He may not realize it yet, but President Benigno S. Aquino III, who’s currently basking in his overwhelming approval ratings, is facing what could potentially be his administration’s worst political scandal. And Malacanang is not doing a good job at handling it.
The President’s friend and shooting buddy, Rico Puno, is under fire for his alleged involvement in a suspicious arms deal between the Philippine National Police (PNP) and a reportedly corrupt Israeli weapons manufacturer. The President has accepted Puno’s resignation as Undersecretary of the Interior; but questions remain unanswered, sparking a Senate investigation that was quickly subverted by Palace allies. Now, the frenzied media in Manila is dying to know more.
To be sure, the affair appears to have been overblown by the Philippines’ notoriously free press– the accusations are based on suspicious circumstances rather than concrete proof, and the amount of money involved is peanuts compared with the usual high-level, under-the-table deals that plague governments throughout Southeast Asia– but it does undermine the impeccable reputation of the Aquino administration, which has been credited for the Philippines’ stellar economic performance in the past two years.
The brouhaha began when Puno tried to secure the apartment and offices of his immediate boss, Secretery Jesse Robredo, on the day the latter’s plane crashed. The Secretary’s death was eventually confirmed a few days later, but not before his wife had asked the Secretary of Justice to secure her husband’s offices to prevent certain people from laying their hands on some sensitive documents, raising speculations that Secretary Robredo, one of the few Filipino politicians known for their flawless reputation and integrity, had been investigating officials in his own department, possibly Puno himself. It was then reported that Puno approved the Israeli arms deal on the day Secretary Robredo’s predecessor, Manuel Roxas III, assumed office, despite the fact that the President himself had ordered to put the deal on hold after finding– through Google, would you believe?– that the firearms were grossly overpriced. Later on, it was reported that Puno had in fact gone to Israel prior to the deal, raising further doubts about his fidelity to the President’s Daang Matuwid policy.
Last week, flamboyant Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago called for an investigation “in aid of legislation” on the Puno affair, where the beleaguered former undersecretary gave conflicting answers to questions about his Israeli trip. The said investigation was boycotted by both members of the Cabinet and senators allied to the Aquino administration, while a similar probe in the House of Representatives was cancelled, perhaps on orders from the Palace. In retaliation, Senator Defensor-Santiago announced that she’s vetoing Secretary Roxas’s confirmation.
In a budget hearing at the Senate earlier today, Environment Secretary Ramon Paje admitted that the Cabinet’s boycott of Senator Defensor-Santiago’s investigation was done on orders of the President. Malacanag’s stand is that the boycott was done because the senator failed to submit her questions for Cabinet members in advance, which the President said was a constitutional requirement for congressional investigations. Senator Defensor-Santiago, on the other hand, countered that this requirement applies only to Question Hour and not to committee hearings.
Obviously, the senator is merely using the Puno affair to gain attention; but this doesn’t excuse Malacanang’s failure to cooperate with the Senate investigation. Now, fairly or unfairly, it appears that the President is trying to protect his friend. Critics are pointing out that, at the very least, the President seems to be unable to put national interest over his loyalty to his friends. This, after all, is not the first time Puno drew flak: A government panel had found him responsible for the disastrous Manila hostage crisis in 2010, but his head didn’t roll. A highly-placed Inquirer source had claimed that the President had wanted to sack his friend at that time, but an appeal from Puno’s relatives apparently led to a change of heart. Similarly, an emotional appeal from Land Transportation Office (LTO) chief and presidential shooting buddy Virginia Torres had allegedly changed the President’s decision to let her go following a similar scandal.
To be fair, some insiders are saying that President Aquino had actually asked Puno to resign as early as two months ago when the President himself discovered the overpriced Israeli deal. Publicly, he gave incoming Secretary Roxas a free hand to form his own team at the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), which could be taken as the President telling the incoming DILG chief to go ahead and fire Puno, for whom Roxas apparently has no love lost. But a few days later, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa contradicted the President, and bypassed Roxas, by announcing that Puno would stay in the DILG. It was Secretary Ochoa who wrote Senator Defensor-Santiago to say that Cabinet members would not be allowed to attend her Senate hearings unless the Palace is furnished with the questions she would be asking in advance.
It’s probably just me, but I think this implies that Puno may have had the backing of Malacanang’s Samar faction, to which Executive Secretary Ochoa belongs. Indeed, popular pro-Aquino columnist Conrado de Quiros, a known critic of Secretaries Roxas and Ricky Carandang, who both belong to the rival Balay faction, has come out with a series of columns supporting Puno.
If the Executive Secretary and his Samar faction are indeed backing Puno, then the President must step in to handle the situation himself before it spirals out of control. The last thing he needs is a potential political scandal. Obviously, he would have to set aside his personal friendship with the former undersecretary.
What should the President do? Well, blogger-columnist Manuel Buencamino is suggesting something very simple and neat: Refer Puno’s case to the Office of the Ombusman. The current Ombusman, Conchita Carpio-Morales, is known for her feisty independence; hence there would be no accusations of whitewash should her office absolve Puno. Says Buencamino: “The President could have saved himself a lot of flak from politicians and media if he had simply announced, ‘I’ve turned the papers over to the Ombudsman. I await her findings and will respect whatever action she may decide to take. If you have any questions, go see her. Now let me get back to work.’” Read the entire blog post here.
Of course, the problem with this option is that the President may not be willing to risk having the Ombudsman find his dear friend Puno guilty. But if that’s the case, then Daang Matuwid is a farce. This blog believes it isn’t; so, Mr. President, please heed Mr. Buencamino’s advice.