FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

At the Senate, long cables snake up from the parking lot where OB vans are parked, through the hallowed corridors and into the session hall where the cameras are. One wonders if this hall was intended for statecraft or for stagecraft.

No one really listens in during days of ordinary legislative business on mostly esoteric bills. It is the controversial Senate hearings that are guaranteed blockbusters – especially when they impute wrongdoing on the part of public officials.

Blockbuster hearings guarantee the senators maximum public exposure – especially in aid of reelection. It is their opportunity to showboat, and eventually to attract votes.

In these hearings, senators compete for the limelight. The more voluble grab the most media space. The fittest survive.

Over time, senators develop the skills to dominate public hearings. These skills include: overstating the gravity of the supposed misdemeanor; developing the phraseology to make their appearances memorable; adapting the appropriate facial expressions to match the event and compiling a lot of paper before them to convey the image that enough evidence supports whatever accusations they make.

This is all stagecraft. Recall when Sen. Manny Pacquiao accused the administration of corruption with piles of paper adorning his desk. No one really looked into what these reams of paper were about – or if the boxer-legislator actually read them.

Such has been the competition for media space that Sen. Bong Go found it necessary to deliver a privilege speech this week accusing his colleagues of, well, bullying him to drown out the points he wanted to make. Go was asking for equal time and space. The Senate, after all, is supposed to be a collegial body. All the senators were installed by popular vote.

Go found it necessary to remind his colleagues that he actually earned more votes than a lot of them. But he should know that in the Senate, showmanship trumps ballot box power anytime.

There was a reason for Go’s tempered outburst. By innuendo rather than by evidence, some of his colleagues were linking him to the procurement mess currently being investigated by the Senate Blue Ribbon committee.

The innuendo is rather crude: Christopher Lao, who headed the Procurement Service of the DBM when the questionable procurement was made, once served at the Presidential Management Staff (PMS). Bong Go headed the PMS at that time. Therefore, Bong Go must be involved in the messy transaction.

Go’s colleagues at the Senate were openly speculating about making him a subject of the committee’s inquisition. They do so without even offering any evidence of direct involvement in the questioned deal. The art of innuendo is in full play here.

The junior senator thinks he is being dragged into the controversy because of his closeness to President Duterte. The President needs to be tarred and feathered for partisan ends. Something needs to be done to cut down his huge popularity ratings ahead of elections.

Also, Go has been nominated by his party to be presidential candidate with the incumbent president as runningmate. He has declined that nomination but has also admitted to seeking the vice presidential slot to a Sara Duterte candidacy.

This controversy is heaven-sent for those seeking to win elections outside of Duterte’s shadow. It is no accident that the most vociferous senators figuring in this public hearing – the likes of Lacson, Gordon and Hontiveros – are all likely to file certificates of candidacy next month. This is their last chance to be at the top of our voters’ mind.

This is the reason why this controversy (regardless of its merits) must be milked to the last drop. It is a controversy capable of whipping up public emotions by slanting it the right way. Imagine “stealing” taxpayer money from the purchase of medical supplies in the middle of a crippling pandemic!

Sen. Franklin Drilon was at his literary (and lawyerly) best when he described the case at hand as “premeditated plunder.” It is a nice, quotable phrase. But it is also a redundancy. Therefore it has no probative merit unless Drilon provides enough evidence establishing a conspiracy.

No one really accidentally stumbles into the commission of plunder. This serious crime is necessarily premeditated.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros tries very hard to get into the act by using the powers of the Google search engine. On the basis of that desktop search she has found recent warrants in Taiwanese courts for some of those associated with the trading house that sold “overpriced” face masks and shields. From that scant information, she tries to picture the administration as cavorting with fugitives. She ought to take a second look at the dates in the documents she found. They are relevant.

Politically profitable as this inflated scandal might be for some, it really falls flat on a small, often ignored detail: the prices by which the masks and shields were within the official price guidance. But why waste a good scandal on a small detail.

Of course, the traders profited from the procurement – perhaps because only they had the capability to produce the volume government required even if other smaller suppliers might offer lower prices. Maybe, unless otherwise proven.

President Duterte, of course, knows that this whole affair is politically driven. But he is beset with the problem of inarticulateness. Combine an angry Duterte with an open mike and that will guarantee a public relations disaster.

Make no mistake: this is a serious matter. Public funds must always be spent prudently.

But the main characters inhabiting center stage make it seem unserious.

(Editor's note: The Office of Sen. Bong Go clarifies that as Special Assistant to the President, the senator had supervisory functions over the Presidential Management Staff, which was then headed by Undersecretary Andy Cui.) 

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