Whatever happened to?

A FAVORITE feature of mine in this newspaper had been the occasional “Whatever happened to…?”, which followed up what happened later on to news—controversies, crimes, accusations—that had been reported.

It was a reality-check of sorts, as a follow-up often disclosed that seemingly shocking accusations, for instance, were exaggerated. Often, the whatever-happened-to follow-ups were disappointing, as for instance, it turned out that the only thing that happened regarding a crime story after two years was that “the case is pending in the court.” The feature was also a means to pressure authorities to fulfill their promises.

With the start of a new year, it would be useful to list down several “whatever-happened-to’s” of national interest, and revisit it every six months:

One, the jueteng “exposés.” In September, retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz hogged the headlines with his claims that jueteng was prospering under the new administration, and that President Aquino’s top officials, including Local Government Undersecretary Rico Puno, were receiving P8 million monthly protection money from jueteng lords. “Tapos na ang maliligayang araw nila,” Mr. Aquino angrily retorted, as he declared war on the illegal numbers game.

Whatever happened? Nothing. An article in this newspaper the other day, buried in the inside pages, (“Laguna police keeping watch on expansion of jueteng,”) reported ominously: “Jueteng in Metro Manila has expanded its operations down south.”

Two, the anti-corruption campaign. The President has indeed created a n ethos that his will be a graft-free administration. At the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp., for instance, the new management has stopped the notorious racket of restaurants’ accreditation by which Pagcor pays for the astronomical, and even fabricated, bills of casino players dining in restaurants it “accredits” in exchange for a monthly commission. We haven’t heard though of any revitalized anti-graft campaign in the “usual suspects”: the Department of Public Works and Highways, the Department of Transportation and Communication, the Bureau of Customs. If Education Secretary Armin Luistro doesn’t comment soon on how he will deal with the oligopoly of loan sharks preying on teachers at his department, I’d be praying for his discernment. All eyes are on Carlos Garcia’s plunder case. But has the Armed Forces set up the mechanisms to prevent other Garcias?

“Tuwid na daan muna tayo” has purportedly been the response of many a corrupt bureaucrat to deals offered, while grinning as though to make fun of the President’s mantra, and apparently just biding their time. That’s good, but if the anti-graft campaign remains on the level of moral injunctions, with little fear of prosecution, the effort will fizzle out. And there are indeed disturbing signs.

Prosecuting the alleged misdeeds of the past administration is not the be-all and end-all of the Office of the Ombudsman. It is investigating 2,000 cases of corruption all over the country. But obviously so mad at the agency’s head, the President has cut down its budget by P400 million this year.

Its performance was not stellar, but the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission was a means for whistle-blowers to report graft cases they knew about. But it has been effectively closed down, with its functions turned over to the executive secretary’s legal office, which is hardly staffed by stellar legal minds.

Three, National Food Authority head Lito Banayo’s “we’re-swimming-in-rice” assessment. Aping President Aquino’s claim when he took office that the past administration “over-imported” rice, Banayo claimed that the previous management had imported “in a midnight deal” P100 million worth of overpriced rice, and even asked the Department of Justice to prosecute former NFA officials. When the rice production data came in, he was aghast to discover that output was significantly down due to drought and typhoons. Banayo then boasted that it was good that the NFA had sufficient rice stocks. Of course, he didn’t mention how much of the stocks were part of the “over-importation” he once disdained. Next year, he blithely announced, rice imports would be just marginally lower than the imports in 2010.

Excusable lapses in judgment perhaps, as Banayo has zero experience in rice trading and agricultural economics. But of all the many state firms and agencies, why did he ask to head a corporation that for more than three decades has racked up billions of pesos in losses, with a deficit this year of P40 billion? A Chinese rice trader I asked responded with a big grin.

Four, the Lamborghini tax-evader. Last July, the Bureau of Internal Revenue charged William Villarica with tax evasion, claiming he paid minimal taxes despite his thriving pawnshop business. It was supposed to be the start of the BIR’s vigorous campaign against tax evaders. To make the story sizzle, the BIR claimed Villarica owned a P26-million Lamborghini sports car. The first court hearing on the case was postponed as no BIR prosecutor turned up. The last news story I could dig up said that Villarica’s lawyer Frank Chavez (formerly President Cory Aquino’s solicitor general) claimed that the BIR didn’t have proof, not even the car’s certificate of registration. The same news story pointed out that William Villarica’s sister-in-law is Bulacan representative Linabelle Villarica, a party mate of President Aquino. I hope BIR Commissioner Kim Henares brings us up to date on their “landmark tax-evasion case.”

There are of course other interesting “whatever-happened-to’s”: the anti-wangwang policy (successful, it seems); the factionalism in Aquino’s government (successful it seems); the Luneta hostage drama (forgotten it seems, except by Hong Kong); 4,300 government positions to be filled (my count: about 100 appointees, including Tesda’s Director General Joel Villanueva, son of evangelist Eddie Villanueva).

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer