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Editorial

Landmark tale of corruption

/ 05:07 AM June 19, 2021

It is, by all measures, an unprecedented legal victory. Even if, all Filipinos must be reminded, it took all of 45 years to achieve. And even then, justice has yet to be fully served since the principal accused have since passed away, putting them beyond the reach of an earthly comeuppance. (We can only pray the celestial powers had long ago rendered their verdict and imposed the proper punishments.)

Still, despite the caveats, the recent Supreme Court decision finding notorious Marcos crony Herminio Disini guilty of using his connections to facilitate (and profit from) the building of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) is worth celebrating. Even more remarkable, the high court, voting unanimously 12-0 with two inhibitions, awarded P1 billion in temperate damages and P1 million in exemplary damages to the Philippine government. The state coffers may be the beneficiary of the amounts due, but it is really the Filipino citizenry who deserve to be compensated. It was they after all who, decades after the project was abandoned, continued to shoulder the nefarious debt incurred for the anomalous project.

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Soon after President Duterte began suggesting that he was in favor of reviving and rehabilitating the BNPP in 2016, an editorial in this paper pointed out that “from the beginning, the BNPP was a magnet of corruption and mismanagement,” and that the debt incurred for it by the Marcos administration would eventually represent the Philippines’ “biggest international credit obligation for over a generation.”

The idea for building the power plant stemmed from the “oil shock” of 1973 when oil prices skyrocketed around the world after Opec, the consortium of oil-producing countries dominated by Arab nations, declared an oil embargo. The Opec move was triggered by the US decision to resupply the Israeli military during the Yom Kippur war, but its consequences rippled across the globe; governments, including the Philippines, resolved to develop their own sources of power not reliant on imported oil.

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But in time, Marcos began to view the BNPP megaproject as another source of illicit income. Despite reservations expressed even by his energy officials, Marcos chose Westinghouse as the contractor for the plant, sourcing the payments from local and foreign bank loans, which followed a convoluted trail from Swiss and other European and US banks. Appointed steward of the BNPP project was Herminio Disini, a small-time businessman whose firm went belly up until he emerged as a major player in the Marcos inner circle. His wife, it turned out, was a cousin of Imelda Marcos.

Disini put up Power Contractors Inc., which was named the chief contractor for building the reactor—later found to be riddled with over 4,000 structural defects. Construction on the BNPP began in 1976, despite repeated charges of safety and environmental concerns. It was, for one, located atop an earthquake fault and near a volcano. By 1984, the project cost had ballooned to $2.3 billion. The project was scrapped in 1986 by the Cory Aquino administration following revelations of its sordid financial history and shoddy construction, and the Philippines would spend the next 30 years paying off the debt for a moribund structure.

“Why did the cost skyrocket by as much as 400 percent?” the 2016 editorial asked. “Primarily because Marcos and his cronies saw in the project another means to enrich themselves. Up to $80 million was forked over in kickbacks by Westinghouse; Marcos was said to have received his share through his crony Herminio Disini. According to a report in The New York Times, Disini’s commission was ‘5 percent of the value of Westinghouse’s part of the project’ and ‘Marcos was to get 95 percent of Disini’s fee.’” That is a huge cut in Disini’s share, underlining Marcos’ extraordinary greed; still, the amount of dirty money was so massive that Disini was able to buy himself a castle near Vienna where he must have lorded over his neighbors like a latter-day member of European nobility.

In announcing its ruling against Disini, the Supreme Court said it “held Disini liable for exerting undue influence in the awarding of the BNPP project by taking advantage of his close association with former president Ferdinand Marcos.”

Disini passed away in 2014, but his responsibility and criminal liability is not extinguished. According to law, his debt to the nation is to be paid back by his heirs. And what of the Marcos heirs? In 2012, the Sandiganbayan, while finding Disini liable, absolved Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos of responsibility in the BNPP scandal for “lack of evidence”; it was this ruling that was affirmed by the recent Supreme Court decision. The Marcoses may not be required to shell out any payments, but they remain inextricably entangled in this monstrous, landmark tale of corruption and pillage under the dictator Marcos’ watch.

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TAGS: Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, Ferdinand Marcos, graft, Herminio Disini, Supreme Court
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