When members of the same family vie for positions in government, the seeds of corruption are planted. The boundaries between home and public office are blurred. Family loyalty trumps public accountability. Public funds are privatized, and governmental power is used to advance not the common good but the interests of a few.
These lessons in social reality underpin most of our laws. They are the assumptions behind Republic Act No. 3019, the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, and countless other penal laws. But they have had no impact on our selection of political leaders.
We keep electing the same bad leaders who spend huge sums of money to win public office—people who use their time in office finding all sorts of ways to recover what they spent, plus more. Filipino voters cynically believe that all politicians are the same.
Even big business conglomerates seem to have realized that, in our society, it is no longer enough to give donations to political campaigns to protect their businesses. Some have decided to acquire political parties as part of their assets. For others with a large stake in the economy, nothing short of fielding their own kin for the nation’s highest positions suffices.
The problems generated by this melding of political and economic power and the concentration of official power in the hands of a handful of political clans are unimaginable. But the most visible burden they cause is borne by our legal system.
The most vulnerable of our three branches of government, the judiciary, has the unenviable task of upholding our laws even when members of the executive and legislative branches seem bent on flouting them. Most judges are conscious of the limits of their power as unelected public officials. It takes enormous will and courage for them to pursue cases against powerful politicians.
To hear, therefore, of the recent decision of the Sandiganbayan convicting members of a well-known political family in Cebu for graft and malversation of public funds is to experience a bright ray of sunlight in a blighted landscape. Promulgated on May 17, 2022, the decision of the Sixth Division of the antigraft court may have been delayed a few days to avoid influencing the May 9 election in Cebu’s fourth district, where one of the accused, Celestino A. Martinez III, ran (unsuccessfully) for congressman.
The principal accused in this case is no less than the matriarch of the family, Clavel Asas-Martinez, who served for three consecutive terms as the representative of the fourth district of Cebu. The case stems from charges that, in 2002 and 2003, she allegedly conspired with her son Celestino, who was then mayor of the municipality (now city) of Bogo in Cebu province, to divert P20 million of her Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), or pork barrel, to her own personal bank account.
I went through the finely crafted 86-page decision penned by Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Kevin Narce Vivero and concurred in by Associate Justice and chair Sarah Jane Fernandez and Associate Justice Karl Miranda. Two things stood out for me that suggested a level of brazenness in the commission of this offense.
The first is the manifest self-dealing that characterized the misappropriation of the money meant for an antidrug campaign. Former representative Clavel Martinez was, at that time, also the president of the Girl Scouts of the Philippines (GSP)-Cebu Council, the designated PDAF beneficiary and implementor of the supposed antidrug campaign. Her daughter, Maria Cielo Martinez, was treasurer of the same organization. The PDAF allocation was coursed through the Municipality of Bogo, whose then mayor was her son, Celestino Martinez III. Only the willfully blind would have ignored these red flags.
The second is the ease with which vouchers and checks were prepared and signed, leaving a paper trail that documented the transfer of funds from public to personal bank accounts. The funds were first remitted to the bank account of the local government unit of Bogo. Then checks drawn from the account of the municipal government were issued to GSP-Cebu. Finally, GSP-Cebu issued checks to Clavel Martinez, who then deposited these into her account.
Note that this was way before the large-scale PDAF scam attributed to Janet Lim Napoles. It took 10 years for the case against Clavel and her coaccused to reach the Sandiganbayan, and another 10 years for the decision to be promulgated. The conviction will surely be appealed to the Supreme Court, and heaven knows how much time it will take before the case is finally resolved at that level.
This length of time is probably not uncommon for cases like this. Judges retire and new ones are assigned to a case. Some witnesses die or are no longer available. Any of the accused may get sick or die. Or they may win anew politically, giving them the kind of clout needed to influence courts and reverse previous resolutions. Whatever the reason may be, we rarely hear of prominent politicians being convicted. Detained, yes—as in the case of Sen. Leila de Lima, who has been kept in jail by a hostile regime for more than five years, denied the right to post bail while the cases against her are being investigated.
Law in many societies is frozen politics, notes the legal scholar Roberto Unger in his critique of legal positivism. I’d like to think that the decision convicting the Clavels has nothing to do with the fact that the political fortunes of this once-powerful clan have considerably declined.