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A test of the President’s leadership

REVERSING THE Sandiganbayan’s pending decision to let retired Brig. Gen. Carlos Garcia off lightly would be a major test of President Benigno Aquino III’s leadership. And by leadership in this case is not meant simply giving orders or blaming the Office of the Ombudsman, but finding ways and means to use the enormous powers of the presidency to ensure that justice is done.

I realize of course that many would sneer at this, but during the earlier years of the Arroyo administration, there was a determined, organized and no-nonsense campaign against corruption. It was less talk and sloganeering, but hard, quiet work. After President Joseph Estrada’s conviction and incarceration, Garcia’s case was the highlight of that campaign.

While other anti-corruption bodies were set up, such as the Transparency Group under my office then which undertook the effective, but short-lived “lifestyle checks,” and the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission, it was clear to us that the Constitution assigned the task to the Office of the Ombudsman.

While technically an independent body, the Ombudsman has to have close cooperation with the presidency if it is to be effective. The first ombudsman, Conrado Vasquez, was close to President Corazon Aquino, retired Brig. Gen. Aniano Desierto to President Fidel Ramos, and of course, Simeon Marcelo, a partner at the “The Firm,” to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

One of my tasks as presidential chief of staff at that time was to liaise discreetly with Marcelo, to find out how the President could strengthen its anti-corruption drive. After all, EDSA 2 was essentially an anti-corruption revolt against the Estrada regime.

The Ombudsman’s biggest problem has been the dearth of qualified prosecutors. When Marcelo assumed his post in 2002, there were just 45 lawyers investigating and prosecuting graft cases, with each lawyer handling 88 cases and only 12 national-level prosecutors handling the big-time cases. Worse, the Ombudsman was hardly the favorite career path of graduates of the top law schools. To get an idea of how much an effective

anti-corruption office requires, Hong Kong’s successful Independent Commission Against Corruption had a $90 million annual budget. At $15 per capita, the budget for its Philippine version would have to be P54 billion, or half that of the Department of National Defense.

Arroyo steadily built up the Ombudsman’s resources, from 45 lawyers to 120, and raised its budget from P400 million to about P1.4 billion in 2009. This allowed the Ombudsman to assign a dozen lawyers to assist Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio in the case against Garcia. Unfortunately and clearly out of personal animosity against the head of the office, the incumbent President cut the Ombudsman’s budget to P800 million, one-third of its request of P3 billion.

The case against Garcia was a big breakthrough in the Ombudsman’s anti-corruption campaign. It was pure serendipity, as the arrest of Garcia’s son by US Customs in December 2003 raised a public uproar. Garcia’s conviction would send the strongest message that the government was determined to stamp out corruption.

This required leadership. The Armed Forces of the Philippines was ordered to undertake the prosecution under its military code, which immediately resulted in the transfer of Garcia out of the comptrollers’ office. AFP investigators worked closely with the Ombudsman. Press leaks of the findings of the investigation maintained public awareness of the case. In October 2004, the AFP started court-martial proceedings against Garcia, and in November the Ombudsman filed its own cases.

Rep. Rodolfo Biazon’s claim that it was the Garcia case which fueled the military mutinies against the administration then is hogwash. The Oakwood Mutiny occurred in July 2003, and for all their ranting, the Magdalo rebels didn’t even have a clue of Garcia’s corruption. The Manila Peninsula incident occurred in 2007, when the Ombudsman was already on the way towards convicting Garcia. On the contrary, there were intelligence reports then that Garcia was allegedly funding the mutineers as he was convinced the administration was working with the Ombudsman to put him in jail.

There were claims that prosecuting Garcia would involve powerful former and present military officials; after all, he could not have stolen so much for so long without sharing it with his superiors. They would therefore ally with military mutineers to take the President out. Crack Presidential Security Guards soldiers were sent to provide security for the ombudsman and the special prosecutor who were eating death threats for breakfast.

Contrast that hands-on approach to the stance of the incumbent. “We’re clueless, we don’t know what happened,” Malacanang spokesman Abigail Valte in effect said. Then she added a statement that is the height of naiveté: “Since it’s an independent body, it has no obligation to report or send updates to us on pending cases.”

If Mr. Aquino thinks Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez is stonewalling the cases against Arroyo, he should put this project in a separate box in his mind, and cooperate with her in prosecuting other cases, and there are a lot of them. A president can’t act like a spoiled brat who sulks and then snubs somebody who didn’t follow his wishes, while his officials keep on making impeachment threats. The President can find ways and means to ensure that justice is done.

Preventing this big fish, which his predecessor had put in the stockade, from walking is a test for the Aquino presidency. If he fails, his slogan would turn into: “Nakawala ang corrupt, sorry na lang sa naghirap.”

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer