8/11/2013
The corruption of Noynoy Aquino

The numbers coming out of the news in recent weeks, about a scam supposedly pulled off by businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles, are appalling, to say the least.

She supposedly mooched ten billion pesos off the government coffers and enriched herself and her family. We're now hearing of her 22-year-old daughter having, in her name, a flat in a posh high-rise in Los Angeles, amounting to 80 million dollars. There's the ill-informed posts on Instagram flaunting her family's possessions. And that's apart from her kin holding other properties in California amounting to 400 million pesos.

And then there are the more sordid details of the scam. She supposedly set up dummy NGOs, who would approach legislators and ask them to support their projects, mostly set in rural areas, to help farmers improve their yield. The legislators - some from the Senate, some from the House of Representatives - would approve, and fund the projects from their Priority Development Assistance Fund, a portion of a legislator's budget dedicated to funding projects in their respective locales.

We call the PDAF, of course, as "pork barrel". Due to some magic - a lack of transparent liquidation, among other things - this fund has become a sort of cash cow for politicians. Overpriced projects mean funds end up in the pockets of those elected, as well as their cronies. Political dynasties spring up in part because of the "guaranteed" amount of money that they can get through the PDAF. But of course you would take advantage of it. It's in your budget, and nobody really looks into these things, and you spent so much on posters and jingles and cheap candy, so you're entitled to recoup your investment and then some, right?

The pork barrel scam is just another layer of atrocity. Once the legislators sign off the funding, the dummy NGO proceeds to take almost everything. The project never takes place. After some token operating expenses and a bunch of bribes here and there, the rest of the fund is split evenly between the legislator and Napoles, who has been portrayed as a savvy government operator with many connections and much access. This has been going on for roughly a decade, and this has not been exposed until now.

What makes this layer of atrocity much more appalling is the timing. We are halfway through Noynoy Aquino's term - a term where corruption is supposedly stamped out, a term where a cultural change happens deep within the government, where its men and women cease to work for themselves, but rather, for the country as a whole. Sure, Noynoy may not have had anything to do with the scam, but he's in office for three of the ten years this scheme has been going on. If he's really stamping corruption out, he should have at least pushed for transparency when it comes to pork barrel. Or maybe scrap it altogether. Or, well, since he loves doing these things, he should've named and shamed everybody involved during one of his speeches.

But no. There was an eerie silence on the matter in his most recent SONA. Amidst the celebration and the affirmation and the naming and the shaming, he didn't say a shred about the pork barrel scam, which was dominating the headlines (and public consciousness) at the time - and when he was expected to say something, anything, even if it's just his usual "tuwid na daan" rhetoric, he did nothing.

In the days that followed, it was his spokespeople who did the talking. When administration allies were connected to the affair - notably agriculture secretary Proceso Alcala, whose department has jurisdiction over the supposed projects the dummy NGOs are working on - they were congenial. "May paliwanag po si Secretary Alcala," Edwin Lacierda told journalists. Three days later, his deputy, Abigail Valte, dared militant lawmakers to explain why they called for the abolition of pork barrel and yet availed of them in the first place.

Noynoy only broke his silence on the matter last week. Pressed by reporters who, I assumed, didn't have much questions left about the new boat the Philippine Navy had acquired, Noynoy pretty much brushed aside all the revelations about the pork barrel scam. "I-contrast mo 'yung pinalulusot noong araw versus 'yung nakalusot ngayon," he said. "Compare mo sa fertilizer scam, gaano kalaki ang diperensiya? And 'yung fertilizer scam is the tip of the iceberg, marami pang iba."

You can say that he's right. The president that preceded him was particularly rocked with corruption scandals. Gloria Arroyo faced allegations of fraudulent elections, a bad national broadband deal, and this, a fertilizer fund scam, which alleged that Jocjoc Bolante, who worked as agriculture undersecretary, diverted over 700 million pesos in funds allocated for buying fertilizer, and sent it instead to Arroyo's 2004 campaign funds.

Arroyo, of course, took advantage of a loophole in the 1987 Constitution barring any elected president to run for a second term. But she wasn't elected to the highest office in the land - she was installed in 2001 as an uprising kicked Joseph Estrada out of power for the same reasons - so, she reasoned, she can run again in 2004, because the country needs her, and this, despite a promise that she wouldn't run for the sake of national unity. She, of course, won that election, but her victory was marred by allegations of widespread election fraud - the Hello Garci tape, her stilted delivery of "I am sorry," the melodramatic Filipino's tendency to blame the death of film actor and presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr. to being heartbroken after his defeat.

So, yeah, perhaps that is worse. Even if 728 million pesos is spare change compared to ten billion pesos - sure, if you consider that the former was a one-time transaction and the latter was spread across ten years, you can argue the other way around - but still, even if 728 million pesos is spare change, it all went to one person, and it all was used to further that one person's ambitions and interests. Gloria did win the election, and her next six years in the top job was still marred with charges of corruption and instability.

That's precisely why we (well, you) elected Noynoy Aquino to the top job. He promised to stamp out corruption. Like everybody else, really. But he said he's the best guy for the job, thanks in no small part to his family name and some good timing. "Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap," he said during his campaign, and now, three years later, we are supposedly reaping the rewards of his anti-corruption drive - a drive that is still beset by anomalies in several government agencies, not to mention this recent pork barrel scam.

If Noynoy is really serious about ending corruption once and for all, then he should have addressed, from day one, the biggest causes of corruption. It's not just the people elected to govern and legislate. It's human nature for people to bring in their most trusted to help them out; it just looks terrible in politics because, you know, connections mean favors, and all that. It's streamlining systems. It's trimming the fat. It's eliminating the things that tempt those in power to get more power for themselves.

And we all know how pork barrel is one of those temptations. It's always been that way. I was growing up, a kid impervious to the news (except perhaps for the graphics and the grandiose music and the whooshing sounds my television makes when a clip starts playing) and pork barrel is a hot topic. Throughout the years there have been many calls for its abolition, or its revision, or at the very least, more transparency in how it's spent. Instead, the government increased the PDAF for legislators - and, if some are to be believed, it was even used as a political tool, to reward those loyal and to punish those who dissent.

Is the lack of action on pork barrel really as easy as "corrupt politicians don't want to cut their source of money"? Could it be that pork barrel has been used as a come on for people to join politics? How do you, after all, attract the best people, those who have made a name for themselves in the private sector, for example, to go to government and work for a much smaller wage and a much larger footprint? I know I am sounding like a cynical conspiracy theorist, those "no-good" people who have nothing to do but run around and scream that we are doomed, but we are still lacking in people who serve the country just because they love the country. I myself cannot see that - and I say this objectively - I myself cannot see that in our elected leaders today, in their allies and in their opponents, no matter what their campaign slogans say.

I mean, if it really was for the love of country, then why are we still here? Why are we still asking our leaders to open up their books? Why are we still asking them to be more forthcoming with us when it comes to running the country? Why are we still dealing with scandal after scandal, with people being crucified, with people downplaying their involvement, with people saving the asses of those they hold dear, and leaving those they don't care about out to dry? Yes, politics really is about power, and power corrupts and all that, but why are we still out of the equation in everything that they do?

And after downplaying this pork barrel scam, saying it's nothing compared to another scam that happened years ago, and is still ghastly, and has grave consequences, and is still not being fully pursued in courts, why do we still trust Noynoy to be the guy who will stamp out corruption once and for all? Why, because of his family name? Because of the few, inconclusive results that we've seen? Because he says he's doing something? Because really, if he is, we shouldn't be having this discussion at this point in time. We should have been long past it. We should have seen a ruthless cull of those perceived corrupt. We should have seen the sources of corruption minimized, if not removed completely. Instead, we're seeing the guy who fashions himself as the savior of these islands dilly-dally, perhaps with a variety show or two, unfolding in the evening news, painting one side as bad and the other as good - not unlike his predecessor.

It would be convenient for me to ask for our definition of corruption to be changed. All these years we call someone corrupt if that person took money allocated for one thing and use it for another, usually personal, thing. And there's nothing wrong with that. But someone is also corrupt when he turns a blind eye on such allegations. Someone is also corrupt when he goes lengths to protect his friends who face such allegations. Someone is also corrupt when he takes any opportunity to put himself in a better position than he was before, never mind the fact that he may not be the best guy for the job. The "kami naman!" attitude we've seen time and time again.

Earlier this year, I said that Noynoy Aquino is abetting corruption with his failure to support the Freedom of Information bill, a piece of legislature that would promote greater transparency. I always thought that was me being unusually nice on the president. Now, I would like to apologize to you for using almost two thousand words so I could justify to myself why I am going one step further, that I am not doing this just because I do not trust the top guy, but because he himself has shown it, in his words and actions, in the past three years.

Noynoy Aquino is a corrupt president.

Noynoy Aquino is as corrupt as his predecessor.

Noynoy Aquino is no better than the people he vowed to be different from, the people he's always demonized.

And I haven't mentioned his personal "pork barrel", his 400 billion peso lump sum fund.

And your responses...

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