Sunday, March 15, 2009

Reprinted from the Philippine Daily Inquirer issue of March 16, 2009

Inquirer Opinion/ Editorial


Regardless of what the House of Representatives will choose to do with the impeachment complaint filed against Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez by three-time Senate topnotcher Jovito Salonga and others, her fate in history is all but sealed. The reason is she perfectly illustrates a classic Filipino saying, down to the last crooked syllable. “It’s hard to awaken those who are pretending to sleep.”

Whatever little of her reputation has survived her close association with and solicitousness for the Arroyo administration will forever be consumed in the aptness, the very justice, of that worldly-wise expression.

It is hard to wake up those who are only pretending to sleep.

Is there any other officer of the law, in the post-Marcos era, who has as sedulously struggled to keep one’s eyes shut in the face of evidence of graft and corruption? Even the Arroyo administration’s irascible Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez, notorious for his partisan approach to the administration of justice, at least tries to reckon with inconvenient reality. Gutierrez simply denies the reality, period.

Consider her breathtakingly brazen decision-making process on the anomalous P1.3-billion Mega-Pacific contract. While in our legal system the Supreme Court is not a trier of facts, it cannot pretend to be blind in the face of overwhelming evidence. Thus it had ruled that the automation contract was anomalous on its face (the same finding reached by the Senate blue ribbon committee), and directed the Ombudsman to finally conduct an investigation. For some reason, Gutierrez dragged her foot, and was eventually admonished by the Court and given a deadline to meet. Just before the deadline expired, the Ombudsman announced that a host of minor personalities and at least one election commissioner would face charges.

In the end, however, and based on hearings it conducted after the Court’s original deadline, it found no one guilty of any crime. The Mega Pacific contract was illegal, but in the Ombudsman’s view no one actually broke the law.

Those who are pretending to sleep are the hardest to wake.

We are led to consider yet again this Filipino expression because of the Ombudsman’s recent inaction—that would be the polite term—in the case of the World Bank-funded road projects.
The Washington, DC-based multilateral financing institution had blacklisted three Filipino contracting firms, one of them permanently, because of what it said was evidence of collusion. As quickly became clear, the Ombudsman was furnished copies of the World Bank findings a long time ago, but did, well, almost nothing.

In a Senate hearing, Gutierrez even said there was nothing much she could do, because the reports were marked confidential.

Last week, the bank’s representative to the Philippines, Bert Hofman, diplomatically reminded the Ombudsman and those senators and congressmen who had chosen to be obtuse that, in fact, evidence of collusion was readily available—assuming that they wanted the evidence in the first place.

“I notice, in the Philippines, the witness statements have drawn a lot of attention and a lot of press. But really, what I hear from my [Department of Institutional Integrity] INT colleagues is, ‘Look at these documents,’” Hofman said at a forum.

“Most of the evidence we find in the collusion were from documentary evidence. They do interview witnesses. They do interview people to corroborate the evidence found in the documentation,” he said. But: “This is all evidence on the bid itself; nothing to do with witnesses, nothing to do with statements, nothing to do with hearsay. This is all in the bid documents themselves,” he said.

In 10 years of experience fighting rigged bids worldwide, the World Bank, Hofman said, had found the same patterns of collusion, which include: almost similar bids, “questionable disqualification of bids” and “abnormally high bids.”

We can read between the lines of this diplomatically worded reminder. The powerful Ombudsman has the mandate to initiate an investigation even without a complaint. That she considers herself hamstrung by the confidentiality of the World Bank report means she had not bothered to look at the bidding documents themselves. She has access to them, but apparently she could not bestir herself, after receiving a warning from the bank, to probe the documents.

Moral: It is difficult to awaken those only faking sleep.

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