Knowing Erap

Knowing Erap — knowing where he came from, what lifestyle he led, what company he kept – do we have a right to be shocked by Chavit Singson’s revelations about the man we elected president?  Why can’t we, as Malacanang suggests, dismiss these charges as a boring replay of old gimmicks that a defeated opposition already used in 1998?  Why can’t we just say, with Erap, “Bumenta na ‘yan!”

Erap used that line successfully during the campaign.  It enabled him to evade questions about moral fitness that other politicians are hardpressed to answer.  But today more and more of those who accepted him for what he was in 1998 are unwilling to give him the benefit of that knowingness.  They are now asking questions.  And less and less is he able to tell them that despite his vices and weaknesses, he has not lied to them.

The jueteng revelations have sparked interest not because they show for the first time the connections of a top public official with characters from the underworld.  Filipinos know that already.  They assume that jueteng is an integral element of the political system, that its spoils are among the undeclared rewards of public office.  They know that income from jueteng is typically used to support a public official’s extra families as well as to help those in dire need.

What the people did not know, and what Chavit’s revelations are telling them for the first time, is the extent to which the collection of bribes from illegal gambling is organized at the level of the president. They expect this at the level of a small town mayor or even that of a governor, but they are dismayed that the president of the country should preoccupy himself with jueteng’s leavings.

Now we know they are not exactly leavings.  The jueteng take runs into millions of pesos every month, enough to support the president’s fondness for high-stakes mahjong and fancy mansions.  The veil of knowingness that has worked well for Erap since he became president can no longer shield him in the face of what we are also being told about for the first time —  presidential kickbacks from the release of public funds.

I think we knew that the man we elected to the presidency was a bit of a con man, highly capable of taking short cuts in the name of some higher goal, like rescuing the poor or correcting an injustice. He might steal from the rich to give to the poor, but he would never pocket the people’s money.  We believed him when he said that throughout his public life he had never stolen from public funds.  But Chavit’s account paints an entirely different picture — a distressing picture of a president who took millions of pesos intended for farmers so that he could fund the construction of a private casino.

We knew that the president was a bit of a rogue; he loved to have fun.  He liked women in particular.  He used to explain this as part of his movie past.  Now we are told that the past is not exactly past. That he continues to build luxurious nests for all the women in his life, present and past.   That he stays up till the wee hours of the morning, drinking and gambling in the company of favorite buddies, leaving the nation wondering if the president has any time left to reflect on important affairs of the state.

In the 1998 elections, presidential aspirant Manuel Morato showed a damaging videotape of Erap lost in thought as he held playing cards in a casino.  Yet that scene made no dent on the man’s popularity.  It was enough for him to shrug it off as black propaganda.  The footage showed him beside the notorious gambler Atong Ang.  But the public never asked if the tape was real or a fabrication.

Today they are curious to know what kind of mahjong the president plays that allows him to dole out P1-million checks as “balato” or gifts to favorite friends like Senators John Osmena and Teresita AquinoOreta.  In his testimony before the Senate, Chavit Singson tells of mahjong sessions where the pot can go up to as high as P15 million. Apart from himself, Chavit says, the other steady mahjong “quorum” of the president included Mark Jimenez, a fugitive from US justice, and William Gatchalian, a high-profile businessman with many dealings with government.

Do we believe Chavit Singson’s portrait of the president?  Let’s put it this way: we have not seen or heard anything that causes us to doubt it.  Erap has denied receiving jueteng bribes.  He has denied getting public funds meant for tobacco farmers.  He has denied having anything to do with Atong Ang’s consultancy with PAGCOR, or his appointment as chief administrator of Bingo 2-Ball, the legalized version of jueteng.  But neither has he said anything that allows us to believe his denials.

Innocence is indeed presumed until guilt is proven in a court of law. But it is not the same with trustworthiness.  Evidence that is insufficient to prove guilt in court may be more than enough to establish moral unfitness.  Erap is on trial not only for violation of the law but also for violation of basic moral values.  The question that hangs over him is not just whether he is innocent, but whether he is trustworthy.

He has not denied playing high-stakes mahjong in official venues like the presidential yacht. Executive Secretary Ronaldo Zamora has denied that the president owns “Boracay” mansion in New Manila, but he has admitted that he is renting it from his friend Jose Luis “Sel” Yulo, erstwhile presidential adviser for mass housing.  He does not say how much rent Erap is paying.  Or why the president needs so many residences.

We knew that Erap was not exactly a paragon of virtue. But we did not know what he was really like.  Now we know so much more.


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