MANILA, Philippines – Special Assistant to the President Bong Go has been a busier man than usual these past months.
He’s now more often seen without President Rodrigo Duterte. He delivers his own keynote speeches behind banners that scream his name, not Duterte’s. He even has his own jingle, to the tune of the '70s classic, “Bongga ka 'day!”
In all his events, Go gives donations. He distributes free shoes for his program, “Sapatos ni SAP, Tsinelas Kaswap.” There are photos circulating on social media of Cherry mobile phones encased in boxes that read “Bong Go na tayo” above a cartoon illustration of him and Duterte.
He gave away P2,000 in cash to victims of the recent Sampaloc, Manila fire. Then on June 29, he gifted the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center in Tacloban City with a “newly-purchased” ambulance.
If you didn’t happen to be at any of his events, his face and name are still inescapable. A giant white billboard showing nothing but his face is now a landmark on the North Luzon Expressway. Posters and tarpaulin banners of his face and name have been spotted all over the country.
And that’s apart from all the government resources now devoted to his newfound passion of being constantly in the public eye.
But his donations and the billboards in particular raise questions on whether or not he has breached the Code of Ethics for public officials and even the Anti-Graft and Corruption Practices Act.
The Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials (Republic Act No. 6713) prohibits the direct and indirect acceptance of gifts of significant value.
Go claims all his donations are from private supporters. While he gives them away to beneficiaries, be it a hospital or fire victims, he does derive some benefit from those donations which bear his face and personal promotional slogan.
Rappler spoke with former officials of the Civil Service Commission (CSC) and got various views.
Former CSC chairman Karina David told Rappler, "He could be charged with receiving gifts, tantamount to bribery."
David has 7 years of experience as CSC chief, having served throughout the terms of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
She cited the ethics code's Section 7 on Prohibited Acts and Transactions which states: “Public officials and employees shall not solicit or accept, directly or indirectly, any gift, gratuity, favor, entertainment, loan or anything of monetary value from any person in the course of their official duties or in connection with any operation being regulated by, or any transaction which may be affected by the functions of their office.”
The newly-purchased ambulance Go turned over to the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center is of particular interest.
Go told Rappler that it came from "private" supporters. A description of the event on a Facebook page "Bong GO-ma" says the van was "given" to Go.
It also bears the logo of the Pilipinong May Puso Foundation. Duterte himself spoke in November 2016 at the launch of this foundation, created in honor of his mother Soledad Roa Duterte. Its chairperson is Rowena Velasco, daughter-in-law of Supreme Court Justice Presbitero Velasco and wife of Marinduque Representative Lord Allan Velasco. Its major benefactor is Filipino tycoon Ramon Ang.
The ambulance is a Toyota Hiace, various models of which are priced from P1.4 million to P2.7 million, according to car deal sites. But it likely costs more since it was outfitted with equipment to make it function as an ambulance.
The ambulance, personally turned over to the hospital by Go in a special ceremony, bore stickers with the words “Ready Set Go” and cartoon illustrations of Go and Duterte (watch the video showing the ambulance here).
Go likes to say that everything he gives away which shows his name or face is from the private sector and not funded by government. But does this put him beyond reproach?
According to David, no. Go would only be in the clear if he returned the gifts that are non-perishable and of significant value.
“Part of the recommendation of the Civil Service Commission before is if he receives perishable goods that you can no longer return, just donate them to charity. If you receive goods that are not perishable, you should return them rather than give them away,” said David.
This rule was often applied to government officials during Christmas and their birthdays, a time when persons could be in a gift-giving mode to curry favor. But David said it would still apply to Go’s case.
In fact, the rule becomes even more significant when one considers that Go is benefiting from the act of giving away those donations, which just happen to have his name and face on them.
Every donation – be it an ambulance or a pair of running shoes – burnishes the event, endears him to the beneficiaries, and makes for great photo opportunities.
“Never has a Special Assistant to the President had something like that. If you put it within that context, then obviously it is related to some motivation to gain popularity, to gain adherence,” said David.
“When he gives out an ambulance, either it came from his pocket which means he must show how, considering his salary in government, he can buy an ambulance to give away. Or if it was given to him by someone, who is that someone and why did they give him an ambulance? Either that person needs something from him, in which case it’s a bribe, even if he gives it away,” said David.
Former CSC commissioner Mary Anne Mendoza, however, said the ambulance donation could be seen as perfectly regular since Go appears to just be doing his job as presidential aide. Duterte could have ordered him to donate the van, in which case, he was merely exercising his duties.
"He assists the President. Everything the President wants him to do, he will do. So if the President says, look for an ambulance he will do so. The mandate of government is to help. He just facilitated," said Mendoza.
However, the placement of his name and what reads like a campaign slogan ("Ready set GO") could be problematic, she said.
"The fact that he used it for campaigning purposes, 'yun ang magiging problema (that could be a problem)," said Mendoza.
Asked if this constitutes a violation of the ethics code, she said, "Maybe."
Former CSC chairperson Corazon Alma de Leon agrees with Mendoza that it's not unethical for Go to turn over an ambulance to a government hospital. But on the matter of his name and slogan being emblazoned on it, she said the Commission on Elections would have to rule on the matter.
Go has given away other items supposedly from private supporters.
In an Antipolo event, Go gave away branded rubber shoes in exchange for the recipient's used slippers. The display for the program, “Sapatos ni SAP, Tsinelas Kaswap,” proclaimed that it was “initiated by” PureGold, Family Mart, Phoenix, 2Go Group Inc, and Megawide.
Phoenix and 2Go Group Inc are owned by Davao City-based businessman Dennis Uy, a close friend of Duterte’s. PureGold is owned by Lucio Co, also said to be a close friend of the President’s.
Companies like these would no doubt benefit from good ties with powerful government officials.
Photos from social media
There have also been photos of Cherry Mobile Desire R6 Plus smartphones branded with Bong Go's face, down to the wallpaper. The particular phone model costs around P3,700 per unit, according to tech websites.
A source said these phones were distributed during a government event for Filipino youth.
Go has pleaded with his supporters not to put his face and name on their donations.
“HINDI PERA NG GOBYERNO ANG GINASTOS SA MGA PINAMIGAY NA IYON. Sinabihan ko rin ang mga kaibigan at supporters natin na huwag na lagyan ng pangalan at mukha ko ang mga pinapamigay na kagamitan. Kung gusto niyo tumulong, idiretso natin sa tao,” he said on Facebook.
(It’s not government money that was spent for those donations. I told my friends and supporters not to put my name on the donations. If you want to help, go straight to the people.)
Yet Go still gives away donations that have his face and name on them, rather than ask his staff to take them out before distributing them to beneficiaries.
How about graft?
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales told Rappler in an email that her office is "looking into the matter" of Go's donations and billboards.
A former graft prosecutor meanwhile said Go could be held liable for graft if the source of the donation has a “pending business with government where Go is in a position to meddle.”
The Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act states that it is illegal for a government official to “directly or indirectly” request or receive “any gift, present, share, percentage, or benefit, for himself or for any other person, in connection with any contract or transaction between the Government and any other part, wherein the public officer in his official capacity has to intervene under the law.”
Go’s powers and functions, however, are tricky to pin down. Before him, there was no one who held the title “Special Assistant to the President.” But his role as Duterte’s right-hand man, the fact that he is regarded as the “sole gateway” to the President, means he has awesome powers and influence indeed.
Not only that, he is a Cabinet member with peculiar influence over all other Cabinet members because of his access to Duterte.
The giant billboard along NLEX shows Go with his signature barely-there smile and the #GoPhilippinesGo in big black letters. The logo of Nice Hotel peeks out from one corner.
On EDSA, right across SM Megamall, are not less than 5 long billboards with the words, “Ready. Set. Go!” atop a green background and the logo of “Xtreme Magic Sing.” A similar billboard can be found at the Welcome Rotunda in Manila. This time, there is a logo of Pilipinong May Puso Foundation.
'Ready. Set. Go!' billboards, 5 of them, along EDSA in front of SM Mega Mall. pic.twitter.com/NP2XIz152a — Pia Ranada (@piaranada) July 12, 2018
Also near Malacañang is a green tarpaulin that shouts, “GO na GO ang maralita para sa Pagbaba-GO” and proclaims it is a message from “Vicky Limpio Batang Maynila” and “Liga Maralita”.
Similar posters have been spotted in Cebu (“SaluBONG sa PagbabaGO”), Eastern Samar ("Push2Go Senate Tayo!"), and Ifugao ("Secretary Bong GO!")
But the giant billboards along major thoroughfares like NLEX and EDSA are of interest because of how much it costs to keep them up for months.
Advertising industry insiders say giant billboard space on EDSA, Metro Manila’s main artery, could fetch a price range of P200,000 to P600,000 a month, depending on the size. This doesn’t count printing and installation costs.
One advertising agency said that a 40 by 60-foot billboard would cost P48,000 to print and P600,000 for monthly rental of space along EDSA.
For a 40 by 50-foot billboard along NLEX, one would have to shell out P150,000 a month plus P40,000 in printing cost and P20,000 for installation.
Go claims he does not know the people who put up those billboards. He told Rappler he has called for the people responsible to take the billboards down.
Mendoza said that Go would only be violating the code of ethics if proven he solicited for those billboards to be put up.
"That would be covered by the ethics code. You need to have proof that he solicited those things,"she said.
David, however, said that Go could be more pro-active in getting those billboards down.
“If I were in his shoes, I would have looked for this anonymous donor. If I could not find the anonymous donor, I would put an advertisement in the papers and say, 'Whoever you are this is to give you notice that I’m asking you to tear it down.' If he allows it, obviously, at the very least, he’s not against it,” said David.
A 2009 Supreme Court ruling made premature campaigning no longer an election offense, pointing out that in the Election Automation Law (RA 9369), a person is only considered a candidate at the start of the campaign period and thus cannot be held liable for any election offenses before the campaign period. The campaign period for 2019 elections begins in February next year.
Joy Aceron, director of accountability research center Government Watch, calls this a "gap" in our election laws.
"Our system has given them an open unregulated space to promote themselves without thinking how this contradicts the intent of campaign finance regulations," she told Rappler.
"Those who have money can 'campaign' before the campaign period as much as money could afford and no one will stop them," she added.
Despite the technicality in election laws, Filipinos used to Philippine politics know a case of early campaigning when they see one.
"One doesn't need Rocket Science to figure that the Bong Go case is a case of early campaigning," said Aceron.
During the time these billboards were put up and Go was kept busy with his events, two surveys on preferences for probable senatorial candidates were released.
Government resources used?
If private pockets are shelling out funds for Go’s campaign, government resources are being tapped too.
It only takes a scroll through the Presidential Communications Facebook page to see there are many more Bong Go events than there had been in February.
Since February, 22 of Go’s events without the President merited an official photo album, video clip, or livestreaming on the government page. These materials were produced by PCOO staff using PCOO resources.
Official photographers and videographers are deployed to his activities since he is Duterte’s top aide and thus a top Palace official. Go also claims he is sent by the President as a representative or that he is invited by a Cabinet secretary.
No Cabinet secretary fails to hail Go as the “next senator of the Republic of the Philippines” when they introduce him during their department's events. How can they not when Duterte himself never finishes a speech without referring to Go as senator?
"Bong Go, my favorite senator," said Duterte in an April gathering of Hong Kong-based Filipinos. The remark was met by cheers and frenzied shouting of Go's name.
Lawmakers are also all praises for Go during events with their constituents.
In vote-rich Laguna for instance, Biñan Represenative Marlene Alonte Naguiat spent 10 minutes introducing Go.
“Sa nakita po nating pagiging mapagmalasakit niya at maaasahan ng ating mga kababayan sa oras ng pangangailangan, dapat siya tawagin na Super Assistant to the People,” she told a gathering of barangay captains.
(With the compassion he has shown and how dependable he is in time of need, he should be called Super Assistant to the People.)
She said she was one of the lawmakers “pushing (Go) to be our ally in the Senate.”
“Papayag ho ba kayo na maging boses natin sa Senado si Secretary Bong Go (Will you agree to make Secretary Bong Go our voice in the Senate)?” she asked.
When the crowd cheered, she quipped, “Sir, no pressure ‘yan."
All about Go
In some cases, Go’s presence overshadows the actual government activity, as in the case of the nationwide roll-out of car plates on July 5.
The event’s backdrop read “Welcome Sec Christopher ‘Bong’ Go” in green font and beside an enlarged photo of his face. The event's name was placed below, in smaller black font. A similar tarpaulin was used for the press conference later on with Go and Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade.
Such backdrops are normal when the guest of honor is the President or Vice President, but not when it is a secretary present.
Cabinet secretaries were in full force at the March 14 launch described by a press release as the “launch pad for his (Go’s) senatorial run.”
The event, dubbed “Ready Set Go 2019,” was attended by Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, and Congressmen Jericho Nograles, Luis Raymund Villafuerte, and Aniceto Bertiz.
Go mixing his self-promotional campaigns with government events has led to some complications in messaging.
He got into a spot of trouble, for example, when a photo of his Bong Go shoe giveaways and grocery bags mixed with Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) goods began circulating online.
Netizens accused him of using government resources to boost his image.
Go immediately responded, saying in numerous media interviews that the DSWD goods and his private donations just happened to be distributed together.
“Nagkakatabi lang mga relief goods diyan kaya po huwag na lang natin ipagkait 'yung tulong sa mga nangangailangan (The relief goods were just placed beside the donations so don’t deprive those who need help),” he said of the incident.
He called those outraged over the incident as “inggitero (envious)” and “malisyoso (malicious)".
But photos of the event show that Go himself distributed his private donations together with the DSWD relief goods. Go handed his private donations on top of the DSWD boxes.
The government media coverage and resources are used even for events not related to any specific government program, but are purely Go’s programs. As a government official, he can argue that these are official government events. But the fact that “Bong Go” branded donations are given out to the tune of Bong Go jingles shows there’s more than government service afoot.
Aceron says this is another loophole that politicians can exploit to promote themselves using their government positions.
"Politicians can always say they are not campaigning, but are only doing their work that gets publicity," she said.
All the publicity for these Bong Go events, however, don’t compare to the mileage he gets just by being with Duterte. In recent months, he's learned to maximize this.
A comparison of Malacañang photos since March shows an effort to ensure Go is in the frame as much as possible.
Previously, Go’s face or features would be included as a natural consequence of constant companionship with Duterte. In the month of February, for instance, Rappler found that photo albums of presidential events would have sometimes zero or at most two photos with Go’s face.
But come June, Go’s face was in 3, at most 7 of around 10 photographs of a presidential event. There are now even photos of just Go – taking selfies with fans, answering questions from the media, or interacting with beneficiaries of the government program.
This would have been seen as highly uncharacteristic just a few months ago when Go insisted on staying in the background and refused to be caught on camera by media, much less be quoted. (READ: Introducing the new Bong Go: Media-shy to media-savvy)
Go is using government officials to coordinate media coverage of his events. There’s a special Viber group for media, “DU30 Media V.2,” dedicated to Bong Go press releases and announcements. A PCOO assistant secretary manages the group.
More officials and personnel have even been appointed and hired to augment Go’s staff, including former media practitioners now assigned to document his activities.
This suddenly media-savvy, exposure-hungry Go made his appearance around March. What prompted the transformation?
A few weeks before, Go appeared at the Senate hearing on the Philippine Navy frigates project which was held after the Philippine Daily Inquirer and Rappler published stories on his or his office’s alleged intervention in the deal.
Days after the hearing, Duterte began speaking of Go’s possible senatorial bid. He even made it sound like the Senate hearing gave Go the perfect platform to launch his senatorial run.
"So itong kay Bong sabi ko, 'Bong, this is going to be your ticket to being a senator.' Matagal na ako sa pulitika eh. Once you harass a person and that person is really very good in the eyes of the public perception or otherwise, ginagawa mo lang hero eh. Kita mo, without campaigning naging senador na tuloy," said Duterte in front of overseas Filipino workers in Hong Kong.
(So I said, 'Bong, this is going to be your ticket to being a senator.' I've been in politics for so long. Once you harass a person and that person is really very good in the eyes of the public perception or otherwise, you're just turning him into a hero. You see, without campaigning, now he's a senator.)
Go continues to insist he is not running for senator. If he is to be believed, what are all his recent activities for? Is he merely testing the waters for a possible Senate bid? Is this a way to polish his image after the frigate controversy?
With Go's abrupt change from man behind the scenes to star of the show, his inescapable promotional materials, and his very public displays of generosity, does anyone still believe him when he declares, "I'm not running"? – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.