MANILA, Philippines – President Benigno Aquino III did not detail the job description of his new rehabilitation czar former Senator Panfilo Lacson but he had one clear marching order.
“Natatandaan kong sinabi niya transparency: meaning gamitin nang maayos ang pondo. Sinabi niya importante kasi rito transparency. Sabi ko kuha ko na agad ang message niya: pangalagaan ang pondo, gawing transparent lahat ng pondo ng gobyerno at kung anumang resources ang gagamitin,” Lacson said on the sidelines of a press forum on Monday, December 2.
(I remember he said transparency in the use of funds. He said transparency is important. I said I immediately got his message: take care of the funds, make the use of all government funds and other resources transparent.)
“I think the trust he gave me when he offered the job to me is connected to what he said that transparency is important.”
As former chief of the Philippine National Police, Lacson was known for his investigative skills and strong stance against kidnappers and car thieves. He earned both praise and criticism for this. The former senator was also implicated as the alleged mastermind of the Dacer-Corbito double murder case and went into hiding for 13 months in 2010. He surfaced after the Court of Appeals cleared him.
Aquino’s directive to ensure transparency in the use of funds comes after the Malampaya Fund scam, where funds intended for victims of Typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng allegedly went to bogus non-governmental organizations and purely ghost projects.
A day after accepting the job offer, Lacson said the President told him Executive Secretary Paquito “Jojo” Ochoa Jr will outline his job description through an executive order. Lacson texted Aquino on Sunday, December 1, that he was accepting the offer to head rehabilitation of areas hit by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).
An ally of the President, Lacson said Aquino made the offer during their meeting last Friday, November 29, on the sidelines of a Cabinet meeting on rehabilitation efforts. Lacson said he asked the President for two nights to think about the proposal, and then consulted with disaster experts last Saturday.
“Sabi niya sa akin ‘pag di ko siya tinawagan ng Sunday, iaannounce niya ng Monday. Ayoko pa sanang mag-text sa kanya pero baka iaannounce at magbago pa ang isip ko. Sabi ko, ‘I accept.’”
(He said if I do not call him on Sunday, he will announce my appointment on Monday. I didn’t want to text him yet but I was afraid he will announce and I change my mind so I said ‘I accept.’”)
Lacson, 65, said the President was concerned about reports that foreign relief goods were repacked and sold to the victims. The Philippines has received P18.206 billion or US$414.625 million in pledged foreign assistance as of November 28.
“I said we really have a big problem if even foreign donations in kind are replaced with local and less quality stuff,” Lacson said.
Lacson said he wants a “holistic approach” to rehabilitation. He related how the owner of the Gaisano malls in Tacloban and Ormoc told him they will need a 35-year contract to recoup their investments. He also said the two million felled coconut trees and losses to the poultry industry hit people hard.
“These are the things we should look at. We shouldn’t just be confined to the hardest-hit areas and also see solutions elsewhere in the country that can cover what was lost. These are things we must think about so our approach is holistic.”
Lacson proposed that the private sector be allowed to implement rehabilitation projects to lessen red tape and bureaucratic obstacles.
He said his timeline for accomplishing his job will be from December 2013 to June 30, 2016, within Aquino’s presidency.
The most powerful typhoon to make landfall, Yolanda killed 5,670 and left thousands homeless. It flattened entire towns and cities, taking away people’s livelihood.
‘Conductor of rehab efforts’
Initially eyed to head an anti-corruption body, Lacson said the President tapped him to head rehabilitation since there are already agencies like the Inter-Agency Graft Coordinating Council handling corruption cases, and it will just be “duplicitous” for him to lead a similar body.
Asked how he understood the job, Lacson said he will be a “conductor” of rehabilitation efforts.
“The objective is to restore and rehabilitate so that is the direction of the EO: as an overall overseer, supervisor of related implementing agencies. These are the agencies with critical responsibilities for typhoon-stricken areas. Their actions must be synchronized or orchestrated. My role here is to be the conductor of the orchestra. The notes must be right, if there is someone out of tune, we will correct.”
Lacson, who served as senator from 2001 to 2013, admitted that his new work is “totally new” for him but said he is up to the challenge.
“Why was I chosen when I’m not an engineer, architect or finance man? The President said what we are talking about are managerial, administrative and not technical skills. That’s a challenge enough.”
The rehabilitation czar said he has begun studying his new assignment.
“It’s a learning process for me. It’s an entirely new field for me. We need to study that’s why even if I haven’t been able to decide yet I tried to study to help my decision-making and true enough, it aided me in my decision to accept the offer because I saw it can be done,” Lacson said.
Lacson said he will need a team of 10 people, including a finance expert, civil engineer and a lawyer. He refused to name the experts he consulted, pending their appointment as part of his team but stressed that they were “competent and honest.”
Asked to evaluate the response to the typhoon so far, Lacson said, “I’ll answer you from the point of view of our countrymen. If they’re not satisfied, there’s no reason for us to be satisfied.”
Meanwhile the Palace said also on Monday that details on Lacson’s role will be threshed out in the Executive Order it will issue.
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said Lacson was the only one considered for the position.
“Given the immediacy of this concern, the rehabilitation effort, the President felt it is important to have some full-time individual to handle the reconstruction efforts,” he explained.
He said Lacson’s “national stature” gives him the experience he needs to deal with “building blocks.” Lacierda also noted Lacson’s “enthusiasm in consulting experts” on reconstruction.
Challenges: Politics and dynamics
Lacson said he saw politics as a key challenge in his new job. As a former politician, he said he was prepared to deal with this.
“Let’s face it. You know politics in our country: even national versus local, local versus national, it will come into the picture. Knowing that, I should be prepared for that that’s why I said mentally and psychologically, I should stay focused.”
“It depends on the situation. Kung kailangan, eh di baka bakal ang kailangan sa ulo. Kung hindi, eh di hindi.” (If we need to use an iron-fist, then we will use that. If not, then we won’t.)
Lacson repeatedly brushed aside questions that he was chosen for the job because Interior Secretary Mar Roxas drew criticism in his handling of relief and rehabilitation efforts. (READ: Haiyan crisis: No ground commander)
“I just want to stay focused, move forward because if we still make issues out of others’ mistakes, [it will lead nowhere]. I just want to move forward. I just want to get things done,” Lacson responded.
Lacson said he also has to deal with “dynamics” on the ground.
“[It’s] the usual intramurals. The usual misunderstanding between one department and another. The usual local government and local government [dynamics]. The usual national government and local government. There’s dynamics even within one department,” he said.
Lacson said he is already coordinating with the office of housing czar Vice President Jejomar Binay.
“The Vice President is my friend so I do not see any problem,” he said.
Opening doors to 2016?
Lacson, who ran for president in 2004 and initially eyed the presidency in 2010, was asked whether or not his new post will open his doors to a 2016 presidency.
“I do not think of those things. If you mix politics, immediately you are distracted. It’s like you are walking a tightrope. If you fall, then you fall. If you’re right, then good. But if those interests get into your head, you will not reach anywhere.”
Asked if he was appointed so he can be the next president, Lacson said, “Naloko na tayo. Patay tayo diyan. Magtrabaho na lang tayo. (That’s crazy. Let us just work.) – Rappler.com
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