Senator Juan Ponce Enrile (JPE) achieved a moment of historical redemption for his role in the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona. A short one. He overreached by trying to rewrite history in his autobiography, which only underlined his complicity in the martial law regime.
Entanglement in the pork barrel scam (PBS) poses an even more devastating blow to his reputation. After weeks of silence, he denied involvement in the PBS at a press conference on Aug. 23 and, according to the media, declared his willingness to be investigated and prosecuted, “if only to clear my name.”
This posture contrasts favorably with the initial statements made by Sen. Bong Revilla, who dismissed the charges against him as politically inspired, and by Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, who disclaimed responsibility for monitoring the use of his Priority Development Assistance Fund. JPE has a longer, more prominent, political record to protect and, at 89, fewer opportunities to overcome any further damage to his image.
We should all understand and appreciate, therefore, his overriding concern for how he will be remembered: “If I were to choose something of value to leave to my family when I depart from this world, I would choose to leave honor and a good name, nothing else.” How can JPE achieve this admirable goal?
First, JPE must avoid statements that the public may perceive as nitpicking, lawyerly tricks. He claimed, for instance, that special allotment release orders attributed to him P325 million that actually went to other legislators. He did not address the balance of over P300 million released from his PDAF, an amount that qualifies as plunder.
Second, JPE must set meaningful standards against which to be measured. He had said, “Probably, I will inhibit myself [from any Senate investigation] so that they will not say that I will influence the proceeding.” Jinggoy Estrada has already taken this step, which their situation, in any case, should compel.
Neither will people find impressive his declared readiness “to be investigated by my peers because that is a constitutional mandate.” The public is unlikely to award mileage points for a senator’s compliance with a constitutional obligation.
The bigger problem stems from the stunning scale of the pork barrel corruption and the palpable rage it has aroused across the country. An affirmation of his integrity by his “peers,” presumably his fellow senators, will not repair his tarnished reputation. With about half of its membership mentioned as possibly implicated in the PBS, the Senate can credibly convict JPE but has lost the moral authority to pronounce him innocent. JPE must find vindication in a less tainted forum.
His willingness “to surrender my wealth and that of my family if it [is] proven that the funds went to my own pocket” sets too low a hurdle. If convicted, JPE would be required to return the loot and to submit to the sanctions imposed on the crime.
While whistle-blowers have reported delivering money to JPE’s staff, tracing the flow of PDAF funds to his own accounts will not be easy. But lack of this evidence would not excuse JPE from culpability. Even if he did not take the money for himself, he would still be accountable for the use of the public funds entrusted to his care.
Legislators apparently enjoy the prerogative of determining what PDAF programs to support and which nongovernment organizations to assist in their implementation. JPE reportedly channeled his funds to Janet Napoles’ NGOs and to other NGOs suspected as equally spurious. He has to explain why he chose these NGOs and what these NGOs accomplished.
Finally, JPE can help protect his legacy by collaborating with the Aquino administration in exposing the ways in which the PDAF program has been abused. He can volunteer to be the first to submit to official investigation.
With all the years he has spent in the corridors of power, JPE should have much information about where bones are buried. He hinted, for instance, at leakages in the P70-billion allocation for the legislators’ infrastructure projects under the VILP (Various Infrastructure Including Local Projects).
Perhaps JPE has enough fuel in the tank to document what he knows about the systematic plunder of public resources in Congress. He would render a signal service to the country by helping to identify the weaknesses of the governance system and the parties who should be investigated for exploiting them. This contribution would be comparable, both in terms of risks and impact, to his repudiation of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
The media have reported much speculation about whether Napoles should be invited to turn state witness. Perhaps that privilege should be offered instead to JPE to give him, perhaps, a final chance to redeem his name. Even when crucified, the Good Thief still managed to steal Paradise.
Edilberto C. de Jesus (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.