Corruption impunity

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - October 30, 2020 - 12:00am

The biggest problem in any campaign to eradicate corruption in this country is that impunity set in a long time ago.

As in other crimes such as the murder of journalists, impunity develops when no one is punished or even caught for the offense.

Sure, some former public officials have been convicted and sent to prison for corruption. But the biggest fish have gotten away – unpunished, unrepentant, and even allowed to seek public office again. Several have won.

Filipinos not only see plunderers getting away with thievery but even thriving, building political dynasties with dirty money and getting even richer; money truly begets money.

And once the thieves become wealthy enough, they can afford to buy justice and control every aspect of the criminal justice system. Corruption allows people to get away with murder, literally.

No wonder plunderers are even admired and emulated in this country. And as long as they know how to share their “blessings,” their political and financial fortunes will continue to increase exponentially.

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This is the impunity that the latest task force against corruption is up against. What makes it different? The joke following the announcement of its creation was that a word has been added: now it’s a “mega” task force.

The mega, apart from its inter-agency membership, includes its mandate. Lawmakers and local politicians will reportedly be covered by the presidential order to probe “all” government agencies.

The mega task force will also have jurisdiction over the prosecution service of the Department of Justice. This is one of the questions raised in the creation of the task force, which is headed by the DOJ. Who will investigate the “fix-cals?”

It’s unclear if the task force will have jurisdiction over the judiciary. Corrupt magistrates are among the weakest links in every effort to eradicate corruption in this country.

We like to say that in our country, it’s good to know the law, but it’s better to know the judge. Sadly, it’s not a joke.

The order of President Duterte’s fraternity brother, Ombudsman Samuel Martires, stopping the public disclosure of the statements of assets, liabilities and net worth of public officials, is seen as an effort to protect his colleagues in the judiciary. Martires, dubbed as Duterte’s ombudsman, has also stopped lifestyle checks, saying these are being “weaponized” together with the public disclosure of SALNs.

Well of course these are weapons against corruption. If the official who’s supposed to unleash the weapons against the corrupt is worried about “weaponizing” the tools at his disposal, limited as they are, the anti-corruption campaign is in deep manure.

Public disclosure of the SALNs of the president; vice president; members of the Cabinet, Congress, the Supreme Court and the constitutional bodies, and military generals is required under Article XI, Section 17 of the Constitution.

Hurray for the Senate; brushing aside Martires’ defense of opaqueness in government, the senators have uploaded on their website their latest SALNs. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

We’re waiting for the other offices specifically covered by the constitutional provision on accountability to follow the senators’ lead.

More likely, they will follow the lead of the Office of the President, which prefers the ombudsman’s policy of omerta on SALNs. The Supreme Court stopped the public disclosure of its members’ SALNs a long time ago, while the House of Representatives also made it tougher for journalists to access the SALNs of congressmen.

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The Supreme Court has told the Office of the Ombudsman, which is a member of the mega task force, to leave to the high tribunal investigations of wrongdoing imputed on members of the judiciary. SC members, together with the heads of the constitutional commissions including the ombudsman, can be removed only by impeachment.

What the mega task force can do is go after corrupt magistrates for tax evasion. No one is exempted from tax laws. And no one except crooks will take it against the Bureau of Internal Revenue if it “weaponizes” its power to go after tax evaders in the fight against graft. In fact, in the absence of a law against racketeering, this powerful BIR weapon can also be unleashed against suspected drug traffickers, jueteng lords and other lowlifes.

OK, we know the first hurdle here… the BIR itself, like that other major revenue-generating agency, the Bureau of Customs, has a serious corruption problem. The BIR and BOC, in fact, are among the five priority agencies to be probed by the mega task force, according to DOJ Secretary Menardo Guevarra.

There is another serious hurdle in this campaign: the President thinks his loyal supporters can do no wrong. What will his alter egos in the Cabinet, who are part of the mega task force, do when he says an official they are investigating is clean, or is too rich to steal, or is incapable even of acts of omission tantamount to negligence?

We have seen the impact of the President’s words in the findings of another task force, also headed by Guevarra, which probed the anomalies in the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. Guevarra had to clarify that there would be more indictments. It’s doubtful though that he would want to prove his principal wrong.

Will there be sacred cows in the work of the mega task force?

The nation certainly wishes the President the best in his anti-corruption effort. But we have a saying in this country: pagkahaba-haba man ng prusisyon, sa simbahan din ang tuloy. No matter how long the procession, it still goes to the church.

In the case of corruption, all complaints prepared by lawmakers after their high-profile investigations, by the best legal minds in the private sector, and by all task forces mini or mega will eventually end up in the Office of the Ombudsman, and then the Sandiganbayan.

Graftbusters should wonder if their latest effort will just be a waste of time.

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