Indian Catholic News

In the Philippines, graft cuts across party lines

Even before assuming the role of House Speaker, former president Arroyo wined and dined at least 18 Catholic bishops.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte leads politicians from various parties in greeting former president and incumbent House Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo during her birthday in this 2017 file photo. (Photo courtesy of the Presidential Communications Office)
By Inday Espina-Varona

Janet Napoles, the bag woman for hundreds of millions of dollars in diverted Philippine development funds, has been indicted in the United States for money laundering.

The U.S. Justice Department charged Napoles of "quietly liquidating" some US$20 million worth of cash and assets. Her lucrative run spanned the administrations of former presidents Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III.

In the Philippines, Napoles has been charged with helping to divert $189 million from congressional lump-sum projects. Around half of that — enough to fund the minimum wages of 55,000 workers for an entire year — came from so-called ghost projects.

Napoles entertained clients and donation-seekers in a $700,000 mausoleum that doubled as a party place. Those involved in the corruption scheme were a varied lot, cutting across political parties, and even included senior Catholic clergy.

As the scandal broke in 2013, tens of thousands of Filipinos gathered to demand justice and a clean-up of government.

Instead of launching sweeping anti-corruption reforms in the aftermath of the scandal, former president Aquino instituted his own "discretionary program."

The $1.3-billion Disbursement Acceleration Program took funds away from direly needed projects for pet projects of allies of the administration.

Investigations found that money continued to find its way to the same foundations used by Napoles. Former president Aquino was even indicted recently for his controversial program.

More than 16 million Filipinos, fed up with corruption, elected Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency in 2016.

But two years of scandals have also tarnished the new administration.

The country's ranking in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index of 180 nations fell from 101st in 2016 to 111th.

Duterte has largely fulfilled a pledge to fire officials even with "just a whiff" of corrupt deals. He recently threatened to resign for the ninth time after he fired the head of a military hospital for $317,000 worth of questionable contracts.

Critics, however, said the dismissals of officials are hardly joined by court cases and only paved the way for the appointment of allies.

Duterte appointed three former military coup plotters at the Customs Bureau with little executive background. They later resigned after the discovery of a $112-million worth of smuggled narcotics.

Recently, a tourism official involved in anomalies was reassigned as director of a government-owned television station.

The Philippines seems to be caught in a never-ending wheel of corruption.

Political dynasties control 75 percent of national and local positions and simply jump from one ruling political party to another to hold on to perks and power.

The same key actors crop up over the decades.

Former senator Juan Ponce Enrile, defense secretary during the dictatorial rule of Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s, is the wiliest of survivors.

While two other accused senators remain in jail, the court ordered Enrile's release due to old age and frail health. He emerges from time to time to back the policies of the Duterte government.

Filipinos were shocked last year after former justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II enrolled Napoles in the government's witness protection program.

Duterte later fired Aguirre after a series of scandals, including the dismissal of charges against suspected drug lords.

But like most of Duterte's pals, Aguirre was given another cushy post as director of the agency that administers private sector pensions.

Arroyo comeback

Former president Arroyo, once jailed for plunder, was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives in July.

She now belongs to a triumvirate of powerful women, the others being Duterte's daughter and political heir, Sara, and Marcos' daughter, Imee.

Sara, the mayor of Davao, Duterte's hometown, and Imee, governor of Ilocos Norte are both top-ranked bets for Senate elections next year.

The three women are seen as key movers in the president's controversial plan to overhaul the constitution through a constituent assembly.

Critics fear a deep well of discretionary funds will win the elections for Duterte, whose main goals are to concentrate all government power under his office and allow foreign investors to own land and control key industries, including those that exploit the minerals and waters of the nation.

Duterte spent $46.7 million on intelligence gathering in 2017 and is expected to go through the same amount by the end of this year. He will have a new kitty that is beyond the range of auditors by 2019.

Arroyo wasted no time in delivering critical services for Duterte. Even before she assumed the Speaker's post, she had wined and dined 18 Catholic bishops in a bid to deflect growing opposition among the clergy to a drug war that has killed thousands of Filipinos.

Arroyo would know what buttons to push. As president, she showered several bishops with luxury vehicles and other perks even as their flock reeled from reports of plunder and an authoritarian streak that led to the killing of more than a thousand activists under her watch.

On Aug. 22, Zaldy Ampatuan, former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and among the principals charged for a 2009 massacre, was allowed a furlough to attend the wedding of his daughter.

The wedding featured 60 principal sponsors, a who's who of connected wheelers and dealers and power brokers including the president's daughter, top aide, and peace adviser.

Nothing says happy days are here again better than that list of sponsors.

The Ampatuan warlord clan, charged with killing 58 people, including 32 media workers, were close allies of then-president Arroyo, who used their vaunted command votes during elections.

Raids in the aftermath of the massacre found that most of their stockpile of weapons had come from the Defense Department and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Marcos daughter, Imee, angered Filipino youth by urging the nation to "move on" from the horrors of her father's dictatorship.

Moving on is the domain of politicians who waltz away from accountability to heap more abuse and pillage on citizens.

Inday Espina-Varona is an editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila

Source: UCAN

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