The anatomy of corruption

Some years from now, when students of politics and governance begin to publish scholarly papers on the structure of official corruption in our country, the Janet Lim-Napoles scam could emerge as the most crucial episode in the nation’s struggle to modernize its political system.  We might then realize that the effort we exert today to expose, document, and successfully prosecute those behind this scam has made all the difference in our political life.

It will have made public office less lucrative, and elections less costly.  It will have gradually weaned citizens away from personal patronage, and paved the way for the entry onto the stage of a new breed of politicians. It will have given to governance reform a clear and urgent focus.

For now, all these are nothing but wishful thoughts.  We do not expect the people who run our country today to suddenly heed the nagging of their conscience and turn their back on the system that has nurtured them.  We do not expect the politicians who are deeply entangled in this corrupt scheme not to use their power and wealth to try to scuttle the investigations and muddle the cases against them.  As we have seen, they are prepared to fight back, even if it means burning the whole house with them.

But there is a palpable split at the top—between those who thrive in the murky ways of traditional politics and those who seek transparency and wish to be judged according to the norms of modern governance.  Powerful pressure is also being exerted on the entire political system by a public sphere that has found a new home in social media.  People are assiduously watching the performance of our legal institutions, and do not hesitate to raise a howl over the slightest hint that politics is slowing down or interfering with their work.

The public now knows enough about the intimate link between corruption and patronage politics to believe the worst about our present crop of politicians.  No one among the latter can claim to be above suspicion when it comes to the use of the pork barrel.  Napoles had made it easy for any politician with pork barrel allotments to graduate from simple acts of patronage to outright stealing of public funds.  The flexibility that had been built into the Priority Development Assistance Fund system to facilitate its use as a tool of patronage paved the way for its total abuse under the conversion scheme seamlessly managed by the Napoles syndicate.  It is more than likely, of course, that those who did not use the services of Napoles created their own nongovernment organizations, and, using the same scheme, pocketed the bulk of their PDAF.  The fact that they are not among those being investigated does not shield them from public scorn.

How could they not have known how their fellow lawmakers were making use of their pork barrel?  Their staffs mingle with one another.  They were seeing their colleagues channel their PDAF to obscure government agencies and NGOs with no visible track record.  Yet, they, these jealous guardians of the purse, chose to keep quiet. At the Senate, the then neophyte senator Ping Lacson delivered an impassioned speech on the dysfunctions of the pork barrel, and got no response from his colleagues.  Billions of pesos in public funds were being stolen under their noses every year, yet a code of silence and tolerance prevented them from launching investigations in aid of legislation.

Consider the following facts recently unearthed by the Commission on Audit, a government watchdog that has lately found its voice: In 2007-2009, billions of pesos in pork barrel funds were coursed through little-known government agencies that farmed these out, by prearrangement, to equally dubious NGOs.

The Technology Resource Center, an agency attached to the Department of Science and Technology, received P2.4 billion.  The National Livelihood Development Corporation, an agency attached to the government-owned Land Bank, got P1.25 billion.  The National Agribusiness Corporation (Nabcor), a government corporation attached to the Department of Agriculture, received P1.22 billion.  In like manner, P282 million in PDAF was channeled to the hitherto unknown Zamboanga del Norte Agricultural College Rubber Estate Corporation, a subsidiary of Nabcor and attached to the Department of Agriculture.  How many of these agencies were known to the average citizen? Yet, they were the favorite pork barrel conduits of lawmakers.

In 2010-2011, when P-Noy was already president, funds continued to flow to these offices.  The Philippine Forest Corporation, an attached agency of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, was the beneficiary of P428.5 million sourced from the PDAF of two senators and 24 congressmen. This money was then laundered by 9 fake NGOs, two of which bore names that must have been crafted in a moment of mischief—“Itonami foundation” and “Kapuso’t Kapamilya foundation.”  Itonami (which means “I’m here” in text language) is spelled out as Interactive Training Opportunity on Needs Alleviation Movements Inc., a string of buzzwords signifying nothing.  And “Kapuso’t Kapamilya” is, of course, a blend of the self-descriptions of the country’s two biggest TV networks.

All the government implementing agencies mentioned have now been recommended for abolition.  They have one thing in common.  They are all shadow offices of agencies that outlived the regimes that created them.  Instead of abolishing them, politicians recycled these offices to perform the backdoor function of laundering slush funds.  In them, therefore, are kept all the dirty secrets of a political system that has become obsolete.

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