The Department of Public Works and Highways carries a reputation as cash cow of operators and shysters. Latest witness accounts underscore that it’s not just a bad rep, and that no mere whiff but a clear stink of corruption prevails in those Augean stables. The DPWH’s proposed P666.4-billion budget, under Sen. Panfilo Lacson’s scrutiny found engorged by fund insertions by congressmen as well as double funding for some projects, makes it a prime target of Malacañang’s current crusade.
As it happens, President Duterte has acknowledged receipt of a list of state officials, including some members of the House of Representatives, implicated in corruption in the DPWH. But he who earlier had no compunction about publicly shaming officials supposedly involved in the trade in illegal drugs is now gun-shy, refusing to name the lawmakers and citing the principle of separation of powers.
The corruption list includes “12 or less than 12” House members and was submitted to Mr. Duterte “two weeks to about a month ago,” Commissioner Greco Belgica of the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) said last week. In media interviews, Belgica said the accusation of corruption was backed by direct testimony as well as evidence in the form of documents, photographs, and videos. “Pursyentuhan” — or demanding at least 10 percent of the cost of every infrastructure project — was the style employed by the lawmakers, he said, quoting witnesses. That modus operandi is hardly a secret and explains why the costs of infra projects are sky-high. (Years ago when the then Department of Education, Culture, and Sports was embroiled in a corruption scandal, contractors claimed that a percentage of project costs was customarily dedicated to kickbacks. “Tapon” — throwaway — they called it.)
Yet the President was strangely diffident in announcing at a Cabinet briefing the other week his hands-off stance vis-à-vis the implicated lawmakers. “Let’s go to political law,” he said. “I have no business investigating congressmen. They belong to a separate branch of government which is coequal with the President [and also] the Supreme Court.” He added that he would have to send the list to the Office of the Ombudsman—“the only investigating agency that has jurisdiction over congressmen, not me.”
Time was when The Punisher couldn’t be bothered by the niceties of procedure. Just recently, he named employees of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, among others, as corrupt. In March 2019, or two months before the midterm elections when the disclosure would certainly hurt those running, he named 46 government officials including three congressmen as involved in the drug trade; he said both the PACC and the Anti-Money Laundering Council were investigating them preparatory to filing criminal charges. He also named lawmakers, lawmen, and judges on his “narcolist” in August 2016. His public shaming of Sen. Leila de Lima and her arrest in February 2017 for alleged links with the drug trade at the New Bilibid Prison continue to be protested both here and abroad; she remains detained in near-isolation at the Philippine National Police headquarters.
Notwithstanding the President’s puzzling posture, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who chairs the “mega task force” newly ordered to look into corruption in all state agencies, said it may launch an inquiry into questionable actions of all public officials. “It’s the corrupt act or transaction that is being investigated,” Guevarra told the Inquirer. “Whoever will be implicated, it will not matter if they are outside the executive department.”
It was only last Oct. 27 that Mr. Duterte directed Guevarra to lead the government-wide campaign against the theft and misuse of taxpayer money in all levels of the bureaucracy, including lawmakers and local politicians. The campaign is to focus on the DPWH. “Despite the separation of powers, all elected officials are included in the investigation,” Harry Roque, whose job it is to put words into the President’s mouth, said at a press briefing later that day. Roque wasn’t called out by his boss for that remark, then and now.
But the President’s repeated statements clearing Public Works Secretary Mark Villar and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III of wrongdoing appears to constitute a line over which Guevarra’s mega task force cannot step—and never mind the earlier recommendation of certain members of both chambers of Congress that charges be brought against Duque.
Under the preceding administration, Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, and Ramon Revilla Jr. were taken in and charged with plunder. Time and the courts have since allowed bail for two and acquittal of the third (with their respective chiefs of staff in detention, wandering incognito abroad, and doing time at the state penitentiary). But their arrests show that what was once unthinkable can be done.
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