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09:58 PM September 2nd, 2013

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By: Conrado de Quiros, September 2nd, 2013 09:58 PM

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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