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Napoles scam from a distance

The Napoles scam will mark, hopefully, a historic milestone in the country’s painful progress toward political maturity, with the righteous conviction and punishment of powerful, formerly untouchable, politicians.

When the dust has settled, when the principal protagonists, perhaps, have themselves turned to dust, some historians will revisit this landmark case. If they had only the information now available to us, how will they make sense of the evidence?

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Their first task must be to determine what crime was committed. Spending pork barrel funds was not a crime, until the Supreme Court decision ruled it unconstitutional. Neither was using nongovernment organizations as channels for these funds. Nothing wrong, even, in coursing such funds to Janet Napoles’ NGOs—if the NGOs actually received and used the funds for projects that actually benefited the intended recipients.

They would quickly dismiss the desperate attempt to implicate Budget Secretary Butch Abad as Napoles’ “mentor.” Tutoring Napoles on the budgetary process and the potential role of NGOs is, in itself, no crime. Academic institutions offer training programs on the budgetary process and how NGOs can avail themselves of public funds. Terrorists who kill with bombs cannot blame their crime on science teachers from whom they learned about explosives.

Even if such a personalized tutorial had transpired—which Abad has denied and Napoles has not proven—so what? Napoles would have to prove that Abad actively arranged the transactions with corrupt legislators and benefited from this assistance.

Conspiring with legislators to direct their pork barrel funds to bogus NGOs, defrauding the intended beneficiaries of most or all of the funds, and dividing the money between the legislators and the NGOs’ architect—that constitute the crime.

Napoles has denied that she masterminded the scam, perhaps hoping to turn state’s witness. Historians would find the denial worthless, because she did not identify the real mastermind who instructed her, not on the pork barrel system, not on organizing NGOs, but on how to pinpoint the legislators willing to allocate their pork barrel funds to her “fake” NGOs and how to negotiate the “kickback” price.

While Napoles cannot escape culpability by claiming that she got the idea from someone else, she could not have succeeded without help. The assorted lists of conspirators coming out in the media will show historians that she had no lack of willing partners.

Sorting out the “Napolists” will be a major task.  Historians would begin with official records, identifying the agencies or organizations to which the legislators assigned their pork barrel funds and the projects they were intended to support. Legislators who had nothing to fear about their pork barrel spending should have rushed to take this step. Not many have done so, despite the public demand for this accounting.

The legislators’ list of pork barrel channels and intermediaries must then be compared with two other sets of lists: the “official” lists from the agencies of the executive branch, and the lists originating from Napoles and the whistle-blowers, which reportedly recorded her collaborators. Suspicion would fall most heavily on those legislators appearing in all these lists.

Since the scam spanned several years and focused on different sectors, only a few hardworking legislators, if any, would appear in all lists.  Those distinguishing themselves by appearing in the whistle-blowers’ lists early, often, and in a variety of sectors would merit closer scrutiny.

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Anyone who used a “ghost” NGO and squandered government funds on nonexistent projects would be fair game for the historians. They might cut some slack for someone who used the Napoles channels once or, perhaps, when she was just starting the scam. They would find more difficult to accept claims of innocence by repeat customers.

Given the number of people implicated in the scam, historians will want to distinguish different degrees of guilt. The amount of money stolen from the projects and the number of people victimized would factor into their judgment. But they will probably go beyond financial returns to determine which circle of Dante’s Inferno each perpetrator should occupy.

Napoles may have gained more from the scam than any individual senator, and she should suffer commensurate punishment. But she is a private person, exercising no political powers, bound by no oath of public service or duty.

We entrust vast powers to the state and its officials to prevent people from taking advantage of each other. We expect and trust the government to look after our collective interests and to protect us from people like Napoles. Historians will document how the politicians we elected not only failed in this duty but directly participated in plundering the public to enrich themselves.

We cannot accuse Napoles of betraying our trust, since we never gave it to her. Betrayal of public trust is the other crime for which historians will indict the politicians who partnered with her.  In Filipino, the description for guardians turned oppressors is bantay-salakay.

Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected]) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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TAGS: Janet Lim-Napoles, politicians, pork barrel scam
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