There’s the Rub

Another blast from the past


Janet Lim-Napoles reminded me of another figure that hogged the headlines a lifetime ago, becoming the face of corruption at the time. He was Harry Stonehill.

Today’s generation will probably not have heard the name, he swiftly faded into obscurity. But for a while at least, in the early 1960s, he gained boundless fame or notoriety for being this country’s biggest corrupter.

Stonehill came here after the war with the US “liberation” forces and started several businesses. In less than a couple of decades, he had expanded and diversified—he went into everything from glass to tobacco (he introduced Virginia tobacco to the Ilocos)—building a

$50-million business empire. He did so not just by pluck and ingenuity but by bribing public officials. A thing pretty much every other elite family did in this country, as you’ll know from Alfred McCoy’s “An Anarchy of Families”: Business prospered only by investing in government. It was so then, it is so now.

Stonehill grew so big he boasted at one point, “I am the government.” His favorite mantra was “Everybody has his price,” and he proved it. A raid on his offices in 1962, in the course of a congressional investigation of him for tax fraud, yielded a “Blue Book” where he had listed the names of some 200 public officials, businessmen and journalists he had bought. The list went up to then President Diosdado Macapagal and then Sen. Ferdinand Marcos. The two would contest the 1965 elections.

An interesting sidelight to this was that the one who vigorously ran after Stonehill was Macapagal’s justice secretary, Jose “Ka Pepe” Diokno. Diokno was a protégé of Arsenio Lacson, Manila’s hugely popular mayor who might have become the president of this country if he hadn’t died of a heart attack in 1962. It was Lacson who got Diokno his justice department portfolio in exchange for helping Macapagal win the presidency in 1961. Unfortunately for Macapagal, Diokno took his job seriously: He hounded Stonehill when the idea was simply to make a token anticorruption stance.

Soon after talk of the “Blue Book” spread like wildfire in the newspapers, Macapagal unceremoniously deported Stonehill without filing charges. He also fired Diokno pretty much for doing his job. Diokno got back at him by openly questioning his decision to deport Stonehill: “How can the government now prosecute the corrupted when it allowed the corrupter to go?”

There are of course obvious differences between Stonehill and Napoles. The most obvious is that Stonehill was an entrepreneur—he is also credited with having pioneered the expansion of Manila Bay—and produced real goods and services; while Napoles, if the allegations about her are true, is just a hustler who manufactured fake NGOs. One is tempted to say “two-bit hustler,” but you remember the dialogue in movies where a villain, accused of being nothing more than a common crook, replies, “I am not a common crook, I am an uncommon one.” Ten billion pesos certainly qualifies as beyond being an ordinary crook.

Another difference is that Stonehill bribed the public officials with his own money, Napoles enticed them to part with the people’s money in return for a kickback. Which also reveals a humongous difference in the scale of corruption then and now, and what it took to get people riled up over it. Then it took only an entrepreneur, who was arguably contributing something to the country with his business ventures, to bribe public officials to get the country up in arms. Now it takes a hustler dispossessing the taxpayers of P10 billion of their money to be thrown away in the most wasteful of ways to get the country up in arms. The scale of the country’s tolerance for atrocity has increased exponentially.

And still another difference is that Napoles is being detained while Stonehill was set free. Stonehill was prevented from talking while Napoles at least in theory is being coaxed to do so.

But for all these differences, they have something in common: They are the finger pointing at the moon. I mentioned that Zen saying yesterday: When someone points at the moon, don’t look at the finger, look at the moon.

Arguably, if the finger pointing at the moon is also wrapped up inside a sequined glove, the way Michael Jackson’s hand was, your gaze will be drawn to the finger too. Or for those who do not like metaphors, given the scale of Stonehill’s and Napoles’ perfidy, you have to look at them too and not just at the people they corrupted. But it would be an egregious error to fixate on them, to turn them into scapegoats, whose original meaning was an animal sacrificed to expiate the sins of others.

Stonehill and Napoles are not the guiltiest parties in the scams they wrought, the public officials are. We have no expectations from Stonehill and Napoles, other than the worst; we have expectations from those we elected, which are nothing less than the best. The senators and congressmen who conspired with Napoles didn’t just steal from us, they betrayed us. Napoles shouldn’t just be allowed to tell all she knows about them, she should be compelled to tell all she knows about them. If that means turning her into a state witness with all the enticements that go with it, by all means let’s do so. That is how the hunt for truth begins. That is how the hunt for truth bags boars and not just rabbits.

We do know what happens when investigations end only with the Stonehills and Napoleses of this world. The people in Stonehill’s “Blue Book” all got away with murder, or pillage. One of them became the next president, got reelected, and plunged the country into darkness for 14 years. In the process, adding murder to pillage and, to go by the current luxurious state of his relations, getting away with it too.

Something to think about.

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  • kapitanvic1

    Our expectations of our public officials should be to resign if they are caught with their “pants down”. Compare the Philippines with what happened in Switzerland the other day. The chief financial officer Pierre Wauthier committed suicide and the CEO Josef Ackerman resigned from the staid international Insurer Zurich Insurance Group. The reason- It comes as Zurich Insurance slogs through a tough patch that has been exacerbated by a series of natural disasters that raised its obligations and a low-interest-rate environment that has made it difficult for the firm to increase its investment income. Zurich Insurance has posted two consecutive quarters of declining profits amid signs it is facing further challenges.
    After Zurich Insurance published its second-quarter report earlier this month, Bank J. Safra Sarasin analyst Dominik Studer in a research note called the results “again uninspiring” and suggested that investors pick AXA SA CS.FR -0.77% and Allianz SE.
    The Four Horse s#@*^t of APO PDAP namely enrile, jinggoy, revilla, and honasan should read this to teach them the importance of owning up to your responsibilities.

  • The_Squiller

    Lest we forget, the government governs with the consent of the governed.

    Better still, once our national interest and security are on the line, which is what this whole Napoles affair is leading to, it is comforting to remember that perhaps all of us must act with the SPIRIT of the law and not cherry-pick on its LETTERS because after all, it was the governed who ratified our constitution. Whether the governed knew what they were ratifying is beside the point. Our nation’s system of government is on the line here.

    If Napoles’ testimony will send all of the suspects in jail and she serves a reduced sentence for her cooperation, then why fiddle with the letters of the law whether she’s eligible as a state witness or not? Would we still hold a microscope on her venalities when the authorities have seized her assets and deprive her and her family the lifestyle that they shamelessly flaunted? Are the 11 other whistleblowers just salad dressing? Won’t their testimony be also equal in gravity as Napoles’ in sending an Enrile or a Honasan to jail?

    Those linked to this record-breaking plunder are a huge shame to our national conscience. But it would even be a more shameful travesty if we allow legal technicalities and wool pullers to blind us from the divine origins of our indignation.

    • cogito728sum

      The principle that “the government governs with the consent of the governed” is a noble abstraction that ends at the ballot box. In the context of Philippine politics, after the governor is ensconced in power, his first concern is to build his financial/political protective wall in wild abandon and forgets his commitment to his people.

      The governed on the other, dictated by necessities for survival, willingly forgives the governor for shoving the rules by the side in favour of pragmatism and expediency so long as the end is secured. Why have rules then if all that matters is that the end justifies the means? Why play the game if its rules are not followed?

      A society of progressively decaying moral order cannot expect to extricate itself from the pig sty of corruption if its government, at the first sight of opportunity to burnish its image, disregard the commanding voice of prudence and reason in the law in favour of its political objectives Merci!

  • tarikan

    Very true CDQ. I don’t think that younger generation Filipinos know about Harry Stonehill, the fish-bone inside the throat of Kong Dadong. He very well lost his reelection bid because of Stonehill mega scandal.

  • athenapallas

    But with the advent of internet and social media, things have changed and will continue to change. People are bound to be more aware now of corruption going on around and feel compelled to do something about it. Technology has made it easy to bust and trace corrupt self-serving politicos; and the netizens can shame them even if most of them are shameless kapalmuks made so callous by their greed for power and pork.

  • Samboy_rod

    Like father like daughter!What more to say.

  • JS Duyaguit

    We, the people, must not stop until those who connived with Napoles are in jail. Tama na! Sobra na!

  • Volks

    To our President P-Noy, if you have a backbone and the political will, you will not let this happen again.

    In the movie Saving Private Ryan, there was a scene close to the end, where a dying Captain John H. Miller uttered his last words to Private James Ryan “James … earn this. Earn it.” I’m sure a lot of us would like to utter these same words to President P-Noy: “Earn this”. Please don’t waste the sacrifices of your Dad and Mom and the unsung heroes who made you what you are today. You have not done anything yet – up to this point, you’re just reaping the benefits of the sacrifices that was made by your parents.

    Now is your chance – Earn it!

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