The central actor in the P50-million bribery scandal involving two top officials of the Bureau of Immigration has returned. And the testimony before the Senate of retired police official and renowned poker player Wenceslao “Wally” Sombero starting tomorrow may finally complete the puzzle of who got what from whom, and how.
Sombero’s appearance at the Senate hearing being conducted by Senator Richard Gordon is expected to smash the blank wall that probers of the sensational case have been facing for some time now. The two lawyers belonging to the San Beda College fraternity which also counts as its members President Rodrigo Duterte and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre, among other top officials of the administration, caused the impasse with their laughable denials; the disappearance of Sombero, who gave the bribe money to Immigration Associate Commissioners Al Argosino and Michael Robles, left the Gordon committee with no choice but to keep pounding away at the protestations of innocence of the two, with little else to show for its efforts.
But now that the alleged middleman between the two sacked BI officials and gambling tycoon Jack Lam has appeared, the fiction of conducting an investigation and gathering evidence (and holding on to that large stash of cash for weeks) is about to be exposed. And Argosino and Robles, who already lost their jobs because of their involvement, now face the unappetizing prospect of losing whatever is left of their honor and reputation, as well, because of Sombero’s testimony.
The entire sordid spectacle should serve as a sobering reminder to Duterte, Aguirre and the rest of the administration that corruption is still very much alive in government. Despite the repeated threats of Duterte that he will brook no hanky-panky in his government, it seems plain that the corrupt officials in the bureaucracy—including those taken in by Duterte—will still attempt to get away with bribery and extortion.
If a lesson may be derived from the case of Argosino and Robles, it’s that Duterte and his chief subalterns should be even more careful in their choice of people to put in high office—and who may be unable to resist the urge to make huge piles of money through illegal means.
Duterte may have been very cautious in choosing the members of his Cabinet, about whom we have not been hearing any of the usual tales of corruption. But if these trusted and righteous officials do not exercise the same caution in picking the people they put in subordinate positions, they could end up in the same embarrassing situation.
I only hope that Sombero tells all he knows, without pulling any punches. The people who expect zero tolerance for corruption under Duterte deserve no less.
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Speaking of mistakes, Duterte may have erred in upholding a decision of the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council canceling the lease contracts of a big banana planation in Davao del Norte. The President’s action ended a mutually profitable and beneficial arrangement between Marsman Estate Plantation and the Davao Marsman Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Development Cooperative—and ultimately caused great harm to the legitimate farmer-beneficiaries themselves.
MEPI, which has owned and operated the 1,000-hectare plantation since the 1960s, donated 799 hectares of the spread to the farmers, the legitimate beneficiaries under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. In exchange, the farmers put up the cooperative and signed an agribusiness venture agreement with the company, leasing the land back to Marsman for 30 years and allowing them to continue working on the plantation with enviable salaries and benefits such as free health care and education, on top of the rental income.
The lease contracts were upheld in 2002 by PARC under then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and everyone seemed pleased that the plantation continued to average more than $20 million in export income for its bananas a year, while the 1,800 or so workers received nearly P20,000 a month, on top of generous benefits that also included retirement packages and 30 days leave with pay.
But in 2006, a breakaway group formed a new cooperative, with a minority of the farmer-beneficiaries joining. The new group, calling itself Sto. Tomas Individual Farmers Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Cooperative, sought the cancellation of the lease contracts—but lost in all legal venues, from the National Labor Relations Commission all the way to the Supreme Court.
With the assumption to power of Duterte, the breakaway group appealed to the new PARC, headed now by Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano, who reversed the 2002 PARC ruling of Arroyo and canceled the lease contracts.
Duterte upheld Mariano’s decision, which observers said was contrary to the President’s stated vow to honor legitimate and existing contracts with business entities like Marsman. And now the farmer-beneficiaries themselves are in danger of losing all their salaries, benefits and tenure, receiving the donated land but without the means and the capital to continue as a profitable commercial enterprise like before.
Sad but true.