At the hearing of the Commission on Appointments last Wednesday, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada sought to cast Justice Secretary Leila de Lima as a villain, unworthy of the public’s trust. He did not have proof, so he did it the old-fashioned way: He cast aspersions. He was joined by the president of the so-called Whistleblowers Association of the Philippines, Sandra Cam, who accused De Lima of both incompetence and immorality. She supported her accusations with a time-tested technique: She (unaccountably) shed tears.
Any appearance by De Lima before the CA’s justice committee (her appointment has been bypassed four years in a row) was always going to be controversial, but the defining political circumstance of the last 11 months made Wednesday’s hearing even more so. Estrada is one of three incumbent senators facing plunder and graft charges related to the billion-peso pork barrel scam; it was De Lima and her team of National Bureau of Investigation agents and Department of Justice prosecutors who did the spade work on the case. Cam returned to the public spotlight in the last few weeks, (unaccountably) bearing one of the first of the Napoles lists—the list of lawmakers and other personalities who supposedly transacted illegal business with the businesswoman accused of masterminding the pork barrel scam itself, Janet Lim Napoles. Cam’s resurfacing put public pressure on De Lima, who met with Napoles before she underwent surgery, to release “her” list.
Given these conditions, De Lima’s appearance before the CA turned inevitably into another skirmish in the war of attrition over the scam. We should not let the fireworks from Wednesday’s hearing obscure the true picture.
Estrada’s defense, his protestation of innocence, is ultimately based on the notion that what he did (or did not do) with his hundreds of millions of pesos in Priority Development Assistance Fund allocations was exactly what other senators and representatives did (or did not do) with theirs, and that therefore he was the victim of what he calls “selective justice.”
His aggressive questioning of De Lima, then, followed a simple plan. Paint De Lima as just like any other wheeling-dealing politician.
He insinuated that De Lima had been appointed chair of the Commission on Human Rights by President Gloria Arroyo because of an endorsement from one of her clients, former Palawan governor Joel Reyes. (Reyes has since fled the country, together with his brother Mario, after they were named suspects in the killing of radio journalist Gerry Ortega.) She said she did not in fact know.
He hinted that as CHR chair, she had complained to Governor Reyes about not earning enough. “Of course not. I don’t know where you got that,” she replied.
And he suggested that De Lima as CHR chair received a monthly allowance of P1 million from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. When De Lima pointed out that in fact this was not the case—“There was a confidential fund allotted to the CHR but that was not an allowance”—he merely repeated his assertion. “I don’t believe that. You received a monthly allowance of P1 million.”
So, without proof, on his mere say-so, he depicted De Lima as a hypocritical politician who knew how to enjoy the perks of office. Estrada’s evident lack of remorse, his off-putting conduct during the hearing, may have prevented many Filipinos watching the spectacle from sympathizing with him, but we should also note that assertions like his unsupported statements can easily become part of mainstream “knowledge.” That, in fact, is the point. To confuse the public, an alternative storyline must first be asserted, and then repeated.
Cam (unaccountably) also accused De Lima of “selective justice,” but it was her purveying of alleged details of De Lima’s supposed “illicit affairs,” with at least two men, that her turn as oppositor at the hearing will be remembered for. And again, we must say, that must have been the point. Cam said she had video proof of one of the affairs, but wanted to wait for the right forum to show it. We do not know which is more startling: that she says she has proof she’s not ready to show, or that she is selling the classic antiwoman line, that a woman in power must be a slut.
Overall, De Lima’s grilling at the CA had all the delicacy of mud slung about. But we should see it as a proxy fight; all that mud was meant to prove every politician is dirty. And if everyone is dirty, then no one is clean enough to sweep up all that pork barrel slop.
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