Failed institutions and the chopper scam

If you’ve been following the Senate investigation of the helicopter scam in which used choppers were passed off and paid for by the Philippine National Police as brand-new, you would likely welcome the filing of criminal charges against those who were involved in the deal. The case was filed before the Ombudsman the other day by the PNP’s own Criminal Investigation and Detection Group, using evidence mostly culled from the Senate hearings. Leading those charged with the non-bailable offense of plunder is Jose Miguel Arroyo, the husband of the former president. The charge sheet identifies him as the previous owner of the helicopters in question.

Interestingly, the reactions have been varied. The Malacañang spokesperson welcomed the filing of the charges. Mike Arroyo cried foul, calling the case another attempt to harass and vilify his family. In contrast, one of the accused, former PNP chief Director General Jesus Verzosa, under whose watch the questioned sale was consummated, told media that the filing of the charges was “a welcome relief.” His lawyer said: “Now the wheels of justice will start to move and we trust in the rule of law to ferret out the truth. At least now, we shall be dealing with the rules of court, evidence and basic rudiments of fair play.” That’s an implied criticism of the conduct of the Senate hearings.

But, at least one senator was surprised by this turn of events. “I hope they are not jumping the gun on the Senate because the investigation is not yet finished. I would like to see the evidence that they have in support of the case,” said Sen. Franklin Drilon. The senator has every reason to suspect that the PNP has no evidence of its own because, after all, the investigation was initiated by the Senate, and the PNP has been quiet all this time. In short, the filing of the case at this point could be a way of pre-empting the Senate investigation.  I hope it is not just a way of locking up the whole issue in the labyrinth of the judicial system, as has happened so many times in the past.

It is interesting to see how a high-profile case like this brings out all the complex problems we generate for ourselves as we try to cope with our failure to make the modern institutional system work. If our criminal justice institutions had been less corrupt and more reliable, there would be no need for Congress to conduct prolonged hearings that usurp the investigative and prosecutorial functions of the judicial system. Congress is a political body. And so it is unavoidable that the hearings it conducts “in aid of legislation” become arenas for scoring political points. But this has its costs.

When politicians play the role of prosecutors and judges, they make the law unstable. They make justice the tool of the powerful, and assign to the political system more functions than it can realistically handle. The crafting and review of laws, along with the formulation of collectively-binding decisions, are difficult and demanding enough as political functions.  It would be disastrous to compound them with the judicial role.

Yet we all know why congressional hearings, particularly during the Arroyo presidency, preoccupied the Senate and began to take the form of criminal investigations. Nearly all the standing institutions of government – the police, the military, the courts, the administrative bureaucracy, the government corporations, and the local government units – had been corrupted by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.  The internal controls of government in every agency and across departments were systematically undermined by the persistent abuse of executive prerogative. It came to a point when only the Senate could muster the nerve to question public officials. Still, it was repeatedly trumped by a powerful presidency with the blessings of a compliant Supreme Court.

Arroyo is gone from Malacañang. But she’s not powerless. She has people in strategic places of government, individuals who, either out of personal gratitude or fear, or spite for the present leadership, continue to do her bidding. She and her husband have unlimited funds with which to buy the services of the craftiest lawyers who have mastered the ins and outs of our dysfunctional justice system so well they can delay the progress of any case every step of the way.

More importantly, the mess she left behind cannot be cleaned up overnight. Arroyo’s protracted presidency exemplified the worst aspects of a personalistic style of politics that had no respect whatsoever for institutions. She was aware of the fundamental weaknesses of our institutions. But instead of enhancing their autonomy by appointing professional people to head them, after stealing the elections of 2004, she took advantage of their vulnerabilities and ran them to the ground in her desperate bid for political survival.

The helicopter case which zeroes in on Mike Arroyo as the principal accused seems simple at first glance. But watch carefully as it enters the judicial system. The filing of charges by the police could mean two things: It is either an indication that a new breed of officials has taken over at the PNP, or the old boys at the precinct, working with legal mercenaries, are up to their usual tricks again.

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