pork barrel scam was the first bomb.

The third leg which completes the system’s solid foundations is the trial and possible conviction of the accused in the Sandiganbayan, the nation’s graft court.

Once all three legs are in place, it can truly be said that President Aquino’s harping against corruption and on the straight path, and the public outcry against corruption are bearing fruit and planting lessons for national politics and governance.

Anti-corruption campaign like three-legged stool
Some systems analysts and managers like to use the stool analogy for any system of work or operation. One leg is the hardware, software, and data. The second leg is policies, procedures, and management support. The third leg is trained, competent staff and users. If any of the legs are too short on a three-legged stool, it will be out of balance and fall. This is the same with a system.

Continuing with the analogy, even a balanced stool may be too short to support the goals you wish to reach. You cannot merely lengthen a single leg to increase the overall height. It is important for institutions to address all three legs of this stool to make sure that the system is balanced and at the right height to meet your requirements.

The concept of balance is good to bear in mind so that the campaign is not toppled and reaches its worthy goals.

There was a point when the Senate inquiry appeared to displace the formal investigation by the Department of Justice and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), and threatened to go off the rails because of the missteps of committee chair Teofisto Guingona Jr. There was likewise a point where Justice Secretary Leila De Lima’s publicity-seeking and free-wheeling grant of immunity to would-be witnesses appeared to be hurting the probe. And then there was the vigorous counter-attacks of Estrada and Revilla, which unraveled the lies of witnesses in the Senate inquiry, and disclosed the administration’s invention of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), an apparently illegal fund that was partly used to buy the senators at the impeachment trial of former chief justice Renato Corona.

Ombudsman not distracted by sideshows
It’s fortunate that these sideshows did not distract the Ombudsman and her team from a thorough investigation of the charges forwarded to her by the justice department. Regardless of whether De Lima’s truckloads of evidence were as massive as advertised, the Office of the Ombudsman found sufficient evidence against the three senators and Napoles to indict them for plunder of the government’s Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).

There was evidently solid basis to tag Napoles as the alleged mastermind of the multibillion pork barrel scam. Her rumored connections and maneuvers did not prove a factor.

At the media briefing announcing the indictments last Tuesday, Ombudsman Office spokesman Asryman Rafanan alleged that Enrile received up to P172 million, Revilla P242 million and Estrada P183 million in kickbacks from awarded PDAF projects.

“The three joint resolutions concluded that the three senators took undue advantage of their official position to illegally divert, in connivance with certain respondents, the respective PDAF allocations to the Napoles NGOs [non-government organizations] in exchange for kickbacks or commissions,” Rafanan said.

The charges are grave. Plunder is punishable under Republic Act (RA) 7080 by reclusion perpetua and forfeiture of the ill-gotten wealth. It is a non-bailable offense.

The joint resolutions on two criminal cases also found probable cause to charge Jessica Lucila “Gigi” Reyes, Ruby Tuason, Ronald John Lim, John Raymond de Asis, and Pauline Therese Mary Labayen for plunder.

The Ombudsman will file the cases at the Sandiganbayan when the respondents submit their motions for reconsideration, if any, within five days upon receipt of the resolutions.

Being out of the country at this time provides little respite for the respondents. The government will serve the resolutions through registered mail. There is, as yet, no hold-departure order for the respondents, meaning they are still free to travel.

As in their speeches on the Senate floor, Estrada and Revilla continued to profess their innocence from their places of sojourn abroad. But denials will not do them much good at this point.

A clearcut and irresistible plunder scheme
As pieced together by the Ombudsman, the respondents, operating together, conducted their plunder operations over a number of years.

The scheme was clearcut, simple and irresistible. Ingenious even, but requiring above all audacity and shamelessness. The sizable pork barrel of each senator (P200 million per year plus even more) induced Napoles to concoct her scheme – which essentially came down to offering the senators and House representatives (P70 million per year) kickbacks in advance of government releases of their pork to specific projects, setting up bogus non-government organizations as pork beneficiaries, and bribing DBM officials to release the pork, and bribing government implementing agencies to approve the projects.

Clearly, Napoles must have had big-time financiers behind her for her to afford giving advanced kickbacks that reached to tens of millions. The sums involved were so mind-boggling, it’s cause for wonder that not all senators and legislators fell for Napoles’s scheme.

With officials in the budget department assisting Napoles, extracting public money was easy. The advanced kickbacks proved to be an offer that no legislator could refuse.

A special panel constituted by the Ombudsman based its conclusions on the paper trail arising from either the Special Allotment Release Order (Saro), or each Implementing Agency (IA)/NGO tandem, if one Saro was split and coursed through different agencies, regardless of the number of projects.

Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales approved on Monday (March 31) the recommendations of the special panel, which conducted the preliminary investigation of the separate complaints filed by the NBI. The panel cited the sworn statements of whistleblower Benhur-Luy and his co-witnesses Marina Sula and Merlina Sunas detailing the sequence of events, the 2007-2009 Commission on Audit report on the PDAF disbursement, and the reports of field verification with sworn statements of local government officials and purported beneficiaries of the supposed projects who turned out to be non-existent.

Other government employees and non-government organization officials will also be charged with plunder.

The implementing agencies (IA) involved include the National Agribusiness Corp. (Nabcor), National Livelihood Development Corp. (NLDC) and Technology Resource Center (TRC).

The NGOs involved, whose names are pathetically similar, are uniformly low-key; it’s hard to distinguish one from the others.

Restoring public faith in government
It’s too early to chalk this up as a victory in the fight against graft and corruption.

The trial of the charges in court will make all the difference. The resourcefulness of lawyers in graft cases is inexhaustible.

Real victory will come when convictions are won in court, and when plunder and graft charges are also filed against senators and representatives who are party mates and friends of President Aquino.

Most important, the administration, through the justice department needs to transform the anti-corruption campaign into a systematic program to rid the bureaucracy of rascals, influence peddlers and the ever present and most deadly corrupters of politicians and public servants.

The ombudsman and her team deserve congratulations. And President Aquino’s resolve has everything to do with this development. But more than triumphalism, he should focus now on ensuring that the gains from the anticorruption campaign become lasting and systemic.

He should take a leaf from the slackening of the anti-corruption campaign in Indonesia, which after a brief period of success, began to slacken. No one notices it these days.

The administration must wage the equivalent of what we might call Operation Clean Hands. Every activity in government must be above suspicion. The protection of every peso of public money must be the watchword of every public official, especially government auditors. Even cronies and friends should not be spared.

It would help tremendously if our government establishes an inspector general system, which in modern democracies watches out for fraud, waste and inefficiency in the public service. In our system, we only have the Commission on Audit watching out for fraud. No one is looking out whether government agencies or even departments are doing efficiently the tasks assigned them. The lack of performance watchdogs is why NGOs and implementing agencies were able to steal so much from the pork barrel fund.

This painful and cathartic experience in our government should produce lasting reform and a revolution of attitudes. And, eventually, the restoration of public faith in government.

(I will discuss the adoption of an inspector general system in our government service in my next column.)

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