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Follow the money and nab the big fish

/ 04:06 AM October 26, 2021

Corruption is a pervasive and corrosive blight to our economy and the foundations of our democratic institutions. The recent high-profile Senate investigation on anomalies involving Pharmally, a company that supplied medical equipment to the government, and its possible connection to ranking administration officials highlights once again this perennial problem.

A paper written by Region IX’s senior regional assistant prosecutor Robert Michael Razon cites a National Risk Assessment report by the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) published in 2017 that said an estimated 20 percent of the annual national budget is lost to corruption. Just imagine the progress our country could achieve if the pernicious effects of corruption are significantly reduced.

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To be fair, there have been, and there continues to be, efforts to fight corruption. What is lacking is the follow-through: the successful prosecution of high-profile cases and the forfeiture of the plunderers’ ill-gotten wealth and assets. There is no stronger message that can be sent to corrupt officials and individuals than showing them that no one will get away from the law, no matter how powerful and influential they are. Punishing foot soldiers and mid-level accomplices won’t provide enough of a deterrence. A successful anti-corruption campaign is one that consistently brings to justice high-level offenders.

However, reeling in the big fish is not that easy, as these people don’t normally get their hands dirty. There are layers and layers that an investigator will need to unravel to catch the big one, and one of the most effective ways to do this is to follow the money. Many high-profile cases have been cracked, and their perpetrators brought to justice, through evidence derived from their money trail.

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In the Philippines, the key body in this effort is the AMLC, working closely with the appropriate agency such as the Office of the Ombudsman or the Department of Justice.

While Republic Act No. 9160 (the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2001) has been enhanced with amendments such as RAs 9194, 10167, 10365, and 10927, a number of obstacles have been identified as curbing the effectiveness of the AMLC to comprehensively follow the money trail. One of these main obstacles is RA 1405, also known as the bank secrecy law.

If the legislature is serious about tackling the corruption problem, then it could start by making an earnest effort to repeal the bank secrecy law. Given that congressional inquiries and investigations are in aid of legislation, repealing RA 1405 would be a good place to start. The executive branch could also do its part by empowering the agencies tasked with the job by providing them with more resources, or better yet, just leaving them to do their jobs thoroughly, without fear or favor.

Despite the challenges faced by investigators in following the money, there have been successful efforts in utilizing this approach in high-profile cases, such as those involving Armed Forces of the Philippines generals Carlos Garcia and Jacinto Ligot, and the Priority Development Assistance Fund scandal involving Janet Napoles and a number of public officials. In those cases, investigators and prosecutors followed the money trail to help build their case, and showed that running after the corrupt can be done if there is political will to carry out and prosecute cases.

It is not sufficient for any administration to just talk of its commitment to fight against corruption and confine itself to punishing low- and mid-level officials. That commitment needs to translate to prosecuting and convicting big fish as well, which serves as the bigger deterrent to malfeasance in office. In the fight against corruption, it is not enough to just trim the fat. It needs to be totally removed, including those who wallowed in it.

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Moira G. Gallaga served three Philippine presidents as presidential protocol officer, diplomatically posted to the Philippine Consulate General in Los Angeles and the Philippine Embassy in Washington, DC.

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TAGS: AMLC, bank secrecy law, Commentary, government corruption, Moira G. Gallaga
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