Be very careful with lifestyle check campaigns, so vulnerable to extortion

A RIGHTEOUS campaign it might seem, but the kind of lifestyle checks announced the other day by Presidential Anti-Corruption Commissioner Manny Luna is itself so vulnerable to corruption that President Duterte should ask one of his most trusted officials to monitor this campaign very closely.

As reported in this newspaper, Luna said the PACC was undertaking lifestyle checks on over 400 “officials and employees” of government agencies such as the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), Bureau of Internal Revenue, Bureau of Customs (BoC) and Bureau of Immigration.

Lifestyle checks or investigations into the net worth and assets of over 400 officials — to check if these are commensurate with their incomes — make up a gargantuan task that is way, way beyond the resources of this tiny, nearly token anti-corruption entity. I don’t think Luna knows what he is talking about.

The PACC doesn’t even have its own budget as approved by Congress, but merely relies on whatever the Office of the President gives as part of the executive secretary’s largesse. The PACC doesn’t even disclose how many people it has — i.e., investigators — to undertake these lifestyle checks. I suspect they don’t even have a staff of more than a dozen.

I know what I’m talking about since as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s presidential chief of staff in 2002, I headed a special “Transparency Group” that undertook lifestyle checks of about a dozen officials of the BoC and the DPWH, who had been notorious for their conspicuous display of wealth. It was intended as a pilot project for the establishment of a bigger anti-corruption body like that of Hong Kong.

Commission
The effort was patterned after Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) set up in 1974 that used lifestyle checks as a very powerful weapon to rid the colony of graft, especially in its police force. The lifestyle checks were cost-efficient as the authorities simply had to show that an official’s net worth was impossible with his government income, and therefore could have been acquired only through graft.

An official only had to be shown the data, and he would be asked to resign, and if he didn’t, criminal cases would be field against him. The aim wasn’t to serve justice, but to pragmatically rid as fast as possible the Hong Kong police of corruption, which the ICAC managed to do in a few years’ time. The colony swiftly developed a reputation as a graft-free area, which helped it become a booming economy, attractive to foreigners.

The ICAC, though, was very well funded, partly through the income of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which had the government monopoly for horse racing. With its funding, the ICAC could afford to throw resources and the most qualified men to undertake its lifestyle checks.

Accumulating data on a target official’s network is costly, as the information can’t be just hearsay or rumor but must be backed by solid data. Or else these would be merely rumors that would not stand up in court, if a case had to be filed.

When we undertook the lifestyle checks, there were teams for each target that included veteran police investigators, accountants, researchers, and even the kind of people who undertake clandestine surveillance. The police investigators, seconded from the police’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Group, even had intelligence funds to extract information from people who knew a subject.

Ferrari
We had investigators who surveilled a target’s house, which in one case led to the information that the official, a DPWH official, had a Ferrari which he drove once in a while around his subdivision. We had researchers deployed to the Land Transportation Office to check registration records of imported cars, to the Bureau of Lands to dig up ownership of lands, and even the Philippine National Police’s firearm licensing division to find out the kind of guns a target had. (Corrupt officials had a reputation for collecting expensive guns.)

The lifestyle check campaign was successful in getting about three officials to retire and in filing charges against another three who refused to step down. But these were the results of a lifestyle check of 15 officials. When I computed the cost of the investigations, it amounted to at least P200,000 per target, inclusive of the salary of police personnel assigned to us.

Note that based on our experience, out of 10 lifestyle check investigations, less than half would yield results, with information on the other half inconclusive. Still though, the same amount of P200,000 would have been expended for each of all 10 investigations.

I don’t think the tiny PACC would have the budget for undertaking life-style checks of 400 officials, which would cost — let’s just use a conservative figure of P100,000 per target — P40 million.

And if the PACC doesn’t really do such rigorous investigations, what would they base their allegations on. Rumors?

Campaign
But the biggest problem of a life-style check campaign, which I would realize to my horror, is that all the while that I thought our team consisted of crusaders dedicated to ridding the country of corruption, there were two (or even three) who had a totally different agenda: Make money out of the campaign.

One of these was a dropout from the Philippine Military Academy, who claimed he was with the Reform the Armed Forces Movement that wanted to help our office reform the country. It turned out that this jerk was going around the BoC and the DPWH, extorting money — as much as P1 million per target – from officials there, threatening them that they would be investigated by “Tiglao’s group” if they did not give him money.

This criminal could do that because he knew who the corrupt officials were, who of course were willing to give him P1 million rather than being publicly shamed and removed from their posts which could generate for them millions more.

But these officials, worried that the extortion (or was it blackmail?), could be a regular thing for them, campaigned to stop the lifestyle check program, claiming that they were being harassed that they could no longer do their jobs. They were successful in the Customs bureau in that they managed to call for a one-day strike, which of course threatened our entire economy.

The lifestyle check program was ended right after.

Infiltrate
I’m sure the PACC could be easily infiltrated by such scalawags who would extort money from corrupt officials, threatening them with exposure if they don’t cooperate.

I cannot fathom why PACC Commissioner Luna would announce that over 100 government officials had net worth not commensurate with their income and that it already submitted this list to Malacañang and that 400 more were being investigated. From our experience in lifestyle checks, that would be impossible to do in the same year that they started this kind of research. And to think that no one in the PACC had been a police investigator or a prosecutor. I bet they don’t even have the copies of the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth of these 400 government officials, which is the first document one should get to do a lifestyle check.

Or did the PACC merely submit accounts of rumors that they picked up, or worse, fabrications fed to them by these officials’ rivals?

And why on earth would the PACC announce this, when it should be kept secret so as not to give the suspects time to cover up their net worth? Why have they announced that they will be doing these lifestyle checks twice already before, in 2018 and October last year, yet they have not produced a single solid case of an official having a lifestyle way beyond his income? Are they pulling Duterte’s leg, so they can go around town striking fear in government officials hearts?

In fact, it hasn’t been the PACC, but the finance department’s Revenue Integrity Protection Service that has undertaken successful lifestyle checks under Duterte, dismissing five officials in 2018.

I do hope the PACC’s announcement that it had undertaken lifestyle checks on 100 officials and would do so on 400 more isn’t some kind of announcement to the bureaucracy: “Better cooperate with us, or else.”

If that’s not the case, PACC’s announcement of a massive lifestyle check on 400 government officials is all PR b******t.

 


 

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