Greedy, greedier…

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - October 23, 2020 - 12:00am

An official of the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission said it yesterday: some congressmen “bullied” district engineers of the Department of Public Works and Highways. PACC Commissioner Greco Belgica said the lawmakers, in cahoots with contractors, were likely involved in corruption in the DPWH.

Yesterday, Belgica himself was slapped with graft complaints before the Office of the Ombudsman, by personnel of Duty Free Philippines.

Still, through several administrations, I have talked with officials of the DPWH, and they cited a common problem in keeping corruption out of the department: politicians.

No one was willing to go on record and be named, but all their stories had a depressingly familiar thread: politicians not only wanted to earmark infrastructure projects for implementation in their bailiwicks, but also to pick the contractors.

It wasn’t unusual for certain contractors not to meet criteria of the department – but the politicians insisted on them anyway, the officials said. If the DPWH refused, it could have problems come budget deliberations in the case of lawmakers, and in securing permits in the case of local government executives. Politicians can even have DPWH district engineers transferred.

This politically driven earmarking has been one of the hindrances to a coordinated, long-term national infrastructure program. It is also one of the reasons for the patchwork quality of many of our roads, with sections subdivided into the pet projects of different politcians.

Apart from these politicians who think collecting kickbacks is their inalienable right as public servants, there are undoubtedly crooks in the DPWH itself.

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DPWH Secretary Mark Villar has formed a task force to conduct a housecleaning in his department. But he can’t do much about the lawmakers.

President Duterte, while lamenting the extent of corruption in the DPWH, repeatedly says he does not think Villar is involved. Among others, Duterte says Villar is so rich he does not need to pocket people’s money.

This may be true of a son of the Philippines’ so-called brown taipan Manny Villar; the family is one of the three wealthiest in the country. And in truth I haven’t heard any accusations of corruption imputed on Mark Villar.

But not everyone is Mark Villar. The President should disabuse himself of the idea that the rich do not engage in corruption. Some folks are simply afflicted with bottomless greed, believing that one can never be rich enough. All that Duterte has to do is look around at some of his wealthy allies to see this point.

In survey after survey, businessmen have ranked the DPWH among the top five most corrupt government agencies, where almost nothing moves without grease money.

Corruption has forced some businessmen to cut corners and deliver substandard products and services. The World Bank has said that the quality of the road network is a good gauge of the quality of governance and degree of transparency in a country.  Now you know why we have so many substandard roads that disintegrate in the rain.

Last week, amid scrutiny of the 2021 national budget, Sen. Panfilo Lacson issued a press statement: “Fact is, contractors openly talk behind the backs of these officials, changing the definition of ‘mabait’ and ‘maginoo’ in the process: officials from the executive and legislative branches who ask for ‘only’ 10 percent are ‘mabait, maginoong kausap’ and those who demand 20 to 30 percent are ‘matakaw,’ while those who demand advance payments and renege on their word are ‘balasubas’ and ‘mandurugas.’ ”

Those descriptions on the varying degrees of greed and venality of public officials are in fact also used in other graft-ridden agencies, and in the two other branches of government – the judiciary and legislature.

There’s a reason why we have no law against racketeering, or regulating campaign finance, or relaxing bank secrecy laws to make the work easier for the Anti-Money Laundering Council. And why corruption was among the last predicate crimes to be included in the scope of the AMLC.

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Even in the judiciary, certain former officials of the Presidential Commission on Good Government have lamented that there are millions of reasons why the Marcoses keep winning in the graft and forfeiture cases against them.

We have this bizarre phenomenon of billions officially declared as ill-gotten wealth and forfeited in favor of the state, but with no one convicted for the looting – and with the principal accused buried in the heroes’ cemetery. We have a heinous crime without a criminal, and the best justice that money can buy.

The PCGG itself has not been free of controversy. Its former chairman Camilo Sabio is out on bail while appealing his 2019 conviction for graft for trying to influence his brother Jose Sabio, at the time a justice of the Court of Appeals, in a case involving the Government Service Insurance System. Camilo Sabio was also convicted in 2017 in connection with anomalous vehicle leases in the PCGG. But he was acquitted by the Sandiganbayan in 2016 on charges of receiving P12 million in kickbacks from ill-gotten assets of the Marcoses.

The Supreme Court, which has had its share of serious corruption scandals, took two years to organize and name the members of the Judicial Integrity Board. The JIB, headed by retired SC Associate Justice Romeo Callejo Sr. with Angelina Sandoval Gutierrez as vice chair, was created together with the Corruption Prevention and Investigation Office by the SC itself in 2018. The JIB and CPIO can conduct probes including lifestyle checks on members of the judiciary who are the subjects of complaints.

Let’s hope SC justice-turned-Ombudsman Samuel Martires, defender of opaqueness in government, doesn’t get in the way of the JIB on the premise that it is “weaponizing” judicial power. Maybe the SC should subject him to a lifestyle check.

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Any president who makes the anti-corruption campaign a lynchpin of his administration is likely to find himself (as one acquitted plunderer sighed) swallowed up by the rotten system.

Does anyone still remember the tuwid na daan? It bent under the weight of the kalakaran, the usual dirty business in government.

President Duterte’s sincerity in his anti-graft campaign has also been clouded by his reluctance to let go of his supporters implicated in corruption scandals. Several have simply been “recycled” to sinecures in the patronage network. Where’s the zero tolerance for even “a whiff” of corruption?

Malacañang often invokes the presumption of innocence in such cases. It could take two decades, however, before guilt can be established with finality in this country.

With that kind of justice, if Tokhang and Double Barrel had been applied on the corrupt, it might have been better appreciated.

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