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, August 31, 2011

Let Miriam go to the ICC where hopefully she could knock the lights out of an accused Khadafi



News reports say Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago will leave soon for abroad to campaign for her election as one of the 18 jurists of the International Criminal Court (ICC), after the Philippine government has nominated her. The ICC is the permanent tribunal founded by the Rome Statute in 2002 to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression.


It’s interesting that Santiago hasn’t even left yet, but already many commentators seem to be missing her---as though her election to the ICC is already a fait accompli. But who wouldn’t miss Miriam? Who can ever replace that unforgettable accent in the halls of the Senate, the sharp analytical legal mind, the razor-edged tongue and the acerbic wit that no one among her peers---not even Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile--- would challenge for fear of being reduced to the ridiculous? Who can ever make assertions like what she just did---that few senators bother to perform in executive sessions because these are not “telegenic” (actually she should be the last person to complain about senators' propensity for telegenic public sessions, for no one uses the TV cameras in the chamber the way she does).

When Miriam swings into action on the Senate floor, she’s like a wayward bus---no one can be sure where and whom it would hit and all her colleagues scamper out of harm’s way as it careens forth.


I recall when she was nominated by President Arroyo earlier to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the 1945 court that serves as the primary judicial organ of the UN---whose main functions are to settle legal disputes among member states and provide advisory opinions on legal questions from international organs and agencies and the UN General Assembly. I was among those who poised objections in the media to that nomination, arguing that with that wayward bus-like stance she displays in the Senate, Miriam could just be a nuisance in the staid ICJ in The Hague, where silver-haired ex-Chief Justices from various countries sit as jurists. Perhaps the appointing UN powers harkened to our collective objections and she failed to get that ICJ appointment.


But now, with the prospect that deposed  Moammar Khadafi could be added to the string of African despots to be tried by the ICC, I think President Aquino did the right thing in nominating Miriam. Let's hope the wayward bus hits Khadafi right smack on target.


I was actually surprised to read last weekend the still-unclassified July 2, 2009 memo to the US State Department, as leaked by the notorious “WikiLeaks” (a.k.a. the “online whistle-blower”) of Julius Assange, containing former US Ambassador to Manila Kristie Kenny’s rather unflattering opinion of former President Cory Aquino. Kenny was quoted opining in that memo that the late Philippine icon of democracy was “only a partial icon of morality” and that Cory’s credibility as a moral crusader was “tarnished when she was seen with disgraced former President Estrada in protest movements against President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo---even after she had supported then Vice President Arroyo’s successful second People Power revolt in 2001 that ousted Estrada.”

President Cory Aquino
The Wikileaks-released State Department memo from Kenny noted Cory Aquino’s falling-out with Arroyo that continued after the latter moved to distribute Hacienda Luisita to its workers. Kenny also stressed that Cory leaves behind “an incomplete transition to democratic governance” and that her moral leadership “never fully compensated for her weak leadership style.” She also cited the numerous coup attempts and the flawed Constitution Cory had tasked to be drawn up reportedly in "extreme haste."


Kenny’s assertions surprised me because in the weeks after President Cory’s death last August, 2009, I would see Kenny continually sporting a yellow ribbon on her lapel. In fact, once, at a social function, feigning shock I teased her on whether the yellow ribbon was her political statement--- support for then still-undeclared but already very much in the running presidential candidate Noynoy Aquino. I queried  whether the US Ambassador is allowed to endorse a presidential candidate in the host country. Kenny riposted that it was not in support of Noynoy but out of sentiment for Cory Aquino that she was openly displaying the yellow ribbon. 

Now comes all the unflattering opinions on Cory that Kenny had cabled to the US State Department. I can only surmise  that even as she was fond of the late icon of democracy, Kenny was also confronting the truth of what she had come to fully grasp at that time. As renowned author Theodore White put it, "it's time to peel away the old legends." Kenny obviously realized that it was one thing for Cory to strive to advocate leadership, but  quite another to actually exercise it efficiently.

In that sense Cory reflected the Filipino people's predicament in post-Edsa: while we realized the need for real substantive reforms after we ousted the dictator through People Power, it was quite another thing for us to make our democracy really work; that it proved far easier to oust the dictator than to make institutions of government function efficiently. 


Reports say that in the recent week President Noynoy treated House legislators from various political groups to fine dining in Malacanang and the assumption is that these affairs were goal-targeted. Obviously P-Noy is no different from other presidents before him in using the vast persuasive powers of office to sway Congress members  to vote for his legislative agenda.

There are two prominent items in this agenda. One is the conditional cash transfer (CCT) program, which proposes to raise by a whopping 89 PERCENT next year’s allocation for the CCT---from the current P23 billion to P39 billion. Many legislators from various parties, including some of P-Noy’s allies, are objecting to this eye-popping amount, given the lack of accompanying infrastructure such as needed schools and health centers, the faulty listing of beneficiaries and the near-impossibility of monitoring how much of the allocation actually goes to the poorest of the poor families and how much to the pockets of implementers down the line. P-Noy's other pet program is the RH bill.


Veteran House insiders concede, however, that while there are outspoken critics of both pending items, the voting could change once the President summons them to the Palace--- with projects and perhaps fat envelops on hand. Which is deplorable, for in both the CCT and the RH issues, there are far better alternatives. 
Instead of huge dole-outs for the poorest folk which are being manipulated by unscrupulous supervisors of CCT, for instance, it’s infinitely better to use the many billions to fortify the skills training of Tesda for out-of-school youths who can fill the requirements of industrialization at  lower levels. Tesda chapters should be set up in various regions. But sadly, in the P1.8 trillion budget for 2012, huge cuts were even made in Tesda's budget. In fact education spending is at its lowest under P-Noy's administration---while CCT wants nearly P50 billion for 2012!

There is also a crying need for “real social services,” including barangay health centers adequately equipped with medicines and health personnel. When illness strikes the very poor, kawawa sila talaga; they don’t know where to go as many centers only give out paracetamol. 



A few weeks back, a priest named Fr. Cecilio L. Magsino wrote to a newspaper about how a small group of university students visited patients at the old National Orthopedic Hospital in Banawe, Q.C. (now the Philippine Orthopedic Center); they were appalled at the “inhuman” conditions they saw there. There was one immobile patient whose diaper could be changed only once a week. A nurse spoke about continually recycling gloves and patients’ tubes. The ward was stiflingly hot with poor ventilation and stench nauseating; toilets were not flushing and floors were unclean.

The Philippine Orthopedic Center is not an isolated case. With the deluge of dengue patients in many government hospitals around the country---and the threat of bird flu once again---health financial resources are frightfully strained. Given this reality, the P39 billion for largely unmonitored CCT is just terrible.


As for the RH bill, the problem is not over-population of the country, for the birth rate has been steadily going down---it now hovers at 2 percent or even 1.9 percent. The real problem is that big cities like Metro Manila are bursting at the seams because there’s little opportunity for gainful work in the provinces. Much of our countryside is deserted because nothing moves there---no infrastructure program and no jobs. Let's not throw all that good money into abortion-inducing contraceptives for the poor. Let's give them jobs in the countryside.

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Friday, August 26, 2011

CCT (a.k.a. 4-Ps) heightens the negative aspects of Filipino culture and could even actually increase population rate, says Prof. Leonor Briones

Curious about the conditional cash transfer (CCT) run by the DSWD, I asked my longtime manicurist, Belen Aguila, how it works in her neighborhood in Pasig. She reported an eyeful.

Belen herself doesn’t qualify because she earns from her manicuring and her eldest child, a tourism graduate, is employed by a Japanese firm. But her poorer neighbors who are beneficiaries of the CCT, also known as the “Pantawid ng Pamilyang Pilipino Program” (or simply Four-Ps or “PorPs” as the humbler folk would say it) are supposed to get P500 per mother (or father, if the mother is away or gone) and P300 for each child-student, for a maximum of P1,400; but in reality, says Belen, it’s always several hundred pesos less and worse, the Four-Ps is always late, at times by as much as three months (are DSWD personnel playing the huge amounts in the money market?).


Belen also says news reports are correct about beneficiaries running to the loan sharks to pawn their Four-P’s when these are delayed; the loan sharks bite off 10 to 20 percent of the CCT received---so that with the cut also from unscrupulous DSWD personnel, it’s kaltas left and right; but the poor folks can’t complain as they are afraid of being stricken off the list.  Media have also reported that sale of liquor has gone up in poorer neighborhoods and this is quite likely, since about 30 percent of CCT beneficiaries are husbands, or they may simply help themselves to funds received by their wives.


Sec. Soliman
The CCT or Four-P’s run by the DSWD under Secretary Dinky Soliman is encountering heavy opposition in Congress right now, as legislators from various political persuasions are quite skeptical about real benefits to be derived.
 The P10 billion CCT was begun by the Arroyo administration in the last two years of that era, targeting to benefit a million poorest of the poor families. Listing  of these families was undertaken by trained DSWD personnel under Secretary Esperanza Cabral, but informed sources told this blogger that after the P5 billion mark was reached, the GMA administration began to encounter monitoring difficulties on the ground---so that the other P5 billion was not much utilized in the Treasury. 

Along came the P-Noy administration which not only rushed the listing of more and more beneficiaries in the next weeks and months, it also caused the CCT to balloon to P23 billion in 2011, supposedly to benefit some 2.3 million families. Recall that in the new 15th Congress, Pampanga Rep. Gloria Arroyo stood up to question the veracity of the DSWD's super-speed listing method, and warned of wastage in the distribution of the ballooning CCT funds. She particularly  questioned the huge operating costs of DSWD for the CCT---something she knew only too well, having been DSWD Secretary before.

GMA's warnings went unheeded, for in the budget for 2012, the DSWD has become even more emboldened and is now asking for P39.8 billion---some reports even quote as much as P47 billion---to target 3.5 million families. Soliman testified in Congress that the CCT's ambitious goal is to cover about 5.2 million at a staggering cost of about P306 billion, up to 2015 when it hopes to exit the CCT.

Soliman pointed out that the plan is  finance the CCT with government funds as well as external borrowings, but under intense grilling by a bipartisan group in the House, she admitted that whoever succeeds P-Noy would inherit staggering debts for the CCT, a large of them foreign. House members who recently went to Mexico to study its CCT program affirm this reality, as they note that Mexico's big problem now is how to get out of gargantuan debts of its CCT.  


Critics have thrown in many arguments against the CCT's goal of reducing poverty among the poorest of the poor. I, for one, fear there's so much room for manipulation of funds by the politicians (in many places DSWD people rely on the lists drawn up by barangay officials). There is also little way of verifying how much of these funds is actually doled out and how much is stolen by program handlers, or whether these are properly used to benefit mothers and children of school age.

Rep. Garin
Moreover, this administration seems to be too in a hurry to “reduce” the poverty but as the adage goes, haste could really make waste. For instance, party-list Rep. Sharon Garin recently urged her House colleagues not to allow the expansion of the CCT program next year because the government is NOT PREPARED for it. 

She noted that its success is dependent on keeping children in school, but quoting DepEd statistics, Garin also cited the NATIONWIDE shortage of 152,569 classrooms, school seats in primary and high schools of 13.22 million, 95.55 million textbooks, 151,084 toilets---and 103,599 teachers to ease the 1:45 teacher-student ratio. Media have shown pupils holding school under the trees in sun and rain in the poorer provinces. 



The good question is, why is this administration rushing to double and treble the CCT funds when corresponding resources and infrastructure are not available? Rep. Garin  cited actual DepED needs for funds to accomodate the planned CCT expansion: P17 billion to hire extra teachers; P12.82 billion for extra school seats; P10 billion for new toilets; P5.26 billion for extra textbooks and  P104 billion to build more classrooms. 

  Already, other executive departments and agencies are complaining of crippling belt-tightening because of fund diversion to the CCT. For instance, Tesda and the various state universities have been demonstrating against huge cuts in their budgets; the same has also affected the DPWH infrastructure program, so that nothing much moves in the countryside today. 

Legislators from other political parties assert that the dole-out program has to exit way before the 2016 presidential elections so as not to allow the LPs to use it for campaigning.
But to my mind that seems the central aim of the LP---control.


Liling Briones
I was fortunate recently to attend a briefing on the 2012 national budget for the minority legislators, given by UP professor of political economy, taxation and fiscal policies Leonor “Liling” Briones. She touched, among other items, on the CCT that helped swell the DSWD’s proposed budget by 44.1 percent in 2012.

PM Lula Da Silva

Briones said she does not believe that the massive dole-out program being conducted by the Aquino administration is the most sensible strategy against poverty. She notes that politicians like to point to the success of the CCT program of Brazil, which helped get  socialist PM Lula da Silva elected;  but she also stressed that Brazil's program was accompanied by a massive job-creation campaign, which we don’t have here. Stressing that THERE'S NO SUBSTITUTE FOR JOBS, Briones emphasized the need for an exit program for CCT---"Kalian ba tayo makakatawid---ang tuwid na tawid?”


Citing the lack of school infrastructure needed to support the program, Briones noted that the CCT has two phases: one involving children who have to attend school, and the other involving mothers of child-bearing age who have to go to maternity clinics for check-up. Admitting that she’s pro-RH bill, she noted with a laugh that ironically, while the administration is committed to limiting population growth through the RH bill, it may actually be encouraging a bigger population since mothers may want to be “forever pregnant” in order to stay in the CCT! 

Briones also deplored that the CCT heightens the more negative aspects of our culture, such as the inevitable inggitan and sumbungan between the recipients and those kept out of the list. Indeed it's easy to see the simmering of  more discontent in our poorer areas with CCT. Media have also reported the desire of some poor folk to abandon seeking a living and just await CCT funds. Briones agrees, noting that CCT encourages a dole-out mentality instead of self-reliance and industriousness. 

(Next: Briones’ apprehensions about serious problems in the health sector that are being affected by the CCT).

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Chief of Comelec Law Department now ‘floating’--- because he stepped on some big toes in poll body?

Atty. Ferdinand Rafanan

The new case I write about in this blog belongs to the “What’s happening to the ‘Matuwid na Daan’ department, just like the case of DBP Chief Legal Counsel Benilda Tejada. This time it involves the Chief of the Comelec’s Law department, Atty. Ferdinand Rafanan who was removed from his post and ostensibly shifted to another assignment, the Comelec-DOJ committee that will investigate the 2004 and 2007 elections. In both these cases there could be violation of the Civil Service Law that protects the tenure of civil service officials, because there seemed to be no due process nor a just cause for removal.


Benjamin Pinpin
If you readers will recall, Atty. Benilda Tejada was removed as Chief Legal Counsel of DBP, a post she has held for years, after she began making open pronouncements defending young lawyer Benjamin Pinpin, who committed suicide because he could not take pressures from the current board of DBP to make him sign an affidavit that would purport to show that the loans of businessman Roberto Ongpin were behest. In letters to his family before he took his own life Pinpin showed the agony he was going through.

Tejada, who has the reputation of being a “tough Ilongga,” and the bank rank and file personnel appeared to be in full sympathy with their fallen colleague. She has denounced the pressures being applied on various personnel in the form of charges before the Ombudsman, in line with the new board’s efforts to pin down the old board on the Ongpin loans.


Atty. Ongkiko - Acorda
Atty. Tejada was removed from her position and the task of “spokesperson” and even of “DBP Counsel” for the  current board was given to a private lawyer, Zenaida Ongkiko-Acorda, who began holding press conferences while ostensibly representing the bank  (judging from her use of the DBP logo in statements) but from her private office. Last Thursday, Aug. 18, an ad appeared in the Inquirer signed by “Officers of the Development Bank of the Philippines” denouncing Atty. Acorda’s usurpation of those tasks. The signatories stressed the clear prohibition on the bank as a government institution, “to hire a private law practitioner WITHOUT SECURING THE APPROVAL OF THE OFFICE OF THE GOVERNMENT CORPORATE COUNSEL AND THE CLEARANCE/CONFIRMATION OF THE COMMISSION ON AUDIT” on the “CORRESPONDING FEES” (being paid to Acorda).



Sol. Gen Joel Cadiz


The case of Comelec Law Dept. Chief Ferdinand Rafanan is just as intriguing.

Yesterday a small item appeared in Philippine Star announcing that the “Lawyer in folder scam is new Comelec legal chief.” The report said that Rafanan has been replaced in the Law Department by Allen Francis Abaya, a member of the Comelec bids and awards committee (BAC) and one of six Comelec officers who were suspended for approving the highly over-priced (P690 million) contract involving “ballot secrecy folders” used in last year’s national and local elections. Since I know Atty. Rafanan, who’s also a UP graduate like myself and I’ve had him as guest in our dzRH show a couple of times in recent years, I made a quiet investigation in the Comelec.

But before this I should emphasize that Rafanan enjoys a pretty solid reputation not only in the Comelec but in the bureaucracy, and the fact that he was “replaced” by Abaya who was implicated in the big election controversy last year of the ballot secrecy folders doubtless raised eyebrows all around.


Melchor Magdamo
The Star news item said Rafanan was being “re-assigned to the Comelec-DOJ Preliminary Investigation committee” that will look into alleged frauds in the 2004 and 2007 elections, but that he was also quoted as stressing that he does not need to be removed from the law department while working on the new assignment.  It also quoted lawyer Melchor Magdamo, who was the whistleblower in the ballot secrecy folders deal, as saying that the Comelec decision to appoint Abaya as law chief is “a bad sign”---meaning, that Comelec’s move could be seen as a reward for those involved in that folder scam.

So what’s cooking at Comelec? Insiders point out that for one thing, Rafanan is correct in arguing that his assignment to the DOJ-Comelec panel is just an “additional function”---just like when he was in Law and at the same time in the bids and awards committee of Comelec; thus, he opined that he doesn’t have to be removed from the Law department. So why was he “reshuffled” by the Commission?


From what I hear from insiders, Rafanan might have stepped on some big toes at the poll body with his department’s investigation into a complaint about electoral fraud anomalies in ARMM in the last elections---which, ironically, the commissioners of the old Melo Commission had ordered him to undertake in the first place.  It seems that the old Commission did not like the results that he came up with, as the frauds involved as high as the level of director and a commissioner.

Chairman Sixto Brillantes
 Rafanan was said to have recommended criminal and administrative charges against those involved, but instead of carrying out his recommendation, the higher ups simply dismissed the complaint and disregarded the results of his investigation. What made it tough for the Law Chief is that new Comelec Chief Sixto Brilliantes, a former prominent election lawyer, appears to agree fully with the decision of the old Commission. 

I understand that Rafanan has filed a motion for reconsideration with the Comelec en banc on its decision regarding his investigation. But meantime, he remains “floating” and from his statement quoted in the Manila Times yesterday, he feels deprived of the tools that could make him more effective in his new designation to the DOJ-Comelec investigating panel. As he put it, “But I have been deprived of my supervisory powers over my staff, documents, election offense cases, legal opinion queries and other functions.”


But the twisting of the truth will always result in astonishing---if unexpected---turns.  Yesterday, the result of the separate investigation by the Commission into the ballot secrecy folder scam of May 2010 came out and Executive Director Jose Tolentino, who led the team that had handled that project, was absolved, after an earlier six months suspension with his team; but one of his people, Allen Francis Abaya---the same person who the news reports said was to replace Rafanan, was suspended all over again.

But despite this fact, insiders note that the top officials of the Comelec are still adamant against returning Rafanan to his Law post. Is it perhaps because he could uncover other anomalies in the poll body?  As they say, “Bawal ba ang gumawa ng tama sa Comelec?”

Rene Sarmiento
Comelec Chief Brillantes attempted to explain that the “re-assignment” of Rafanan is only good for three months, and that if the en banc should will it, he could return to Law.  He also hinted that it was made to calm the rift between Rafanan and his deputy, Josslyn De Mesa who, said the poll Chief, Rafanan “couldn’t stand.” Brillantes also said that contrary to impressions being given by Rafanan, it will be Commissioner Rene Sarmiento who will be temporarily running the Law department, not Abaya.


Clearly, however, there will be the perception of the arbitrary and whimsical removal of Ferdinand Rafanan as Law Chief, which violates the security of tenure  guaranteed by  the Civil Service Law (he holds the rank of Director IV in that post). As in the case of Benilda Tejada of the DBP, Rafanan’s dismissal from his post could be raised to the Supreme Court, if only to test if the Civil Service Law’s guarantee of security of tenure still holds in the land of the “matuwid na daan.” Seems to me that this road keeps getting more and more baluktot by the day.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

P-Noy’s second appointment to the SC a clear case of KKK

Today is the 28th anniversary of the death on the tarmac of Ninoy Aquino. As a reporter of Mr. and Ms. Magazine at that time who covered the weeks, months and years from that fateful event that’s forever be etched in our nation’s history, I am proud to have been a part of the reportage then---as the political opposition to Marcos galvanized, fired up by the indomitable courage of Ninoy. But the remembrance of that day of 28 years ago seems like a sad event for many of us as the nation faces a number of crises, owing to the resurgence of the much-derided cronyism akin to that of the Marcos era all over again.


For instance, Star columnist Dick Pascual pointed out today that he couldn’t see “any awe-inspiring qualifications” in President Noynoy’s most recent appointment to the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals Justice Bienvenido Reyes. As Dick noted, there seems to be nothing outstanding about the nominee, who is said to be at the bottom of the Judicial and Bar Council’s list of candidates for the two vacancies in the SC, except that he is a close friend of the President. 

Reyes had served as VP for legal and corporate affairs of the R.C. Silverio Group of Companies. In September 2008, according to a recent news write-up,  Reyes was reprimanded twice by the SC---the very court to which he is now being appointed---in connection with a case involving the Meralco and GSIS and the other a civil case. He was said to have been found "guilty of simple misconduct with mitigating circumstance,” but the SC issued a stern warning to him and other magistrates similarly cited for improprieties in that case, that a repetition of the same or similar acts will warrant a more severe penalty.” 


Dick Pascual ended his comment on Reyes with the query: “That’s his qualification?” But there’s another point he overlooked, which is just as serious. According to reports revived by the Manila Standard Today, Reyes is a genuine KKK ("kaibigan, Kaklase, Kabarilan"), having also served from 1987-1990 as vice-president and finance manager of the Best Security Agency (BSA), Inc. that had belonged to the family of Noynoy Aquino, in the time of President Cory Aquino. In fact, the BSA was established by Noynoy (its acronym corresponding to his own initials) and his uncle-in-law, Antolin Oreta, reportedly as a business as well as to provide employment to the people who had provided security and worked during the campaign and candidacy of Cory Aquino. At one time BSA maintained over 1,000 security guards.

Despite his being a co-founder of BSA, however, said reports, Noynoy, then 27 years old, served only as one of the directors, perhaps in view of the fact that his mother was President of the Republic at that time. During the 2010 presidential campaign one of the issues raised against candidate Noynoy was that he listed as his business address in the incorporation papers of BSA the official Arlegui address of his President-mother. When queried about it by media, he was quoted as saying, “What’s wrong with it? I lived there.”


But the issue was also raised in various columns as well as in the Standard front-page during the 2010 campaign. They alleged that BSA in the Cory years succeeded in bagging security contracts from both government facilities and assets owned by Marcos associates that were sequestered by PCGG at that time, as well as with private companies such as those owned by Lucio Tan, another close Marcos associate (Standard columnist Emil Jurado now estimates that BSA got contracts with around 30 sequestered firms). After some years, said the reports, BSA was hounded by disputes among the officers over alleged non-payment of dividends and Noynoy left it in 1993, after his mother stepped down.

The question raised during the 2010 campaign by various commentators was the undeniable conflict of BSA with RA 3019, the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, considering that Noynoy was the son of the President and his company was doing business with government firms and those sequestered by the PCGG---the very agency set up by Cory Aquino's Executive Order No. 1  to run after firms owned by Marcos and his cronies. 

A provision of that Act provides that: “It is unlawful for any person having family or close personal relation with any public official to capitalize or exploit or take advantage of such family or close personal relation by directly or indirectly requesting or receiving any present, gift or material or pecuniary advantage from any other person having some business, transaction, application, request or contract with the government, in which such public official has to intervene.”


Given this provision of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act (which was passed on Aug. 17, 1960 during the tenure of President Carlos P. Garcia and amended during the tenure of Ferdinand Marcos by Batas Pambansa No. 195 on March 16, 1982), the question to ask in connection with the recent appointment of Justice Bienvenido Reyes to the SC by President Noynoy is, did Reyes advise Noynoy while they both served in the BSA in the Cory years about the ethics and the violations their company was committing against the Anti Graft and Corrupt Practices Act?  If Reyes failed to properly advise Noynoy on BSA transactions, was he not derelict in his duty as officer of the court? What right, then, does he have now to occupy a seat in the highest court of the land?


In the May 2010 presidential campaign, this issue of Noynoy’s involvement in the BSA and its  violation of the anti-graft law were raised by a couple of media members; but in the avalanche of tribute to the two heroic Aquinos, Ninoy and Cory, from the Inquirer, ABS-CBN and other media promoting candidate Noynoy, the failings and inadequacies of the son were not played up and the public blissfully overlooked them. He handily won the elections, although I believe that given the fraud-tainted 2010 automated elections, his margin of victory was nowhere in the magnitude  his publicists have asserted since.

So Noynoy's role in the BSA that was bagging contracts from sequestered and government firms was glossed over in the campaign.  But now that he is President of all the people, it’s extremely sad--- and shocking--- that he would now choose to appoint to the High Court someone so closely linked with him in that firm whose activities were obviously violative of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act. This is not to mention the two reprimands from the SC that Reyes received in 2008. 


But perhaps blame for this controversy in SC appointments ought to be laid first on the Cory Aquino administration, which appointed Reyes as judge in the Malabon Regional Trial Court in 1990, after he left BSA (doubtless a handiwork of the Kamag-Anak, Inc.), and subsequently on the Estrada administration for promoting him on Aug. 8, 2000 as Justice of the Court of Appeals. With the record of BSA and two reprimands from the SC itself, how could such a candidate be now appointed to this highest court and interact with dignity and a sense of equality with his peers there? 

Definitely the JBC, a constitutional body with no less than the Chief Justice as its ex officio chair, ought to share in this responsibility of a botched job as far as the appointment of Justice Bienvenido Reyes to the SC is concerned. For its mandated task is to thoroughly scrutinize the background of candidates to the judiciary that it nominates to the President and present only worthy nominations. That Justice Reyes got appointed to the Malabon RTC in President Cory's time was not surprising, but for his promotion to the CA in 2000, was he even questioned about BSA and the SC reprimands when he was interviewed by the JBC? 

 Indeed, in many cases the JBC  has abdicated its mandated watchdog role in the judiciary.


In the US one cannot imagine this sort of thing happening. I had followed the more recent appointments by the US President to the US Supreme Court, such as the historic first Latina appointment in Justice Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 and other former US Solicitor-General Elena Kagan last year.  I noted how American jurists pass through the proverbial eye of the needle in the US Congress, where all their decisions and pronouncements since the beginning of their judicial careers are studiously combed and they are mercilessly grilled by the Commission on Appointments in the US Congress.

By contrast, the justices in our Supreme Court, unlike those in the American Judiciary, are not subject to confirmation by the Philippine Congress, as the thinking of our constitutional delegates through various charter enactments has been that the justices should be insulated from politics. There is sound logic behind this, given how our politicians afflict everything with their politics. 


It’s appointments like that of Justice Reyes, however, that encourage many people to advocate amendments to the Constitution, so that judges and justices of the Court of Appeals and the SC would be subject to Congressional confirmation, despite the danger of political interference. Congressional scrutiny would open all the records of the judicial appointees and  details such as Reyes' role in the BSA and the Meralco/GSIS, for instance, would see the light of day. 

To my mind, the JBC has not been doing its job well and appears to be very susceptible to various pressures from outside and the palakasan system. Which is why people feel the JBC should be abolished and judicial nominations should just be subject to confirmation by the Commission on Appointments, like the heads of line departments in the executive branch.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mideo Cruz’s exhibit at Ateneo was quite different from his CCP works

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The hearing conducted by the Senate committee on education, arts and culture, chaired by Sen. Edgardo Angara brought out a number of interesting highlights. One was the obvious domination by Emily Abrera, the chair of the board of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which is led by its president, Raul Sunico, an outstanding pianist who also heads the Conservatory of Music of UST. A big woman with flying hair and given to flailing gestures when she talks, Abrera gave the impression at the hearing that in her judgment she does not maintain a healthy balance between the welfare of the public that the CCP serves, being a state facility, and concerns of artists---when that balance is imperative in her position. In view of this failure Abrera should resign as CCP head, but she is kapit-tuko.


At the hearing it was noted that from the time the board’s attention was called on July 18 by Karen Ocampo Flores, the officer in charge of “Visual Arts and Museo Division” of the CCP---a full month after the exhibit had already run---there was a time lapse of more than three weeks before it was closed down on Aug. 9.  Sunico related that despite the vote taken by the board on the controversial exhibit--- which yielded more votes in favor of closure than keeping it open--- and his subsequent order to close it down, Abrera prevailed upon the board to take into consideration the “sensibilities of the artists.” It took another two weeks before a forum representing various parties, including those opposing Cruz's  exhibit, could be called on Aug. 5 to tackle the issue of the artists’ sensibility; shut-down did not come until the following week.

It appears that it was only after former First Lady Imelda Marcos visited the CCP exhibit last week to vehemently protest the “blasphemy” to the board that things began to move in that direction. This was reportedly followed by a call to Abrera by President Aquino (who found his voice after Marcos spoke openly against the exhibit), which finally did the trick. but even then, the rationale given by the CCP Board in closing it down was the need to secure the premises from numerous physical threats---no mention of its lapse in judgment on the violation of commonly-held cultural norms for a state-run cultural facility.


This blog column has no problem with taking artists’ consideration to heart, but inasmuch as the CCP is a state-run facility, the public interest should be the over-riding concern; but this was not the case. As I stated here earlier, I fully respect artistic freedom (even if the Cruz exhibit was far from artistic), and if his works were shown in a private gallery, especially one with a predilection for avant-garde shows, there would be no problem.  The public could just stay away from such outlet if an exhibit does not conform to its taste. But at the CCP, families are wont to take their children of all ages to view its exhibits and shows after a morning of picnicking or strolling. How would they explain Cruz’s show to their young children whom they accompany in their nightly prayers?  


There’s one erroneous claim made by the defenders of Cruz’s  works at  the CCP---they cite that these had previously been shown at the UP and the Ateneo University and they created nary a controversy. The obvious justification is that these institutions should serve as the ”seal of good housekeeping” for Cruz's shocking works. A case in point, however, ought to be made.

At Tuesday’s Senate hearing, someone stressed that Fr. Catalino Arevalo, the renowned Jesuit theologian at the Ateneo University, had said that Cruz’s controversial works were not shown at the Ateneo at all. I pursued that line and found out that Fr. Mario Francisco, president of the Loyola School of Theology (LST) at the Ateneo campus, had just issued a one-line explanation in the Ateneo “Blue Board,” a website that caters to its personnel and alumni. It said, “We categorically deny the report that the controversial works of Mideo Cruz at CCP were part of the 2007 Tutuk Nexus Exhibit (shown) at the Loyola School of Theology.”  In other words, Fr. Francisco flatly denied that the works of Cruz SHOWN AT CCP had ever made an appearance at LST.  


Fr. Francisco’s denial about that part regarding the CCP exhibit was clear enough, but I made follow-up calls to the Ateneo Art Gallery to ascertain whether there were other occasions when Cruz exhibited at the school after that 2007 LST exhibit. Assistant gallery curator Joel de Leon said there was none, but I also learned other aspects from him. One is that while Fr. Francisco's statement denied showing the CCP-exhibited works of Cruz at LST, indeed he had exhibited an installation, also called “Poleteismo,” at that 2007 LST exhibit, but it was an entirely different style. "Thoroughly non-controversial and un-shocking," as an Ateneo insider recalled, Cruz portrayed a play on hands, instead of, as in the CCP, faces of Jesus Christ, the Crucifix and other images festooned with sexual objects and devices.

Ateneo assistant curator De Leon recalled that the artist had worked on the Poleteismo theme repeatedly in various exhibits for some time now, and he mused that the difficulty with "rehash works" is that artists do have the frequent tendency to outdo themselves each time. Logical conclusion---in the CCP case, I can see, Cruz tried to shock and shock.


But Joel de Leon also noted that the Ateneo Art Gallery had awarded Mideo Cruz in 2006 the Ateneo Art Award, which is a merit recognition to artists 35 years of age and below, this time for another work of his called “Banquet.” This is interesting, in view of National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose’s searing indictment of Cruz, first articulated in his column “The CCP Jesus Christ exhibit: It ain’t art” in Philippine Star, and then at the Senate hearing, where he classified the artist’s works as “an immature and juvenile attempt at caricature.”  He also said Cruz is bereft of “imagination, craftsmanship, and most important---originality.”

I tend to agree with Ateneo Art Gallery assistant curator Joel de Leon, however, that the artist was just trying to “outdo” himself in his rehash exhibit at CCP.  He apparently has talent, but he should mine it well---Art for Art's sake, and not shock for shock's sake. 

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Moro rebs' participation in 2013 ARMM elections could be enticing to SC justices who'll decide on legality of postponement and synchronization

Since Tourism Secretary Bertie Lim resigned late last week, names have been cropping up for the post, among them former Akbayan candidate Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel and former LP candidate Rufino Rozzano Biazon. But why appoint a neophyte to this very crucial dollar-earning post when there are former DOT Secretaries Ace Durano and Dick Gordon to choose from?  These two former officials moved the DOT quite successfully and they know the ropes better than anyone. 

On the Customs front, there's talk about appointing Elizabeth Lee of the prominent automotive family as BOC Chief, to replace the controversial Angelito Alvarez. But Lee would be like a babe in the woods there, paiikutan lang ng mga tulisan doon. By the way, there's persistent talk circulating about 2,000 container vans having disappeared from customs. The latest is that those were loaded with ARMS. What's the truth there?


President Aquino seems to be merely reacting to various stimuli, giving the impression of being so laid-back, compared to other leaders. Take the controversy regarding the blasphemous art exhibit that was no art at all at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. When it hit the media two weeks ago, Palace spokesperson Abigail Valte quickly said  the Palace was keeping a “hands-off” policy on that issue and P-Noy couldn’t be bothered. 

But as the controversy escalated, with various legislators saying their piece and different groups attacking the exhibit, in came Imelda Marcos, who, claiming right of eminent domain, summoned the CCP board and virtually ordered it to shut down that offensive exhibit as it didn’t conform to the true, the good and the beautiful. Only then did P-Noy find his voice and he joined the condemnation, correctly arguing that a state-run facility should respect the sensibilities of people of whatever denomination or creed.

 But he refused to fire CCP officials, who had dug in kapit-tuko, a la Margie Juico in the Pajero issue with the bishops.


On the issue of the high prices of fuel, P-Noy was again beaten to the draw by Vice President Jejomar Binay. On the eve of his departure for a two-week study in Harvard,  VP Binay managed to appeal to the oil companies for a bigger rollback in their oil prices than the P1.89 per liter gasoline price and P1.87 per liter diesel fuel they are offering.  He  also held a dialogue with some 300 leaders of various transport groups at his Coconut Palace office, urging them to explore alternative fuels even as he also offered them, as chair of the Pag-Ibig board of trustees, memberships in that Fund.  Mabilis talaga gumalaw si Binay.


The problem with P-Noy is not that he’s slow-witted, but that in the year and two months he has been in office, he has remained too obsessed with prosecuting the Arroyos as his personal and official crusade, so that all other considerations have taken a back seat.  This blog is not the only one that has been saying this; P-Noy’s own economics classmates at the Ateneo have said as much and yesterday,  former President Ramos was also quoted as stressing that the innumerable investigations into Arroyo-era anomalies are driving away investors and giving the country a bad image. 

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this blog stresses that the President now has an Ombudsman after his own heart and a Justice Secretary who is a-go-go (too a-go-go at times), so that he should leave the prosecution tasks to them now and turn to the serious economic and political problems our country faces. 

The other day an American friend who is a big-time professional chef based in Oman flew into town and he told me that the “Saudization” going on in Saudi Arabia, whereby the authorities there are now giving priority to their own people in jobs in an effort to cut back on ballooning deficits, is jeopardizing the jobs of foreign nationals there, among them our OFWs. He opined that the protectionism will spread to other countries in the Arab world.


I ran into former POEA Chief and later Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas at a gathering recently and I queried her about this problem. She recalled that in her stint as the first POEA Chief in the early ‘80s she already saw this “Saudization” coming, and of course, now it’s a reality. We have two million Filipinos in Saudi Arabia, said Pat, and while we enjoy such good standing in that country, so that Pinoys would be the last foreign workers to be given their walking papers by the Saudis, still, it’s an eventuality we have to prepare for---how to contain their mass return.  

This means we'll need jobs and more jobs, and to produce them we have to move infrastructure programs in the countryside. But as the senators found to their dismay, there’s over P1.12 trillion in undisbursed funds in the Treasury, which explains perhaps the infrastructure standstill in the countryside. Moreover, not a single private-public partnership (PPP) project has been awarded until now.

It's time to move those projects that will generate jobs, Mr. President, and entrust the prosecution of graft cases to your Ombudsman who’s looking for over 100 capable lawyers to help her.


The Supreme Court held last Tuesday the first of perhaps a series of hearings on the postponement of the ARMM elections originally scheduled for last Aug. 8, and their synchronization with the national elections in 2013. The next  hearing is this Tuesday.  At that first hearing three eminent legal personalities argued for the opposition to postponement, namely, former UP Law Dean Pacifico Agabin, House Minority Leader Edcel Lagman and former Senator Aquilino Pimentel; this Tuesday it will be Solicitor-General Joel Cadiz defend RA 10153, which legislated postponement and synchronization.  

I was wrapped in attention listening to the opposing lawyers (especially since I'm on  their side), as they centered their arguments mainly on two central points: that the two chambers of Congress passed RA 10153 without the necessary 2/3 “super-majority” vote of each chamber, voting separately (in the House it was 60 votes short!), and the required plebiscite in the five ARMM provinces to ratify the amendment rescheduling the elections. 


I found Agabin and Lagman quite studious in their presentations and they skillfully met the queries from the justices on the six or seven laws that were enacted---and amended ---to govern ARMM in its one and a half decades of existence. As they pointed out, only one law, RA 9054, which set the “higher quantum of majority,” was duly ratified by the people of ARMM and therefore can qualify as legal and constitutional.  

Sen. Pimentel, who spoke last, didn’t have to be as studious as his two colleagues, and in fact he quipped that “I feel like the person beating a dead horse.”  Instead, he chose to argue from a practical standpoint: e.g., that the police and AFP would have such a tough time dismantling the warlords if the ARMM elections were synchronized with the national elections in 2013. At one point, Pimentel even accused the administration of “maliciously devising” the postponement of the ARMM elections in order to hand-pick OICs in place of those whose terms are ending on Sept. 30.


From the questions from the SC justices I thought they were rather convinced about the unconstitutionality of RA 10153. But a recent development could affect the magistrates: the recent revelation attributed to House Muslim leaders such as Sulu Rep. Tupay Loong, that postponement was a “key factor” in the secret Tokyo meeting between President Aquino and MILF Chair Murad Ebrahim. Why? Because, argued the Muslim leaders, it would allow Moro rebel leaders to run in the synchronized ARMM polls in 2013. In other words, the inference is that peace with the Muslim rebels has a better chance if they are able to run in 2013.

Indeed, such disclosure, albeit piece-meal and akin to a strip-tease treatment of the implications of that Tokyo secret meeting, gives the impression that peace in Mindanao totally hinges on the participation of the Moro rebels in the electoral process. In fact, Rep. Lagman, keen as ever, anticipated this train of thought in his query at the SC hearing: are MILF partisans being appointed as OICs? 


This idea of ending the strife in Mindanao by coaxing Moro rebels to engage in the parliamentary struggle, instead of taking up arms against the State could be quite an enticing an idea to the SC justices---just like the entry of former NDF Chief Satur Ocampo two decades ago electrified the nation wary of the "reds." 

Not that such rebel participation would be easy to comprehend.  Until now what the Tokyo meeting has succeeded in doing is to stir a lot of controversy over what the MILF and even the MNLF interpret as the “Moro sub-state” and how government interprets it. In the media, Lagman pointedly asked for clarification from P-Noy on this concept, while some P-Noy’s allies, such as party-list Rep. Angelo Palmones, are plainly wary of its implications. The other day former President Estrada, who had adopted a mailed-fist policy in Muslim Mindanao in his time, termed the “sub-state” concept rehashed hogwash.  

But it's also distinctly possible that participation in the ARMM political process by moro rebels could have been thrown in just to buy legal acceptance for the postponement of the ARMM elections. It could well be that the real reason could be the Liberal Party's long-range plan to take total political control of that vital region in the South, that has helped determined the outcome of elections over the past 60 years (In the 2010 elections the LPs had no political structure in Mindanao whatsoever, and were totally dependent on other parties helping P-Noy. Now they have this prospect of total control of ARMM). 

Yet this sub-argument could be enough to make the SC justices sit up--- and give the election postponement their legal imprimatur. Clever, real clever.