Wednesday, October 15, 2014

High risk duty

“If we let this pass, no other significant witness will testify... because of fear.” Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago fumed. She seeks 24-hour police protection for Commission on Audit commissioner Heidi Mendoza who documented Makati hospital scams before the blue ribbon committee.

Medical equipment for Ospital ng Makati—sterilizers, beds to cabinets—worth P9.3 million were padded to P61.2 million, Mendoza revealed. That’s a 9,056 percent overrun under then Makati Mayor Elenita Binay’s watch.
There was a break-in at Mendoza’s home this year. And she received threatening phone calls before the hearings.  The COA official nonetheless documented beds claimed to be manufactured in the US but were Taiwanese imports. No public biddings were conducted. And so on.

A parallel controversy erupted when Makati mayor Jejomar Erwin Binay slammed Senate President Franklin Drilon for indicating he’ll sign a subpoena to Binay. If refused, “the committee will be compelled to detain him”, until he sings.  

Only the whole committee can do that, the mayor snorted. He presented a “reasonable appeal” to the committee to desist.  “The Ombudsman now has jurisdiction over the related plunder case.”

Will this replay the July 1950 investigation of the purchase of Buenavista and Tambobong estates purchases (GR No L3820)?  Jean Arnault clammed up on demands he finger the person to whom he slipped P1.44 million. Cited in contempt, Arnault was held by the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms until he answered.

Yes, the Senate had the power to punish Arnault for contempt, the Supreme Court decided.   Yes, the Senate had the authority to commit him ‘for a term beyond its period of legislative session’. And no, Jean Arnault may not “rightfully invoke his right against self-incrimination.”

See the context. Vice President Jejomar Binay’s standing, among   2016   potential presidential candidates plummeted from 41 to 31 percent in the latest Pulse Asia survey conducted from September 8 to 15, the survey tracked Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, who came in second with 13 percent. He is  up from seven percent in the previous survey.

“We expected   worse,” given the “smears”, a Binay spokesman admits. Will the Binay free call continue in the surveys ahead? The track is littered with remains of   Senator Manny Villar’s earlier bid.

“The support that a legitimate whistle-blower, like auditors, should get is unclear,” says the Asian Institute of Management study: “Whistle-blowing in the Philippines: Awareness, Attitudes and Structures.” “An explicit policy... is needed.”

Whistle-blowers who tell the truth make corruption a high-risk activity, Dr. Romulo Miral said. The absence of a legal framework makes the personal costs of whistle-blowing very high. It is sometimes a “matter of life and death,” Indeed, Jerusalem crucified its whistle-blower.

In many instances, whistleblowers are key to solving cases. In 2013, Inquirer picked whistleblower Benhur Luy Mary Ariene Baltazar, Merlina Suñas, Gertrudes Luy, Marina Sula and Simonette Briones, as Filipinos of the Year. They blew the the lid off the country’s biggest sleaze scandal.

Today’s Witness Protection Program is a hodge-podge assortment of personnel, Santiago fumed.  Indeed, a separate law is needed to protect COA auditors who put their lives on the line.

An expert in fraud examination, Mendoza was employed by COA, recalls Ateneo’s Dean of Graduate School Antonio la Vina.  In September 2004, then Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo picked Mendoza to lead a group to investigate Armed Forces comptroller then, Gen. Carlos Garcia. 

Mendoza and team proved sleaze in handing of funds from the UN for peace keeping missions. Yet government prosecutors defended a plea bargain, saying:  The case was “deficient.” Mendoza resigned from an Asian Development Bank post to participate, from 2007 to 2009, over 16 hearings where she documented her testimony.   “Most of the time, only her husband was there to give her moral support.”

Garcia was convicted and imprisoned. But the strains on Mendoza and family were severe. Aside from the physical risk, there was unrelenting pressure to crumble. President Benigno Aquino handpicked Mendoza, along with Grace Pulido Tan, for COA.

Senator Jinggoy Estrada repeatedly blocked Mendoza’s confirmation. He reserved “two questions”, then failed to show up for the hearings. Estrada also torpedoed confirmation of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima.  Section 20 of the CA rules allow members to block the confirmation of any nominee during the plenary session. No need to give a reason. 

De Lima and Mendoza did not buckle and were finally confirmed in June 2014, along with Social Welfare’s Dinky Soliman.  Estrada today is detained on unbailable Ombudsman charges of plunder. He was also suspended, by the court, for 90 days from the Senate.

“I risked my life, my family and career simply because, I would like to tell my fellow Filipinos: Not all government employees are thieves.” Mendoza told a television interview. “Nor are all Filipinos are afraid to speak out against corruption.

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