Milking the government

It was bound to happen. Given an existing system that makes it possible for legislators to get a kickback of 10 to 20 percent from their pork barrel allocations, someone, sooner or later, would come up with a scheme that allows greedy lawmakers to pocket not just a portion but the bulk of the funds. The scam becomes virtually untouchable to the extent that the operators can invoke the influence of the willing politicians they represent, while freeing them from any accountability.

As shown by the Inquirer’s investigative report on the pork barrel scam, JLN Corp., a company that bears the initials of its founder, Janet Lim-Napoles, appears to have devised the perfect scam. As simple as the scam may seem at first glance, it is in fact an elaborate operation involving a lot of paperwork and assiduous followup, using a wide network of connections in various government offices. It cannot possibly work without the active collusion of politicians and/or tolerance of officials in different government agencies.

If it is true, as alleged by her former associates, that it is Napoles who is the brain behind the entire scheme, then we have here someone who has grasped the complex culture of government and mastered its vulnerabilities. Hers would be the kind of knowledge one needs to reform the structure of government, strengthen its control systems, while clearing away the red tape that burdens the law-abiding public.

The exposé of this scam—which entails the participation of shell nongovernment organizations (NGOs), the enlistment of ghost beneficiaries, and the fictitious delivery of goods and services—logically strengthens the call for the abolition of the pork barrel system. Indeed, there is no reason for legislators to be in the business of proposing projects and identifying contractors to implement them. These are executive functions. The reality, however, is that the pork barrel is one of the pillars of the patronage structure on which our political system rests. It is what permits our legislators to play the role of patron and to recover part of their electoral campaign expenses. All presidents know this. And so, rather than get rid of it, they use it as an incentive or weapon to keep legislators in line.

But our attention should not be focused completely on the misuse of the pork barrel as if it were the only way by which public funds are channeled into private pockets. If one looks closely at what the scam represents, we would see here a paradigm of corruption that is replicated in countless other ways in government transactions. The elaborate control systems in place in government are easily subverted because of the blurring of accountability that occurs as one goes down the lower levels of the bureaucracy.  The signatures of the approving authorities lose their meaning because these officials are in no position to verify the content of all the documents that come their way. Various Supreme Court decisions have repeatedly stressed the difference between ministerial and accountable functions.

We can almost anticipate this line of defense being used by the senators and congressmen who have availed themselves of the services of JLN Corp. and its bogus NGO affiliates. They can simply say they didn’t know how the projects funded by their pork barrel were actually implemented. For, the responsibility of ensuring that government funds are not misused in the process rests with implementing government agencies like the Department of Agriculture, and indeed, with the Department of Budget Management and the Commission on Audit.

In turn, the government offices at different levels of the hierarchy can claim they were operating on a presumption of regularity. Ultimately, the onus of the blame may be pinned on some lowly clerk who took the list of supposed NGOs and beneficiaries at face value, and endorsed it for approval by higher officials.  But, in fact, this lowly clerk cannot be prosecuted, since he is not the approving authority. His superiors are accountable theoretically, but they are so far up in the chain of authority that they cannot really check every item of information contained in the documents they sign. It is such weak links in the bureaucracy that are likely to be spotted by those who intend to corrupt the system.

From the reports, it appears that the JLN scam has been around for at least 10 years, cornering about P1 billion in pork barrel funds every year. That it has lasted so long attests to its astuteness. It was able to build credibility by enlisting as its regular clients some of the most powerful figures in Congress. JLN and its NGO fronts appear in the documents merely as contractors and suppliers. But, in truth, they were the originators and prime movers.

Anyone with a reasonable amount of intelligence will not take very long to master the ins and outs of the racket. Ironically, Napoles’ own control system had its share of weaknesses.  Unless she compensated her trusted assistants generously and monitored their every move, there was no way she could prevent them from stealing some of the money, or striking out on their own. The scheme precisely began to collapse after she maneuvered to have her key people arrested for betraying her trust. That’s how they turned into whistle-blowers. Their affidavits are self-incriminating, but they point to Napoles as the mastermind.

She, of course, denies any involvement in this criminal activity, or even personally knowing any of the legislators that have been named. One can almost expect her powerful partners in government to equally distance themselves from her, while quietly protecting her.