COMMENT: Pathetic Evasion

All evidence point to President Arroyo as the giver of paper bags containing bundles of P1,000 bills as gifts to House representatives and provincial governors who attended separate meetings with her in Malacañang on Thursday, October 11. Despite the many denials, it is believed that each of the 190 representatives, 48 governors and some mayors in attendance received a bag.

The bags contained amounts varying from P200,000 to P500,000. An estimated P119 million was given out that day. The feigning of innocence and the denials from the Palace marked October 11 as a day of gift-giving without a giver.

Confirmed

 

That money in bags changed hands in Malacañang that day was not “insinuation” or “rumor” as Palace officials would want it to appear in denying news reports on October 12. Even if they did not call it bribe, some congressmen and governors confirmed the payola.

Most of those who admitted as having received the money asked the press not to identify them by names. They considered the P500,000 or P200,000 as gifts or remembrance for work well done or as donation or assistance for their projects – not as “bribe”.

Four House representatives came out in the open: Antonio Cuenco of Cebu City (P200,000), Rachel Arenas of Pangasinan, Mauricio Domogan of Baguio City, and Rep. Bienvenido Abante of Manila (P500,000). Cuenco made the revelation in a radio interview in Cebu City.

Gov. Emilio Macias of Negros Oriental said he received P200,000 for the governors’ meeting in his province on October 29. Gov. Eddie Panlilio of Pampanga and Gov. Joselito Mendoza of Bulacan did more than just admitting; their exposé was most damning to Malacañang.

 

Challenge

 

Mendoza, to clarify the exposé, recalled in a press conference last October 21 (INQUIRER.net, Oct. 22), that two bags – each containing P500,000 — were given to him by a woman inside a room in the Palace in the presence of Interior Undersecretary Austere Panadero and former Agusan del Sur governor Eddie “Bong” Plaza. One bag was for him and the other for Panlilio. He had already been told that the money was for “community projects”.

A Roman Catholic priest, Panlilio said in several press interviews that he accepted the money believing it was for barangay projects – not a form of a bribe. But since the money was released without the usual documentation, he sent a letter to Malacañang – duly received – last October 16 to acknowledge receipt of the money and to request for its source and the name of the payer.

Panlilio was challenging Malacañang to tell the truth about the money handed out without the usual documentation. He said that without a positive reply to his letter within 15 days he would return the money as it could not be spent according to law.

Mendoza, despite his closeness to President Arroyo as a member of the president’s party, Kabalikat ng Malayang Pilipino (Kampi), said he would follow whatever Panlilio would do.

 

Responses

 

Malacañang and the allies of the President have met the public uproar with silence, denials or justification; and, on the part of the President, a show of innocence, hurt feeling and anger – feigned or real – that spurred decisiveness.

“Arroyo men won’t say where the cash came from,” headlined INQUIRER.net (Oct. 16), citing or quoting Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, and Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya Jr.

Puno: “I don’t know where the funds came from.” Concerning the money given to governors and mayors, the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (ULAP) should explain that. ULAP has its own funds – suggesting that the handouts came from ULAP funds. Regarding the handouts to the congressmen, it was Speaker Jose de Venecia who could explain.

Ermita: “I told you I wasn’t there. What I know, I read in the media.”

Andaya: “We are under election ban. (October 29 is barangay election.) … The President can’t just give money to government officials,” stressing, “That is illegal. … All government disbursements must be accompanied by receipts and they must be first allocated in the General Appropriations Act.” And he did not know if private money was used.

Commenting on Panlilio’s television interview where he showed the P500,000 in five bundles of 100 x P1,000 bills each, Malacañang denied having distributed the money (INQUIRER.net, Oct. 16). However, last October 19, the Office of the President’s finance office formally wrote Panlilio and Mendoza that “the Office of the President has not released/disbursed any amount to your province”. (INQUIRER.net, Oct. 23)

Panlilio said he would forego his earlier plan to return the money while tracing the source of the money following some leads. One lead is the paper binder of the bundles indicating that the money was withdrawn from the Bank of Commerce.

Very many of the congressmen and governors saw nothing wrong with the President’s giving out money as it is a standard practice – to give assistance for barangay projects, to help candidates of the administration during election.

An administration congressman justified the “gifts”: “It is normal at the end of the session days for congressmen to be given token of remembrance. In this case, congressmen worked extended hours for the national budget. They slept very little. So it’s natural for the party to make members feel that they are remembered.” (INQUIRER.net, Oct. 12)

 

Angry, Hurt

 

Puno and Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye took great pains in portraying President Arroyo’s innocence and how hurt and angered she was “by insinuations that she had tolerated the incident” and by “the accusations that she’s not doing anything [but] allowing all of these things needed to be corrected to go on without question.” (INQUIRER.net, Oct. 18)

However, they said, unknown to all, she was decisive. As early as October 12, or the day after bags of money were purportedly given out, she ordered the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission to do a “thorough investigation. … to find out, first, the source of the funds, and second, who are responsible for giving the funds.”

The PAGC investigation was not supposed to be disclosed to the media. But circumstances forced her to. Puno said that while the President “wanted something really more substantive to be brought” to media, she “was at a loss [what to make out of] the different statements coming out.” Swearing, “None of us knew what was going on, honestly”. (Bold, Italics supplied.)

 “So people were making statements, and she was wondering where everybody was getting their comments from, and wanted to find out what, if anything, anybody knew.” So, she decided to disclose last Friday, October 19 the instruction that she had given to the PAGC. How innocent really President Arroyo was!

 

Not Bribe

 

Congressmen and governors who asked not to be named called the bags of money by names other than bribe or payola. But the giving had all the trademarks and motive of bribe – given surreptitiously with the evident purpose of buying favor in the form of loyalty.

With another impeachment complaint filed against her and her alliance with De Venecia, the Speaker and president of the ruling party, on the rocks, President Arroyo needs loyal supporters in Congress and in the Local Governments. The payola exploits the Filipino utang na loob (debt of gratitude) tradition. The payola recipients will pay back the favor in her time of need.

The denials are both pathetic and paradoxical. Here are elected leaders who dislike any kind of association with bribe. But they are willing to be bribed as long as the bribe is called by names other than bribe.

 

Pathetic

 

What’s pathetic about people in power, their minions and allies is how they evade damaging truth by lying, denying or justifying. They think that powerless people under their thumbs or heels will readily swallow lies, denials or justifications as truth. This is true of the Arroyo presidency; and, to a lesser extent, so it was of past presidencies.

With the open admission of three governors and four House representatives, the silence, denials and justifications from the Palace and the rest of the 190 representatives and 48 governors were tacit admission. Those reactions are well known to be common to the corruptors and corrupted, who like ostriches bury their heads in the sand.

There was payola in Malacañang last October 11 after President Arroyo had separately met the congressmen and the governors. ULAP denied having that much funds; Speaker Jose de Venecia said that if the money were from his office, he would have had distributed it himself. So the money must have been sourced from the Palace or elsewhere and brought to the Palace.

The President and other chief Palace dwellers cannot just feign innocence or ignorance. Nothing can happen in the Palace without their authority. Such multi-million peso cash could not be in the Palace without their knowledge. The bags were distributed by Palace staff; they must have been filled by the same staff. The Palace staff could not have done these on their own.

The Office of the President’s financial office has no record of any amount released to Pampanga and Bulacan. By writing Panlilio and Mendoza about this, finance office director Gloria Bundoc tacitly confirmed the estimated P119-million payola — for payolas are never recorded.

The decision of the President to have the payola investigated by the PAGC – not by a neutral commission – is tacit admission that the Palace is dissembling. Will the President allow PAGC to reveal the source of the payola fund and the person or persons responsible? That the Palace “would not tolerate sacred cows” is empty boast and does not include “the most sacred cow”.

The President and her chief advisers know where the payola money came from — either from her discretionary and intelligence funds or from other sources like the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office or the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation. By no means will the source be revealed.

However, the more they evade and confound the critics and the people, the deeper they sink in the mess of their own making. Pathetic evasion can become disastrous.

("Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards recently honored Mr. Diaz with a "Lifetime Achievement Award" for his "commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate." You can reach him at [email protected])

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