Jose Pidal, Ping Lacson, and the battle against corruption

If the President’s husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo, is truly not the owner of the Jose Pidal accounts, then the more details his brother Ignacio can share about these accounts the better.  Ignacio, who came forward on his own volition to claim the fictitious name Jose Pidal, has to prove he is really the owner of these accounts.  Invoking his right to privacy at this stage is politically counterproductive.  It fuels public speculation that he is trying to protect the “real” Jose Pidal, the First Gentleman, and his sister-in-law, the President.

The ownership of fictitious accounts by persons of power, though not illegal before the passage of the anti-money laundering law, automatically calls to mind the scandal of the Jose Velarde accounts, which in December 2000 turned the tide against Joseph Estrada.  It conjures images of large-scale corruption.  The association may be unfair because no one has proven at this point that the Jose Pidal accounts were being used to launder ill-gotten wealth.  In law, the burden of the proof rests with the accuser, but unfortunately this is not so in politics.

The first time the name Jose Pidal came out in the news, the First Gentleman staunchly denied knowing and using the name.  After his younger brother came out to claim he had indeed used Jose Pidal in some of his banking and investment transactions before 2001, Mike Arroyo quietly changed his story and acknowledged he knew all along that his brother Ignacio had once used the name.   When pressed for details about the Pidal accounts, he excused himself saying the right person to ask would be his brother. Yet when he appeared before the Senate, Ignacio Arroyo refused to go beyond saying he was Jose Pidal.  Repeatedly invoking his right to privacy, he refused to answer further questions about these accounts.

From a purely political standpoint, it is too late for him to adopt this legal strategy.  His lawyers might buy him time by moving the issue to the courts, but the political damage has been done.  It can only be reversed if he can persuade the public that he owns these controversial accounts and that the money that went through them came from legitimate business. The longer he fails to provide convincing evidence he is Jose Pidal, the more the public will think he is being used to conceal the real owner.

The President’s party cannot pretend this is not affecting her moral stature and credibility as leader of the nation.  No one believes she is unaware of the financial dealings of her husband.  Therefore it is silly to suggest she might be able to shield herself from the fallout from her husband’s troubles by legally separating from him.  Mike Arroyo’s troubles are very much the president’s as well.

One would have thought that, if Mike Arroyo is Gloria MacapagalArroyo’s weakest link, everything should have been done to keep him away from the government and the public eye when she became president. This is very important in view of the peculiar circumstances that led Mrs. Arroyo to the presidency.  She had succeeded to the office on the back of a popular mass action that forced a sitting president out of office because of corruption and incompetence. While the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled on the legality of her assumption of the presidency, her political legitimacy is not as secure.  More than any other previous president’s term, hers carries the special obligation to make a difference by being morally ascendant and by actively fighting corruption.  For by this thin thread alone hangs her political claim to the office.

Be that as it may, Senator Lacson’s sensationalized privileged speeches do not justify either a call for the president’s resignation or a military intervention.  The senator has offered nothing but dubious photocopies and photographs to prove his accusations.  In fact, by mixing innuendos about corruption with suggestions of an illicit affair involving Mike Arroyo and his financial officer, Lacson has done the battle against corruption a great disservice.  Wittingly or unwittingly, he has only encouraged the cynical view that every move against corruption is nothing but political gimmickry. Coming from Lacson, the Jose Pidal expose reeked of politics.  It is sad that the Senate would allow itself to become a forum for this thinly veiled assault on the First Gentleman.

Ping Lacson is not a credible warrior against corruption.  If the nation is looking for a new leader to spearhead a cultural turn toward a new ethic of governance, it cannot do worse than choose someone like Lacson.  While projecting himself to be non-political, the man deploys the most vicious weapons in politics like a ruthless pro. In an earlier age, he could well be the leader of a tribe, but nothing qualifies him to be the president of a nation aspiring to be a modern democracy.

The battle against corruption is a struggle for a new public culture, one that is based on the norms of legal rationality rather than on the contingencies of personal morality.  It is waged primarily in the public sphere because its foundation is the public interest.  It does not encroach into the private life of persons, including public officials, unless it can be shown that their behavior in private is injurious to the public interest.

Only by making a careful distinction between law and morality can we preserve the modern character of our state.  To confuse the two is to invite a moral fundamentalism that has no place in a complex society.


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