Beef and pork: Confirmation politics and Napoles

Second of 3 parts

MANILA, Philippines – “When we ask why these officials have not yet been confirmed, it appears that there are specific individuals who have an ax to grind.”

Such was President Benigno Aquino III’s complaint about the languishing confirmation of his Cabinet members. While the President made the statement just in early June, he merely put to words a long-held observation that lawmakers’ vetting of nominees is turning to be more personal and political rather than professional.

With no fixed time and criteria, what does it take to get confirmed? Those who have gone through the process – confirmed, bypassed or rejected – told Rappler how they navigated a system with its own secret rules and codes.

Some current and former appointees said that in the Commission on Appointments (CA), they had to deal with members’ beef or power tripping, and requests for concessions ranging from projects, appointments, to lump sums or “pork.” In this maze of self-interest, compromise is the name of the game.

‘Pagmamano’

During the opening of Congress, lawmakers battle it out for CA membership, equivalent to committee chairmanship for representatives. Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III said it is easy to see why the CA is highly coveted.

“You have the chance to rub elbows with the members of the executive department dahil dumadaan sa inyo, nagmamano sa inyo. Siyempre, ang mga legislators, mas gusto ang sila ang pinagmamanuhan, especially kung may pangangailangan ang probinsiya mo o distrito mo. Mas madali kang humingi ng pabor sa department secretary sapagka't may utang na loob sa iyo,” Sotto told Rappler. 

(Members of the executive department go through you; seek your approval. Of course, legislators prefer that especially if their provinces or districts have needs. It is easier to ask favors from a department secretary because of debt of gratitude.)

Part of the “pagmamano” culture is the tradition of paying courtesy calls on members, usually meeting with the House contingent as a group, and senators in individual visits.

In the curious case of former Civil Service Commission (CSC) chairman Ricardo Saludo, failure to meet with CA members proved fatal, earning him the distinction of being one of the rare officials the CA dared to reject.

Back in 2009, then CA vice chairman ex-Agusan del Sur Representative Rodolfo Plaza said the CA rejected Saludo because the CSC as a quasi-judicial body needs a lawyer as head. Oddly enough, while Saludo was not a lawyer, his predecessors Karina David and Patricia Santo Tomas, and even his successor, doctor Francisco Duque, whom Plaza recommended after a swift hearing in 2010, likewise weren't.

Saludo said that after his rejection, he found out that a congressman from the Visayas and another from Mindanao were slighted by CSC decisions removing a local civil servant and a revenue official. The point of contention was his policy of refusing to discuss cases pending before the commission.

“One of the congressmen, part of the CA, took offense with that, that I would not even meet with them to discuss the case but my reasoning is, from my understanding of the rules among the [CSC] commissioners and the chairman, if a case is discussed with one of us, we would not participate in the [deliberation] of the case.”

Saludo added that his sudden rejection was strange because the CA committee endorsed his confirmation a year earlier. “I felt there was quite intense partisan politics particularly in the House that might have contributed to my removal.”

Another controversial rejection was that of former president Fidel V. Ramos’ then finance secretary, Ramon del Rosario Jr, who famously delivered an emotional speech criticizing the confirmation process as “seriously flawed.”

The CA rejected him in 1993 for alleged conflict of interest over his ties with San Miguel Corporation and failure to properly divest assets. Now president and CEO of Phinma Corporation and chairman of the Makati Business Club, Del Rosario believes though that tycoon Lucio Tan lobbied legislators against him for plugging loopholes in tax collection that disadvantaged Tan’s Fortune Tobacco.

Del Rosario said CA members also requested for the use of luxury cars that the Bureau of Customs impounded, and sought the appointment of their people to key posts. He asked his undersecretaries to tell them to follow the process instead.

“Maybe that was my problem also. I was really trying very hard to be very professional and not responding too much to requests, some of which I considered quite foolish,” Del Rosario told Rappler in his Makati office.

In hearings, he said many questions were embarrassing and repetitive but he had to patiently respond. “You have to be very careful. You have to call everybody, ‘Your Honor,’ when in fact some of them do not deserve to be called, ‘Your Honor.’”

While not rejected, former Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo was bypassed until his death. This outraged supporters of the Ramon Magsaysay Awardee. Sotto, then head of the local government committee, admitted that Robredo’s estranged uncle, ex-Camarines Sur Representative Luis Villafuerte Sr questioned his confirmation.

Sotto argued that he and Senate President Franklin Drilon convinced Villafuerte to support Robredo, and it was the late submission of papers that delayed the hearing set in 2012.

 

Source: Interviews with CA members, appointees, insiders

Election cases, anti-illegal logging ops 

Former Commission on Elections (Comelec) Commissioner Augusto Lagman also never made it to a single hearing. He just found out from a friend in the Cabinet that Aquino let him go in 2012 because of the opposition of one powerful man: then CA chairman and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile.

Lagman said Enrile’s beef goes back 27 years ago when he accused election watchdog Namfrel of cheating him in the 1987 senatorial elections. An IT expert, Lagman was head of Namfrel’s Systems Committee managing parallel counts.

“The President, I guess, decided not to reappoint me anymore so I won’t have to face rejection because they say there’s stigma if you’re rejected. So I said okay. But I told my friend, ‘Actually, I will prefer to face JPE.’ I was not afraid,” Lagman told Rappler.

Lagman refused to pay courtesy calls on members but two of them set a meeting with him. One hinted about a brother running for election. “He was not asking for anything financial; it was implied that it’s going to be something else. I just smiled.”

Unlike the unsuccessful nominees, Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr hurdled confirmation despite the loud objection of Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, with whom he clashed over Taguig politics. His secret? Friends in high places and playing his confirmation by the book.

A veteran election lawyer, Brillantes systematically sought out CA members, starting with congressmen who were rivals of his ex-clients, to senators. He recalled that his former clients in the Senate told him there was no need for the visit, “Ikaw pa?” (More so, you.)

Brillantes said it was the congressmen who asked for favors in the form of cases. “They do not say send this guy to jail or don’t convict this one. They just say, ‘Can you see what you can do? My friend did no wrong.’ I say, ‘It’s fine with me but I can’t make a commitment because the Comelec is a collegial body.’ That’s my way out.”

He also heeded Enrile’s advice not to answer back in hearings. “My most painful experience there is, my personality is, I’m a fighter but I have to suppress it. In court, I would say, ‘What are you asking me? That’s nonsense!’ After 25 years of practice, I’m so used to getting into fights but you can’t do that and you just nod and say yes.”

Cayetano later accused Brillantes of blackmail by asking through common friends to meet with him and mentioning his wife’s election protest in the same breath. Brillantes denied blackmailing the senator but admitted meeting with Cayetano thrice. He and his politician-friends eventually convinced the CA member to abstain.

Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, a former Navy officer, said that in the military, confirmation favors come in the form of requests to stop operations against illegal logging and fishing. He said he was aware of a case where a congressman pressured a senior officer to suspend an anti-illegal logging operation. 

“You look the other way and get promoted, or you leave the service. Of course, nobody wants that. Imagine you are doing your job and here comes this corrupt congressman who will destroy your career. Where’s justice in that?”

Extortion and the Napoles connection

An open secret for decades, the wheeling and dealing in the CA exploded in 2007 when then Negros Oriental Representative Herminio Teves openly accused his colleagues of demanding P5 million from him in exchange for the confirmation of his son, then finance secretary Margarito Teves.

The younger Teves told Rappler that he only found out about the alleged extortion initially from the newspapers. His father subsequently informed him about it and he was surprised. In his experience, he said, congressmen did not ask for money but would call to request him and his customs and internal revenue commissioners for appointments to these key agencies.

“Things are beginning to be a little more uncomfortable because it becomes a haggling type of arrangement,” Teves said. “The more you’re unable to respond to their requests, the longer it will take you to be confirmed.”

After almost 3 years, Teves was confirmed in 2008 but not without then Surigao del Sur Representative Prospero Pichay angrily denying his father’s revelation.

While the elder Teves did not name him, Pichay then cried foul and attacked the son. “He can’t act on the requests and concerns of CA members. As chairman of the CA House contingent, it is my responsibility to relay to him the concerns of members.”

Recently, the CA again stirred controversy for repeatedly being dragged into the country’s biggest corruption scandal in recent history: the pork barrel scam. The digital files of principal whistleblower Benhur Luy list allocations for CA members even including P5 million for Drilon as chairman, a claim he denied.

The affidavit of alleged mastermind Janet Lim Napoles also lists an allocation of P5 million in agriculture projects for 6 congressmen and Senator Lito Lapid. Whistleblowers from the National Agribusiness Corporation (Nabcor) also said they were ordered to facilitate the release of P50 million for the confirmation of then Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap, a charge Yap also denied.

The allegations prompted Drilon to clarify that the CA does not have Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). Newspaper reports interpreted Napoles’ affidavit to mean that the CA’s funds were misused. Yet Senator Sergio Osmeña III explained that the CA reference did not pertain to lawmakers’ PDAF or the CA budget. 

“They don’t understand how that works. That’s the lump sum that the secretary has disguised in his budget. Let’s say farm-to-market roads, P500 million. That’s what he offers the member so right, the CA has no PDAF. It’s the PDAF of the department secretary,” Osmeña told Rappler.

Former Agriculture Secretary Domingo Panganiban echoed Osmeña’s explanation.  Panganiban was among those who spoke up in 2007 to confirm the elder Teves’ claim of extortion in the CA.

Panganiban told Rappler that when he was undergoing confirmation in 2006, 5 to 6 congressmen approached him in a closed-door caucus before his hearing. “I was asked a question of how much money I can give each of them.”

Stunned, the former secretary said the request was not for cash but for a lump sum allocation on top of the regular allotments to regions and provinces for irrigation. The CA members did not say what type of project they were asking for, and where and how the allocation would be spent.

“It’s a blank check for you to provide so that they can operate on their own ill will,” he said. “Because that time, Napoles is already operating and that’s what she is asking the congressmen. Money to fund projects through her NGOs." 

Panganiban said his staff later told him that the congressmen mentioned to them the amount of P80 million for their request.

Asked what he told the CA members, Panganiban said, “Mr Congressman, if that is the process by which you feel I should be confirmed then tell the President she should get another secretary of agriculture.”

True enough, Malacañang announced after a few months that he was moving to the National Anti-Poverty Commission, with Yap as replacement. Calls from lawmakers to investigate Teves and Panganiban’s exposés amounted to nothing. 

Screenshot of the affidavit of Janet Lim Napoles dated May 26, 2014

Conflict of interest

Besides the burden of balancing the requests with the budget of a department, appointees said horse-trading has a higher cost: putting officials of sensitive agencies in conflict-of-interest situations.

Comelec’s Lagman said, “It’s a Damocles sword. It’s hanging over your head. Suppose an election case passes through my desk and it concerns a CA member, a supporter of that member, and I might get a call from this CA member. What would I say? I don’t want to be put in that position." 

Brillantes pointed out that a long confirmation process undermines the independence of constitutional commissions.

“You have to distinguish Cabinet Secretaries from constitutional commissions like ours because we’re independent. If you are not confirmed, every time you ask for reappointment, you become dependent on the President. Every time you are bypassed, you have to go back to Malacañang and ask for reappointment,” he said.

Del Rosario, the former finance secretary, said that while the rationale for the CA is noble, shady trade-offs negate this objective. “The theoretical benefit of a confirmation process is if a bad president wants to appoint a crook, at least, well-meaning people can block it and come up with all reasons why not.”

“The problem is, I guess those crooks will probably have no problem submitting themselves to the process and working it out.” – Rappler.com