War on corruption

MANILA, Philippines—Noynoy Aquino’s mantra of “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” captured the collective longing of our nation. It also sets out in simple, understandable language the program of government of our new leader, and the standard by which he and his government would be judged.

Neither novel nor easy. The war on corruption (I will write on poverty at another time) is neither novel nor easy. Every president I can remember had promised to undertake it. Even President Macapagal-Arroyo waged it early on. One of the first things she did upon assuming office in 2001 was to charge her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, with plunder. She appointed a no-nonsense Ombudsman, Simeon Marcelo, who diligently investigated the charge, promptly filed the appropriate information and, together with Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio, vigorously prosecuted the former president.

Aside from his subordinates, a panel of competent private lawyers and investigators assisted Marcelo. To avoid delays, the Supreme Court created a Special Division of the Sandiganbayan to hear the case continuously. An inquisitive tri-media assiduously kept the public focused on the trial.

And yet, to secure Estrada’s conviction, the Arroyo government spent more than six years, from April 4, 2001 when the charges were filed to Sept. 12, 2007 when the Sandiganbayan promulgated its decision. In fact, had Estrada appealed the Anti-Graft Court’s verdict to the Supreme Court, instead of accepting the presidential pardon given by GMA, the case would have dragged on a few more years without any assurance of victory.

No final conviction. In the even more celebrated search for ill-gotten wealth, Imelda Marcos has frequently boasted that despite more than two decades of hounding, no court—whether here or elsewhere—has finally found her or her husband guilty of any crime. The closest Imelda brushed with a criminal conviction was on Jan. 29, 1998 when the Third Division of the Supreme Court by a vote of 3 (Andres R. Narvasa, Flerida Ruth P. Romero [ponente] and Artemio V. Panganiban) to 2 (Jose A. R. Melo and Ricardo J. Francisco) adjudged her guilty of graft.

However, on Oct. 6, 1998, the Court en banc reversed the Third Division and acquitted the former First Lady by a vote of 8 (Josue N. Bellosillo, Melo, Reynato S. Puno, Santiago M. Kapunan, Vicente V. Mendoza, Antonio M. Martinez, Leonardo A. Quisumbing and Fidel P. Purisima [ponente]) to 5 (Narvasa, Florenz D. Regalado, Romero, Hilario G. Davide Jr. and Panganiban).

Indeed, the chase for unexplained wealth has been difficult. The above cases of Estrada and Marcos are the most high profile examples. There are several others. Many times, the constitutional rights intended to protect the innocent are misused and abused by the guilty to delay cases and stymie prosecutors. Sometimes, witnesses are intimidated and recant. At other times, evidence disappears and lawyers lose steam.

How to win the war. Despite all these stumbling blocks, the war on corruption must be forcefully fought. This is what Noynoy promised. This is what our people expect. This is what our nation deserves. To win the war, I think at least two things must be done.

First, name an avant-garde anti-corruption team led by an uncompromising head of the commission to be formed to investigate the Arroyos, an incorruptible secretary of justice and a battle-tested solicitor general, whose trustworthiness, integrity and probity are beyond question. (To understand these “TIP” qualities, see my April 25 column.)

In 1986, Cory Aquino named a new Supreme Court and appointed Jovito R. Salonga as chair of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, Neptali A. Gonzales as secretary of justice, and Sedfrey A. Ordoñez as solicitor general. The three seamlessly teamed up; after all, they were erstwhile law partners.

But after a year, Salonga and Gonzales left the team due to their election to the Senate. The anti-graft momentum sputtered. The lesson learned here is that the Noynoy team must not only be professionally and ethically driven; it must also commit to stay together till the pursuit is completed.

Second, secure the cooperation of the Ombudsman and the judiciary. The anti-graft team will not succeed without the active support of the Ombudsman who has been vested by the Constitution with the power to investigate and prosecute graft shenanigans. While the Noynoy vanguards may investigate graft cases, their findings are at best recommendatory to the Ombudsman.

Given the lessons of the past, it truly takes courage, innovation and passion to win the anti-graft war. One innovation suggested by my colleague Amando Doronila is “Lee Kuan Yew’s method: (Noynoy) should call (the Ombudsman) to a private audience during which he would present her a dossier and ask her to resign quietly and gracefully, on pain of undergoing public embarrassment with the disclosure of its contents.” This is similar to the “shame campaign” proposed by a reader to compel lethargic officials to prosecute more proactively.

But in the end, it is the judiciary, especially the Sandiganbayan and the Supreme Court, which will pass judgment on the anti-graft drive. As shown by the Estrada and Marcos cases, the anti-corruption campaign will flounder without judicial imprimatur. The anti-graft team will have the toughest job in the Noynoy government. How courageous, innovative and passionate will it be in using Noynoy’s ultimate weapon—People Power—to win the war on corruption?

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