Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Stunning acquittal of ex-Sen. Bong Revilla---a majority decision of Sandiganbayan's five-member special division, from which the nation may not recover in a long while. As the saying goes, something's rotten and it's not in Denmark.

Former Senator Bong Revilla accepting handshakes from fans after his acquittal by Sandigan Special Division

Last Dec. 7 was a particularly bloody Friday for the Filipino people, as the majority decision  of the special division of the Sandiganbayan condemned PDAF queen Janet Lim Napoles and lawyer Richard Cambe, former Sen. Bong Revilla's staffer, for plunder, with the punishment of reclusion perpetua---virtual imprisonment for life---for having absconded with Revilla's PDAF funds during his incumbency.

Under Article 100 of the Revised Penal Code, the two convicted people are "solidarily and jointly liable to return to the National Treasury the amount of P124,500,000.00," but the damning part is that this 5-member special division of the anti-graft court EXONERATED the former senator himself ---Cambe's boss---from the same plunder charge.

Concluded this special Sandiganbayan division in a 186-page decision with a 3-2 vote for Revilla's acquittal:  "For failure of the prosecution to establish beyond reasonable doubt that accused Ramon "Bong" Revilla, Jr., received directly or indirectly the rebates, commission and kickbacks from his PDAF, the court cannot hold him liable for the crime of plunder. Accordingly, he is acquitted."


The special Sandigan division's decision to convict Cambe and Napoles while absolving former Sen. Revilla has rocked the nation in utter disbelief.

If a poll were taken on that very day, it would have clearly shown that no one would ever believe that Revilla's legal staffer Cambe and business-woman Janet Napoles could just siphon off all those many millions in pork barrel funds of Revilla, to form part of the P10 billion pork barrrel scam of Napoles to which various legislators' Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) were funneled---without the boss' participation in that scam.

This is because this PDAF scam would readily beg the question about Cambe: WHO HE?  Why would Napoles deal with Cambe when he was just a key staffer in Revilla's office. Could he really have been so free to finagle with that gargatuan PDAF amount of his boss---without Revilla's order?


This case of the Sandiganbayan vs. Revilla is most interesting on a number of counts. One, originally the three members of the graft court's First Division---chaired by Justice Efren de la Cruz with Justices Geraldine Faith Econg and Edgardo Caldona as members---took a vote on the case of the  Cambe/Napoles.  Chair De la Cruz voted to convict Revilla of plunder, whereas Econg and Caldona voted to acquit him even as they also voted to convict Cambe and Napoles of plunder.

The ruling of the Sandiganbayan, however, is that there must be a clear UNANIMOUS decision in a given division, but in the 2 vs. 1 ruling of the First Division on Revilla's conviction, this was absent.  Hence, the division was reconstituted to include two more members recruited from another Sandiganbayan division: namely, Associate Justices Dolores Gomez Estoesta and Georgina Hidalgo.


What was called for in the expanded Special Division of 5 members is a simple majority vote, and in its final 3-2 vote three justices voted to EXONERATE REVILLA BUT  CONVICT his key staffer Cambe and PDAF queen Janet Napoles.  The three justices who exonerated Revilla and doomed Cambe and Napoles were Justices Econg who penned the ponencia, Caldona and Hidalgo. Two other division members voted to convict Revilla---namely, presiding Justice De la Cruz and Justice Estoeste.

This is why former Sen. Bong Revilla is for the moment a free man---ending four years of prison confinement in Camp Crame. I don't see this, though, as a closed case, as the Supreme Court will undoubtedly weigh in on such a grievous matter.


All the members of the new First Division had strong arguments, but by far the strongest belonged to Justice Estoeste (a woman, and women generally and arguably have stronger convictions especially about issues that affect the nation's welfare). Joining Justice de la Cruz in accusing Revilla of the crime, Justice Estoeste stressed, "The avalanche of an acquittal will soon fall, but let it not resound without the few words that hope to pierce then what is about to come."

Continued Estoeste:  "\This consequential ruin runs deep, and may eventually free a man once accused of having conspired in raiding the public treasury of hundreds of millions. His imminent freedom has dismally thrown away all evidence that once forbade of repelling the scathing tale that never before of such magnitude has been told."

There is a feeling among some lawyers and judges that the recantation of the former staffers of Janet Napoles of their testimonies against their former boss, namely Benhur Luy, Marina Sula, Merlina Suñas and Mary Anne Baltazar,  has considerably weakened the case for the prosecution. But to Justice Estoeste, this is not so, for as she put it, "The whistle-blowers' revelation of the PDAF scandal is the Pandora's box that takes it all."


New First Division chair De la Cruz argued that fundamental to a crucial case is that the accused is entitled to an acquittal unless his guilt is shown beyond reasonable doubt. He stressed, however, that indicating proof beyond reasonable doubt does not mean such degree of proof as, excluding possibility of error, produces absolute certainty.  What's only required, De la Cruz argued, is moral certainty---or "that degree of proof which produces conviction in an unprejudiced mind."

Justice De la Cruz argued that parenthetically, direct evidence is not a condition sine qua non, to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. For in the absence of direct evidence, the prosecution may resort to adducing circumstantial evidence to discharge its burden.


In the case of the alleged absconding by Revilla's lawyer, Richard Cambe, of many millions of  his boss' PDAF---depositing it with Janet Napoles, c/o Benhur Luy, in return for generous interest on Cambe's "deposits"---what should have been fatal to the boss himself is the evidence on hand. These are the countless deposits in large amounts made ALMOST DAILY,  as testified by bank tellers, which obviously came from kickbacks from Janet Napoles, with matching dates to boot.

 As the Sandiganbayan justices query:  how could this have been done by lawyer Cambe with such regularity---without the knowledge and approval of the big boss himself?


Another evidence presented against Revilla, as noted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, was the Anti-Money Laundering Council's report starting from April 06, 2006 up to April 28, 2010, showing that members of his family made numerous deposits amounting to P87.63 million within 30 days of dates, as mentioned in Luy's ledgers. The Sandiganbayan special court, however, gave little weight to these pieces of evidence, for according to it, the fact of the deposits coming from Janet Napoles was not clearly established

This is a grand modus operandi that would be hard to match in future years, but the victim here is not just the justice system that was screwed up. IT'S THE FILIPINO PEOPLE.

 Something really stinks and it's not in Denmark.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Senate plans investigation into avalanche of undocumented Chinese workers who enter as “tourists.” Historic EDSA has become a grand canyon of huge unregulated commercial ads. Why, even Camp Aguinaldo’s perimeter fence along EDSA displays glamour ads! As Rappler put it, there's total anarchy in advertising! Contrast Metro Manila with the way Paris has preserved the city center that its artists have enshrined for generations.

Over the past two years I have been hearing from various people about how so many Chinese from the mainland have been renting middle-priced condominiums in various parts of Metro Manila, notably in Pasig and Makati. Like many others I have wondered what these Chinese people are doing here. Are they all tourists? If so, why the sudden surge and long-term lease of condos?

Then it began to be talked about that Chinese nationals are also found in other cities in this country, notably in industrial and investment zones.  


Now we hear from immigration sources that Chinese nationals are coming into the country in the tens of thousands and spreading out into the various eco-zones throughout our archipelago.  Rough estimate of Immigration is that there are at least two million such nationals here. 

Recent news from the Senate disclosed that many Chinese nationals have come in to work in online gambling in various parts of our country---many undocumented and unlicensed.  

Sen. Joel Villanueva, who has taken a strong stand against the illegal entry of Chinese, estimates that there could be some 119,000 such nationals who work in firms run by Pogos (Philippine offshore gaming operators).  It’s also easy to see collusion between unscrupulous immigration personnel and foreign entities.


The wonder of it all is that while Chinese nationals appear to be setting up businesses in the various eco-zones here, they are staffing those businesses with their nationals---instead of just providing for the top level of officialdom and hiring Filipino citizens for the lower echelons---as other foreign investors do. This means depriving jobs for Filipinos in the various eco-zones, as our investment laws clearly provide.

I wrote about this phenomenon months ago and I'm glad that Senators Joel Villanueva and Grace Poe are leading the urgent call for investigation by the proper Senate committee.  This issue was raised during the recent visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, which was most successful except for this jarring avalanche of undocumented Chinese nationals here.


This has to be corrected early enough, before more economic opportunities that ought to be reserved for Filipino workers disappear and industries with nefarious consequences, such as on-line gambling among Filipinos, become totally unchecked.   

In a related issue, I subscribe to the OBJECTION of a good number of our countrymen to entrust the setting up and operation of the third Telco system to Chinese entrepreneurs.  It should be plainly obvious to our finance and industry officials that doing so could be a big security problem. To say the least, it would be plainly stupid, given precedents  in the immigration and labor sectors.


Like the millions who traverse EDSA daily, I suffer the horrendous traffic along in this major route, especially as Christmas shopping goes into a frenzy. Each time I am stuck in EDSA I do what millions do: gaze lazily at all the huge commercial advertisements on this major highway---which are getting more monstrous and claustrophobia-inducing by the day.

I admit that those huge ad billboards have a way of reducing the boredom of horrendous traffic, but I’m also just so aghast at the way these have bloomed when nobody seemed to be minding---bigger than life, each trying to outdo the other in monstrosity.  Some nearly cover entire building facades. It’s like the whole metropolis has gone mad and we’re inducing a kind of mass claustrophobia---hemmed in what may be termed the Grand Canyon of Advertisements.  


What got me recently upset, however, was the sight of several commercial billboards perched right inside the front perimeter fence of Camp Aguinaldo and Camp Crame, facing EDSA---advertising BEAUTY PRODUCTS---NOT SOLDIERS’ ACTIVITIES BUT PURELY COMMERCIAL ADS. 

Those billboards on the EDSA side of the military and police camps are the pits and if no one objects, the desecration would continue. I think of all the soldiers who have had to defend Camp Aguinaldo against various coup attempts. At the height of the campaign to recover Marawi, no one thought of putting up billboards extolling our fallen soldier-heroes. Now, with about three billboards advertising beauty products and probably more coming up, there’s no more dignity even along the military perimeter facing EDSA. 


Decades back I was part of a group that tried to fight the creeping monstrosity of ads. Led by professionals such as Teresa V. Daza of outdoor advertising,  our group lobbied with Congress to pass a law allocating the places to display those ads and restrict them to a certain acceptable size and distance---for the sake of common sense. It was admirable that that in those days, the group involved in outdoor advertising was itself lobbying for restrictions in ad size and placements.

But nothing much became of it and in no time gigantic billboards have covered the entire highway and are now invading other parts of Metro Manila. It's very much a part of the lawlessness and lack of discipline that pervades the metropolis and society.


Many countries have working regulations about outdoor advertising. China itself limits outdoor ads to a certain size, so that its highways are pleasant to travel by. One reason why Paris--the City of Light--has remained so beautiful is that its city center has remained intact through the decades and centuries---so that it still looks the same as the city-scapes painted by its famous artists a century ago. For one thing, Paris has no skyscrapers downtown and when the Tour Montparnasse threatened to spoil the view downtown, it raised such a howl that it was forced to be erected in the outskirts.  Now Paris has a lot of skyscrapers but not in the city center which is sacrosanct to the Parisians.


Ours is a society that seems to have no respect for rules and regulations, for sobriety and good sense.  Perhaps it all began with the monstrosity of a skyscraper built in the vicinity of the Rizal Park in the Luneta years back, dwarfing the statue of our national hero.  We registered our vociferous objection and some folks brought the issue to court, but construction still went on. Lamentable.

Nothing much was done about it and in no time huge billboards covered the entire EDSA and is now invading other parts of Metro Manila. It is very much a part of the atmosphere of lawlessness that pervades the metropolis and society.

EDSA has become one grand canyon of advertisements, and this appears to be just the precursor to the invasion of commercialism everywhere. It’s fast becoming a society that has no respect for rules and regulations, for sobriety and good sense. A pity.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Pragmatism is name of the game among nations. An American writer for Washington Post was killed and dismembered in Istanbul amid allegations that Saudi royalty had masterminded it. But no complaint from Trump as he's rejoicing over big cut in oil price from OPEC leader Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman 

Pragmatism is the name of the game among nations, whether it's our country, the United States or any country in Europe, Asia and everywhere else.

Take the case of the recent heinous murder of US citizen Jamal Khashoggi, a resident of  Saudi Arabia and a writer for the Washington Post. Khashoggi had been critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and last Oct. 2, the Post writer's body was found in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey---dismembered in a most heinous way.

The interesting thing is that while Saudi authorities said that 21 people had been taken into custody supposedly in connection with the dastardly crime, news reports cited the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as suggesting that the Saudi Crown Prince "may have known of the killing"---to put it diplomatically.


On the other side of the coin, Saudi Arabia sternly warned the US that criticism of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in connection with Khashoggi's murder is "a red line" not to be crossed---and that calls for the Crown Prince to be held accountable for his slaying "would not be tolerated."

In fact the Saudi Foreign Minister was quoted in BBC news as asserting: "In Saudi Arabia, our leadership is a red line. The custodian of the two holy mosques (King Salman and the Crown Prince) are a red line," and that "They represent every Saudi citizen and every Saudi citizen represents them. And we will not tolerate any discussion of anything that is disparaging toward our monarch or our crown prince."

The foreign minister admitted, however, that the murder of the US journalist was a "rogue operation" by intelligence officers. How these supposed murderers are to be dealt with by the Saudi government remains to be seen.


More interesting was the stance of US President Donald Trump, who earlier in his presidency had hosted the Saudi Crown Prince at the White House. Curiously, then Republican candidate Trump, while in the hustings, had threatened to ban Saudi oil from into the US, so that when the Crown Prince called on President Trump at the White House, it was heralded by media as "improving relations between Washington and Riyadh, particularly on security matters."

After news reports about the Khashoggi murder came out, however, President Trump, who was vacationing in his Florida Mar-a-Lago Club earlier this week, asserted that he was "essentially ignoring the killing of US citizen Kashoggi" because of what he said were  "MORE IMPORTANT US STRATEGIC INTERESTS" (emphasis this writer's).  The world doubtless read it as America's much-needed assurance of a steady supply of oil from Saudi Arabia.

That statement of the US President, however, did sound quite harsh for a society anchored on human dignity and the inalienable right of its citizens to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Just as amazing was that there seemed no public outrage over Trump's statement---unless the fuel situation in that country has become so worrisome that it could afford to be cold-blooded about the heinous slaying of an American citizen.


Just what are those "strategic US interests" that President Trump seeks to protect so assiduously anyway---despite the harm that had befallen an American citizen? He answered his own question: Saudi Arabia, the acknowledged leader of the OPEC, gave America and the world lower oil prices: "a big Tax Cut" ---from $82 it's now $52."   The US President publicly said "Thank you to Saudi Arabia," even as he coaxed that major oil producer to "let's go lower."

Under those circumstances, then, there would seem to be no room for condemnation of one US citizen's gruesome slaying by Saudi Arabia.


It's all pragmatic politics for the moment for the US President who leads what media terms "the largest, most transparent and timely market in the world." It's true that, as noted, the US has "less appetite for foreign oil in general," thanks to the shale boom in states such as Texas and North Dakota that caused US oil production to spike to record high late last year.

Still, however, the world's largest economy continues---and will continue---to need foreign oil imports: last December it imported 690,000 barrels a day of Saudi crude--- though down 32% from the previous year.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, made the strategic decision last May to slash shipment of oil to the US. Its goal: to accelerate impact of OPEC's production cuts---by forcing down US stockpiles which constituted a major force to restrain oil prices at the time. The move to cut shipment was said to have paid off: the price of crude oil rose sharply to more than $60 per barrel!

In all the tug-of-war between big-time oil supplier and equally big-time oil-consumer, a heinous crime in Istanbul involving a US citizen---being attributed to Saudi royalty---mattered little.