Corruption of the highest order

The defense of Janet Lim Napoles is that while she may be guilty of facilitating the diversion of public funds, she was not the mastermind. She says that the payment of commissions or kickbacks in government projects is not her invention.

That’s a plausible line, but it will not get Napoles off the hook. Indeed, the racket attributed to her is quite widespread; there is nothing original to it. Which is why I am puzzled by her preposterous claim that no less than Budget Secretary Florencio Abad had tutored her in the use of nongovernment organizations as conduits for the disbursement of the Priority Development Assistance Fund. The allegation reeks of malice and, instead of boosting her story, undermines the credibility of the rest of her affidavit.

Napoles could not have needed a mentor for this scam, and Butch Abad—from what I know of him—would be the last person to instruct anybody in the science of defrauding government. Unlike many who came from the ranks of the social movements, he is far from being cynical about the potential of government to serve as an instrument of the common good. Of course, that is just what I think.

But more to the point, it is not as if nongovernment organizations are a well-kept secret in this country. Bogus NGOs easily outnumber the authentic ones that had arisen in the shadows of government neglect, and their use as channels for accessing public funds is fairly well known. Other than to sow doubt about the integrity of key people in the Aquino administration who are in charge of disbursing public funds, I cannot see the logic behind this part of the Napoles narrative.

As the nation debates whether or not to admit Napoles as state’s witness in the PDAF cases, it is important that we be guided by a sense of what her role exactly was and how she grew into it. As I see it, she started out in the late 1990s as a small-time supplier of goods to the military. From there, she slowly built a network of connections and an organizational capability that enabled her to confidently move in the circle of government contractors.

In 2001, seeing the liberal release of pork barrel funds by an unelected presidency desperate for congressional support, Napoles paid visits to the offices of lawmakers in quest of projects. In the elections that followed, she began to invest in the candidacies of sure winners through generous campaign contributions, expecting to get her payback in the form of projects. In just a couple of years, she managed to corner a good portion of the PDAF, using various models of delivery, and offering to take care of the needed paperwork and follow-up from start to finish. From doing small-scale PDAF projects of this sort, she graduated to wholesale rackets like the unlocking of the Malampaya Fund. So big had she grown at one point that some politicians shamelessly started working for her as her agents.

It is difficult to say if all this makes her guiltier than the lawmakers and other public officials who accepted kickbacks and bribes from her. The law, after all, has its own metaphysics when it comes to assigning gradations of guilt. I prefer to look at the matter from a practical standpoint, and by this I mean asking: What is it that we wish to achieve as a nation from this crisis? Apart from punishing the guilty and recovering what has been stolen, I think we can agree that our long-term goal is to strengthen government as a collective tool of the nation by placing it in the hands of trustworthy people.  In this regard, I cannot think of a more opportune time to stress this value than today, when we are in a position to shame, jail, and permanently bar from public service all those who have betrayed the nation’s trust.

We don’t know what kind of evidence government prosecutors presently have in their hands to prove that Napoles colluded with lawmakers and officials of government agencies to defraud the government. If the evidence is strong and sufficient, then the government does not need Napoles’ cooperation. But, if her testimony, and the documentary evidence in her possession, could offer crucial leads to unassailable bank transactions and documented money transfers that could prove the payment of bribes to government officials, then I think it is worth pursuing efforts to get her to cooperate with the investigators. This is the Ombudsman’s call in the final analysis.

I think it is useful to bear in mind that Napoles’ role, in principle, was simply that of a contractor offering her services. There was nothing intrinsically wrong about that role; she wielded no official powers or functions, and government officials did not have to do business with her. If she paid bribes to get projects, or delivered substandard supplies, or, worse, falsified public documents by conjuring ghost beneficiaries and fictitious projects—I can’t see how she could have done all these for an entire decade without the collusion of public officials.

The point is that, unlike private contractors, our lawmakers are entrusted with the power to determine how public funds are to be used, on the belief that they know better than the ordinary citizen where it should be spent. As we have seen, many of them do not appear to have taken this duty seriously, and we should remember who they are come election time.

But, nothing could be more appallingly wrong than for elected public officials to have used that power in exchange for a bribe, or for government officials to have played blind to the theft of public funds in expectation of a gift. That is corruption of the highest order, and stopping it is worthy of the nation’s singular attention. We should do everything to jail these crooks.