Strengthen, not abolish
Philippine Daily Inquirer
August 12, 2017 at 5:22 am

Pending in the House of Representatives is a bill called Rightsizing the National Government Act of 2017, a measure purportedly aimed at streamlining the bureaucracy. In his recent State of the Nation Address, President Duterte mentioned it as among his administration’s priority bills.

Trimming the fat off the bloated bureaucracy is a laudable effort, but the bill appears to be treading into worrying territory with its proposal to abolish a key agency—the Presidential Commission on Good Government. Two powerful Cabinet members—Solicitor General Jose Calida and Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno—are championing this move. Calida wants to merge the PCGG’s functions with his office, which he also wants detached from the Department of Justice. Diokno, meanwhile, has tagged the PCGG as “irrelevant,” adding: “They don’t do anything. What do they do?”

It’s surprising that Diokno, the man in charge of the country’s finances, had to ask that question. For starters, he’s supposed to know that the P10 billion the government has been mandated by law to set aside as compensation for victims of human rights abuses during Ferdinand Marcos’ martial rule came from a much bigger amount—P35 billion—that the PCGG remitted to the Bureau of Treasury in 2004. That money, in turn, came from some $658 million in Swiss deposits of the dictator Marcos and his family that the PCGG successfully recovered after years of complex, drawn-out litigation here and abroad. The Swiss Federal Court and the Philippine Supreme Court would eventually come to the same conclusion—that the assets were ill-gotten and of criminal provenance, and deserved to be forfeited on behalf of the Philippines.

Of the estimated $10 billion that the Marcoses stole, the PCGG has reportedly recovered about $3.5 billion. Perhaps it’s not a good enough baseline of success in Diokno’s eyes that would justify the PCGG’s continued existence—but is that, on the other hand, work to sneeze at? One need only to remember Imelda Marcos’ own words, uttered in 1998, to appreciate the gargantuan task for anyone chasing after the sprawling and shadowy kleptocracy that the conjugal dictatorship had built: “We practically own everything in the Philippines—from electricity, telecommunications, airline, banking, beer and tobacco, newspaper publishing, television stations, shipping, oil and mining, hotels and beach resorts, down to coconut milling, small farms, real estate and insurance,” the former first lady said.

The PCGG’s efforts to seize those assets have been vexed at every turn by the Marcoses’ dogged, well-funded campaign to oppose, delay, or derail the cases against them. For instance, the $40-million Arelma account opened in Panama by Marcos on Sept. 21, 1972, on the very day he claimed to have imposed martial law in the country, was declared by the Supreme Court in 2012 as part of the family’s ill-gotten wealth—a decision it upheld in 2014. The funds were forfeited by the Sandiganbayan in favor of the government as early as 2009, but the dictator’s son and widow, Bongbong and Imelda Marcos, typically filed suit in the high court to prevent the money’s return to the people.

As of April 2016, according to PCGG records, the Marcoses are “actively litigating and are represented by their lawyers” in 15 civil cases in the Sandiganbayan and the Supreme Court—a clear illustration of the arduous work that remains to be done to recover the bulk of the Marcos loot. The very nature of that staggering plunder demands an officially deputized regiment of lawyers, investigators and public officials invested in the idea that, no matter how long it takes, the pillage of the public treasury demands the elementary justice of its recovery and return to the people, and the prosecution of the plunderers.

Strengthening the PCGG, making it work better, should be the government’s goal, not its abolition. In these interesting times, is it unreasonable to suspect that the ultimate aim is to ease up on the Marcoses?

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