Corruption in the time of Covid

Corruption in the time of Covid Featured

THIS is not a take from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "El Amor en los Tiempos del Colera" (The Manila Times, Dec. 16, 2020). This is simply a paraphrase of the title of that excellent novel as a simile for the corruption being exposed at the Senate blue ribbon committee hearings that appear to be closing in on the highest officials of the land. The novel was a backdrop for romance in the time of an epidemic; but unlike the novel, the current pandemic is proving to be an opportunity for depravity perpetrated by President Duterte's men. It does not have the romance of the original, but the current narrative has all the allure of drama, plots and subplots as uncovered in bits and pieces by Senators Richard "Dick" Gordon, Franklin Drilon and their cohorts.

They have in some ways elicited from the incompetent (or guilt-ridden) witnesses responses, bits and pieces of facts, evidence, and innuendo that have of late began to ensnare unfamiliar Chinese names barely whispered in the corridors of power. The Senate hearings, in attempting to uncover these connections, have resorted to their own public display of melodrama. This could be a long-drawn-out performance - a counter diversion from the Las Familias de Duterte telenovela (see my TMT Sept. 1, 2021, column).

Legislative 'moro-moro'

The next episode of the hearings is on September 7 (after this column's publication); new facts may be revealed, and plots unravel. These hearings' stated objective is the disclosure of the truth by probing into government shenanigans. But in the hands of these wily senators, upheld by the chamber's constitutionally mandated oversight functions over the executive departments, this is an "in your face" confrontation with the President, exploiting the hearings to advance some senator's not so hidden agenda. The revelations are dangerously closing in on Malacañang. To be fair, the Deegong has not been implicated directly but the barbs thrown at him are sharp and lethal. It is unfortunate that Duterte in his naïveté has taken the bait and his retorts have been true to form - pedestrian, belligerent, unthought of and uncalled for. He admonished his cabinet people appearing before the blue ribbon to refuse to respond - if they feel the senatorial inquisitions are becoming obnoxious. And if held in contempt and incarcerated, Duterte has assured them of "ways to get them out." This is an irresponsible presidential veiled threat - escalating his recent challenge to disregard the Senate for "grandstanding" and pressuring the Commission on Audit to "stop flagging anomalies." He has absurdly appealed to the public to boot these miscreant senators out of office in the coming elections. The Deegong has bitten more than he can chew. The Constitution is unequivocal on the Senate's prerogatives.

A travesty

On the other hand, the blue ribbon has become an extension of the feisty personality of its chairman, Senator Gordon - smart, articulate, abrasive and a bully. His staccato line of questions is meant to stun the witnesses, cowing them into submission and provoking responses that seemingly must adhere to his script. Any deviation incites a barrage of further ripostes bordering on insults. The TV audience is either entertained or appalled by this behavior, but overall, it impacts negatively on the truth being ferreted out. There is something sinister about the TV lights and camera focusing on a legislator that induces personality transformation in a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde configuration. The inquisitor becomes the investigator, prosecutor and judge rolled into one. The hearings, although morsels of truth may trickle out, become more an attempt by the chairman, known to have presidential aspirations, as an early campaign platform rather than one "in aid of legislation." And facts and truth suffer.

'Davao Mafiosi'

And here come the unconscionable regional insults, which more often than not reflect the decades-long contrived supremacy of the centrally based Metro Manila media. I flinched at pundits and senators referring to the "Davao Mafia" with Duterte as the capo di tutti capi that "gobbled up choice government contracts of all kinds, the bigger, the better, the more profitable - public works, buildings supplies and lately, Covid medicine, equipment and [personal protective equipment]." (Biznews Asia, Aug. 21, 2021.) There are kernels of truth admittedly, but unless this Senate proves the same and someone is eventually accused and found guilty of crime, keep us Davaoeños out of it. I resent the reference to "Davao Mafia"; it is irrelevant, bigoted and unfair. A very small group of possible criminals and plunderers doesn't warrant dragging in the muck and soiling the city and its residents. When Ferdinand Marcos and his cronies were booted out, we never referred to the Ilocanos in a pejorative manner; nor for that matter, citizens from San Juan when Joseph "Erap" Estrada was imprisoned; nor even Pangasinenses when Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was falsely accused and "hospital incarcerated." And even former president Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino 3rd's kamag-anak (relatives) as Tarlaqueños or Manileño mafiosi during his time. I do, however, grudgingly agree that "Covid has been a blessing like manna from the devil himself...the crisis prodded Congress to pass gargantuan expenditure bills disguised as bayanihan (at the expense of the bayan) and without bidding. To scare critics and oppositors, Duterte imposed the severest and longest lockdown in the world. This prohibited mobility, rallies, mass protests, even church gatherings wherein the pulpit could bully the powers that be."


To get a better grasp of the universe of the corruption and graft being uncovered in the Senate hearings, we need to establish its antecedents. When Covid-19 struck in early 2020, government rushed in to introduce grandiose-sounding laws - the Bayanihan to Heal As One (and Two) - by granting the President emergency powers to combat Covid with humongous funds. These laws were altogether an appropriate and worthy response. But as in any similar bills, the devil is in the details. It allowed the primary tools for graft: negotiated biddings on contrived bidding failures and sleight-of-hand transfers of funds - with leakage somewhere in between; employing obscure patsies "backed by the powerful." To wit:

– August 2019 Christopher Lao, an obscure lawyer, allegedly Sen. Bong Go's stooge (SBG denied this vehemently) was appointed Department of Budget and Management (DBM) undersecretary.

– Jan. 2, 2020, Undersecretary Lao is transferred to the DBM Procurement Service (PS-DBM). (Secretary Windel Avisado, resigned DBM head, should shed light on this.)

– March 16, 2020, the Government Procurement Policy Board released a resolution incorporating face masks and PPE into common use supplies.

– March 27, 2020, the Department of Health started transferring funds to the PS-DBM, presumably illegally.

– April 16 and 20, 2020, PS-DBM under Lao, bought overpriced surgical masks from various suppliers.

– April 2020 to June 2020, Lao awarded to undercapitalized Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp. contracts worth P6 billion plus; the contracts that PS-BDM awarded to Pharmally reached more than P8.7 billion as a result.

– June 2021, Lao resigns. Offices of favored companies closed - addresses unknown.

Possible plunderers

"Those who recommended Usec Lao to PS-DBM, appointed Lao, released a resolution incorporating face masks and face shields into common use supplies, transferred the DoH budget to PS-DBM, awarded contracts to dubious companies and supplied PS-DBM's orders are liable for plunder." (Sen. Frank Drilon, Philippine Star, Aug 30, 2021)

Meantime, the Deegong and the Dick are exchanging accusations using the foulest language.

Next week, Sept. 15, 2021: The Chinese connection000
Read 639 times Last modified on Wednesday, 09 November 2022 11:09
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