High-risk duty

High-risk duty

Volume XVIII NO. 1 (October 11-17, 2014)

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

Medical equipment for Ospital ng Makati—from sterilizers to beds to cabinets—worth P9.3 million were padded by P61.2 million under Mayor Elenita Binay’s watch, Mendoza revealed. That’s a 9,056-percent overrun.

There was a break-in at Mendoza’s home this year, and she received threatening phone calls before the Senate hearings. The Commission on Audit official, nonetheless, testified that beds claimed to be manufactured in the United States were Taiwanese imports. No public biddings were conducted. And so on.

A parallel controversy erupted over the weekend, when Makati Mayor Junjun Binay slammed Senate President Franklin Drilon for indicating he’ll sign a subpoena to compel Binay to testify on the overpriced P2.3-billion Makati City Hall parking building. If a witness refused, “the entire committee can decide if a witness can be detained” until he sings. Drilon stressed he “merely explained Senate procedures.”

Binay protested, presenting a “reasonable appeal” to the committee to desist. “The Ombudsman now has jurisdiction over the related plunder case.” And Sen. Nancy Binay weighed in: Sen. Teofisto Guingona III should convene the committee to address the jurisdictional issue.

Will this replay the July 1950 investigation of the purchase of Buenavista and Tambobong estates (GR No. L-3820)? Jean Arnault clammed up on demands that 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, Arnault may not rightfully invoke his right against self-incrimination.

The legal controversy uncoils in a setting where Vice President Jejomar Binay’s standing among the 2016 potential presidential candidates plummeted from 41 to 31 percent in the latest Pulse Asia survey. Conducted from Sept. 8 to 15, the survey also tracked Interior Secretary Mar Roxas placing second with 13 percent. He is up from 7 percent in the previous survey.

“We expected worse,” given the “smears,” a Binay spokesperson admits. Will the Binay free fall continue in the surveys ahead? The track is littered with the remains of 2010 “front runner” former senator Manuel Villar. Road diversion scandals dragged Villar to a losing third with 4,525,913 votes behind Benigno Aquino III’s 12,688,024-vote victory.

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

Whistle-blowers who tell the truth make corruption a high-risk activity, wrote Dr. Romulo Miral. 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, whistle-blowers are key to solving cases. In 2013, the Inquirer picked whistle-blower Benhur Luy, Mary Arlene Baltazar, Merlina Suñas, Gertrudes Luy, Marina Sula and Simonette Briones as “Filipinos of the Year.” They blew the lid off the country’s biggest sleaze scandal.

Today’s Witness Protection Program is a hodgepodge 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 the COA, recalls Ateneo’s dean of Graduate School Antonio La Viña. In September 2004, then Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo handpicked Mendoza to lead a group to investigate Armed Forces of the Philippines comptroller Carlos Garcia.

Mendoza and team proved sleaze in the handling of funds from the United Nations for peacekeeping 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, in over 16 hearings where she documented her team’s findings. “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 Aquino thereafter handpicked Mendoza, along with Grace Pulido Tan, for the COA.

Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, however, repeatedly blocked Mendoza’s confirmation. He reserved “two questions,” then failed to show up for the hearings. Estrada also torpedoed the confirmation of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima. Section 20 of the Commission on Appointments rules allows 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 Department of Social Welfare and Development’s Dinky Soliman. Estrada today is detained on unbailable Ombudsman charges of plunder. He was also suspended from the Senate, by the Sandiganbayan, for 90 days.

“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 an ABS-CBN interview. “Nor are all Filipinos afraid to speak out against corruption.”/Juan L. Mercado


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