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Lessons from a scam

Ten years ago this month, the father was convicted of plunder and sentenced to life in prison. His ill-gotten assets – P542.701 million in bank deposits, P189 million in a secret bank account and a mansion in New Manila – were ordered seized.

Less than two months later, ousted president Joseph Estrada withdrew his appeal, consequently making his conviction final. He immediately received full pardon from his successor, even if to this day he has not admitted guilt and has expressed no remorse for his crime, which are conditions for pardon. Erap did not spend a single day behind bars. Now he’s Manila mayor, and he can afford to joke about being an ex-convict.

His principal punishment for plunder was being held without bail for six years and six months, briefly in a police bungalow, and then in his own sprawling rest house in Tanay.

Erap’s constitutional successor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo granted the full pardon as her own presidency was being rocked by corruption scandals. GMA has since been cleared of plunder and graft complaints and has miraculously recovered her health, after being freed from “hospital arrest” and allowed to function fully as a congresswoman.

Our top politicians breathe rarefied air and we’ve always had a problem punishing them. It’s as if our judiciary cannot stand the prospect of having the wealthy and powerful mingling with the patay-gutom who are used to sleeping in cramped, smelly, poorly ventilated and vermin-infested jail cells.

In South Korea, the rich and powerful are held up to higher standards of exemplary behavior than the hoi polloi. When Korea’s rich and powerful commit felonies, they tend to be caught, and when they are caught, they are convicted and sent to prison.

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Of course in South Korea, the justice system is efficient and the judicial process is generally perceived to be fair even when prosecution is initiated by political rivals. The litigation period is also short enough to prevent complaints about justice delayed and denied.

In the time that Erap spent under detention without bail while on trial, the Koreans would have tried, convicted, imprisoned and possibly pardoned high-profile felons.

* * *

Few people were surprised that Erap’s son, former senator Jinggoy Estrada, also walked out of private detention at Camp Crame the other day.

Estrada expressed confidence that his detention mate, former senator Bong Revilla, would also be freed soon. The buzz is that there is a feverish rush as well to free former Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile’s inamorata and ex-chief of staff Gigi Reyes.

Jinggoy Estrada might never find himself in a prison cell. He seems good as cleared, with the government said to be tapping him as a witness in another scam, this time involving the Disbursement Acceleration Program.

Apart from their supporters, there are other people who, while they are not cheering the release of senators indicted in connection with the scam, also think the three are victims of selective justice in the previous administration.

Enrile was a stalwart of the opposition party led by then vice president Jejomar Binay, who was eyeing Jinggoy Estrada as his running mate in last year’s race. Bong Revilla made the mistake of expressing interest in running for president himself under the Lakas banner.

So the three senators, even if their cases are still pending, can claim some vindication with their release even if only on bail.

* * *

Now let’s see how lower ranking government employees are treated under our justice system:

Last May, a regional trial court in Quezon City convicted an examiner of the Land Registration Authority of graft and direct bribery for demanding P300,000 as grease money, to be paid in installments, to speed up the release of an order for titling a property in La Union.

Giovanni Purungganan was caught after he accepted P50,000 in marked money from the complainant, in an entrapment by the National Bureau of Investigation in August 2011.

Purungganan was slapped with up to eight years for graft and up to three years for direct bribery. He was fined P100,000 and permanently barred from holding public office.

Also last May, the Sandiganbayan sentenced a former mayor and former municipal engineer of Barotac Nuevo in Iloilo to a maximum of 24 years in prison and fined P15,000 each for three counts of falsification of public documents. Pedro Hautea and engineer Norman Lustria were convicted for declaring that a mini market was 100 percent complete as of Dec. 31, 2000 when construction had not yet started. Court records showed that the two also falsified documents to make it appear that construction workers were paid a total of P20,780. Former barangay chairman Manuel Siaotong, who signed the document stating that the project had been completed and turned over to the village, was also sentenced to eight years in prison.

A noteworthy aspect of the land titling and mini market cases is how long it took to resolve them. These are simple cases of corruption involving miniscule amounts compared to the dizzying figures mentioned in the pork barrel scandal. Both cases will still go through the appeals process. It could take another decade before a final ruling is handed down on both cases and the guilty get what they deserve.

The Supreme Court, which supervises the judiciary, is not in a good position these days to pursue reforms to improve the administration of justice. Apart from its heavy caseload, the SC inevitably will be affected by the possible impeachment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

* * *

People sick of chronic corruption in the bureaucracy, anyone who has ever had to fork out grease money to get things done in government, will say the convicts in the two cited cases had it coming.

Now if only our judicial system could be just as harsh on those who steal not just P50,000 but P50 million, or P183.79 million divided among four persons. Or how about those accused of stealing a staggering $10 billion?

Will Oplan Double Barrel ever be expanded to plunderers? When will “One Time Big Time” be part of President Duterte’s other war, against corruption? Will this other war ever move beyond rhetoric?

One indelible lesson imparted by events in the past decades in our weak republic is that if you’re going to steal from the people, you must do it big time. The larger the loot, the greater the capability to obtain the best justice that money can buy. This guarantees getting away with plunder.

For added protection, the loot can be used to bankroll entry into politics. Then the plunderer can get away with everything.

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