Interior and Local Government Undersecretary Rico Puno’s involvement in the sordid jueteng scandal, now undergoing a Senate probe, is not a case of isolated alleged wrong-doing by a presidential aide.
Whatever you may say about retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz (many feel he is a cantankerous, interfering old man), there is no questioning his sincerity and integrity.
It tugged at the heart to hear Cruz’s weary recollection of all his futile attempts to prompt a serious government crackdown on jueteng. He was initially reluctant to give out the names. Urged on by Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, Cruz said:
“I have the list and this is from sources, which are validated and for what it’s worth, I’m giving the list. But please make this government do its job. I have done enough for this matter. I have faced the Senate before, brought all my witnesses without benefit of lawyer or security. We named names. We identified amounts. We said all circumstances – and nothing.
“Even one of our whistle blowers was killed. Even to this day, we don’t know who did it. So, your honor, I understand you and I myself would like to do that, but having been in this situation before, I’d like to believe that I know better as far as this is concerned.”
In that short passage is the tragic tale of courageous attempts to rid Philippine society of corruption and install a regime of good governance.
This – this situation as movingly narrated by Cruz – is what prodded millions of Filipinos to set aside reservations over inexperience and lackluster track record and set their hopes on the perceived moral ascendancy of then candidate Noynoy Aquino.
So it is a shock to hear him say that millionaire businessman Tonyboy Cojuangco approached him, requesting to ease up on Puno.
Puno has denied knowledge of that approach. He has acknowledged being a friend of Cojuangco, an uncle of the President.
We still have to hear from Cojuangco, who is part of the business delegation in President Aquino’s United States visit.
There was comic relief in the archbishop’s identification of the tycoon as the partner of controversial actress Gretchen Barreto, instead of his business credentials. But his charge itself was no joke.
Cojuangco is not just an uncle of the President. He was also the biggest contributor to candidate Mr. Aquino’s presidential campaign. Cojuangco gave P100 million – almost a quarter of the candidates total reported donation haul of P440 million.
The President’s appointees to senior government officials have been controversial even before the August hostage tragedy and this jueteng scandal. Mr. Aquino, burdened by a reputation as an underachiever in the legislature, divided positions between executives linked to his defeated running mate, Manuel Roxas, and his close friends who are perceived to have backed Vice President Jejomar Binay.
The President insisted on personal trust and loyalty as prime criteria for choosing appointees. He explained his reluctance to appoint Robredo (among the last to be appointed despite a big clamor from campaign volunteers) as rooted in incompatible personal work styles. He described his Executive Secretary Jojo Ochoa as a friend who has long “watched my back.”
In the aftermath of the hostage crisis, Mr. Aquino spoke scathingly in public of local police officials who botched the rescue of Hong Kong tourists. But he defended Puno, who had claimed to have been his eyes and ears, and Verzosa, who had left Manila just before the standoff entered its bloody end-phase.
Of Puno and Verzosa, Mr. Aquino said their big contributions to his anti-corruption campaign should be given weight rather than the lone debacle of the hostage crisis. Yet the Ombudsman has charged Verzosa’s wife among those who illegally tried to bring personal funds to Europe during an October 2008 Interpol congress in Russia. Given the Ombudsman’s charges, the testimony of Verzosa before a Senate inquiry, that the 105 euros (P6.5 million) were from the police vaults, merited new scrutiny. Yet on this and other controversial issues, Mr. Aquino has remained mum.
The independent probe body on the hostage crisis has recommended criminal charges against 13 persons and entities. The 80-plus page report has been released to media – minus 20-plus pages. Malacañang has not explained the missing portions. It has announced a review of the report.
Though the report has been given to the Chinese government, Justice Secretary Lilia de Lima says the Palace may choose to add or subtract from their findings. There is talk that the President is not pleased with the inclusion of some names in the report.
As the jueteng scandal broke out, Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda insisted Puno retained the President’s trust. Lacierda said Cruz’s revelations were new to the Palace. The government is monitoring the hearings, he said, and would wait until the President’s return to determine what action to take.
On Conjuangco, Lacierda said the President cannot control the actions of his relatives and should not be blamed for their actions. The President, he added, does not involve his kin in government affairs.
But corruption is not just about the commission of crimes. When the stakes are as high as the P30 billion in annual illegal profits earned by jueteng lords, when authorities themselves acknowledge the links between illegal gambling and the traffic in narcotics, when these illicit funds are used to elect local and national officials in this country, the sin of omission can bring the nation way off the path of the “tuwid na daan” (the righteous road).