Philippine Corruption Dogs Aquino

While Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino has won international plaudits for his popular stand against corruption in a country where requests for "tea money" extend down to the lowliest clerk or cop, a series of scandals is raising questions whether he is merely going after his political rivals while allies get away free.

Aquino's personal honesty has never been questioned. However, a wide range of close political associates including his executive secretary, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and others have been implicated in the scandals. While Aquino has publicly expressed a personal willingness to have the matters investigated, concerns remain over how aggressive he wants those investigations to be.

The most notorious of the affairs involves a 49-year-old socialite named Janet Lim Napoles, whose family wealth is said to total billions of pesos. Napoles' cause hasn't been helped by her daughter, Jeane, who posted Instagram photos on the Internet of expensive watches, jewelry, clothing, shoes and a Porsche sports car.

Jeane Napoles enthused about shopping purchases and hobnobbing with celebrities like Justin Bieber. She lived in a flashy apartment in Los Angeles while attending design school and seems from her social media presence to be the very essence of what many Filipinos find distasteful about the elite -- especially the suddenly wealthy.

Janet Napoles sent a letter to Aquino, seeking his help in what she described as an extortion attempt by "suspicious characters" and some National Bureau of Investigation agents. The fortune, she said, came from exporting coal between China, India and Pakistan. Critics, however, say the wealth was derived from looting the Priority Development Assistance Fund, more commonly known as the "pork barrel," a P25 billion (US$574.2 million) fund set aside for congressional allocations for "priority projects and program" in lawmakers' districts.

Six former employees of the JLN Group of Companies - Napoles' corporate empire - accused her of turning the fund into a source of kickbacks. One of the six - Benhur Luy, was allegedly kidnapped by Napoles' companies and had to be rescued by the National Bureau of Investigation, the country's premier anticrime unit. Luy and another staff member of the 20 allegedly bogus family businesses told reporters the family feasted on government funds with the connivance of senators, members of the House of Representatives, staff and other government officials.

Some of the lawmakers involved - possibly as many as 15 - are said to be members of Aquino's own Liberal Party. Political analysts "note that Aquino has not demonstrated much initiative or enthusiasm in examining corruption allegations made against close allies, including members of the ruling Liberal Party," according to a report by Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a Manila-based country risk assessment firm. "Changing the culture of corruption in Philippine Politics will require investigations into allegations of graft within the ruling party."

Reports in local newspapers and the investigative website Rappler said lawmakers had channeled P10 billion into pork barrel funds to the Napoles NGOs to be used for the financing of sham projects. Rappler alleged that 15 Aquino allies including a former senator and 14 other Liberal Party representatives are among politicians who allocated funds to NGOs considered by state auditors to be bogus.

Two close Aquino allies, Executive Secretary Pacquito Ochoa Jr and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr, are among the politicians allegedly involved in another controversy, supposedly protecting customs personnel who had refused to be transferred or removed in a cleanup of the notoriously corrupt customs agency. Transparency International's Global Corruption Barometer in 2011 found that fully half of surveyed households that had contact with the customs administration reported having to pay bribes to deal with import and export requirements.

Aquino dispatched his right hand man, Mar Roxas, to clean out the bureau. But Roxas himself, at a dinner with newspaper officials, said no amount of modernization would bring change without getting rid of key officials. That apparently involves getting rid of officials backed by the influential Iglesia ni Cristo church, and those under the protection of the still powerful lawmaker Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile and Speaker Belmonte, whose brother is said to be one of the most influential customs bureau officials.

The various questions are of considerable importance to overseas investors, who have reacted with growing confidence in the Philippine economy. Although the economy remains hostage to inward remittances from overseas workers and to outsourcing call centers, manufacturing has made a respectable comeback, rising 9.7 percent in 2012 as foreign direct investment into the sector surged to a still-low US$1.03bn, from just $119.4m in 2011 and a net outflow of $1.3bn in 2010.

Another allegation, somewhat far-fetched, links Maria Elena "Ballsy" Aquino Cruz, the president's sister, and her husband, Eldon Cruz, to a group of Metro Rail Transit officials who allegedly attempted to extort US$30 million from a Czech company, Inekon, in exchange for favorable consideration on a contract to supply rail cars to the transit system. Although the Czech ambassador later said he had exonerated the two, the press has been having a field day over the matter.

The DOTC secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya, in a prepared statement, said he had ordered an probe into the matter, as has the National Bureau of Investigation. Justice Secretary Leila De Lima said President Aquino himself had ordered the investigation. Any suggestion of corruption by the Aquino family appears unlikely. The family is one of the oldest and richest in the Philippines.

None of these matters by themselves contributes to a perception of corruption surrounding the president. But they are a graphic indication of the depth of corruption in the country, extending up into the highest reaches of the legislature and into the president's own party. In his State of the Nation Address on July 25, Aquino singled out the Bureau of Customs, the Bureau of Immigration and the National Irrigation Administration for their shortcomings.

But it's unclear how far he is willing to go to clean up a system that extends down to virtually every government agency and to vast numbers of officials. Given the grim determination with which he has gone after his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and her chief defender, the ousted Chief Justice Renato Corona, it remains to he seen if he will display the same verve in going after members of his own party and government.