Thursday, June 24, 2010

Corruption in the peace department (2)

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” —One of the eight Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

From Tibet, the United Arab Emirates and here at home came e-mailed reactions from Filipinos who were outraged and shocked at the disclosures of Secretary Annabelle Abaya, outgoing head of the Office of the Presidential Assistant on the Peace Process (OPAPP). Abaya who has headed the agency for barely a year discovered a nest of corruption inside the august department mandated to help bring about peace in strife-torn areas in the country.
As I said last week, that situation was not entirely unknown. There had been stories from insiders who knew about what was going on. Someone I knew who had worked with the OPAPP and left in disgust years ago once told a group of us that someone in the office had asked her if she wanted to participate in a ghost project. She replied in jest that she didn’t need the money as she had enough. She also described the power to corrupt of the Commission on Audit personnel assigned to the OPAPP at that time. Speaking of bantay-salakay.
Some readers said they were bitin (in suspense) with last week’s column piece (we dwelt on Abaya’s discoveries on her first and second days in OPAPP) and asked to have more of our interview with her. So here is more.

Q. Did things clear up on your third day?

A. Not really. I went straight to the room of the person feeding me all this fund nonsense. Even before I could speak, I was told that there was a big mistake. The amounts given to me earlier were wrong. It was just P3 million for me, P1 million for my assistant, and P1 million for this and that. I said, “Whoa, stop! This is illegitimate and illegal.” The person went into panic and seemed to be taking orders by cell phone from someone. By this time, I was so determined to get to the bottom of all this. By some luck, the President asked me to go with her on a provincial trip the next day.

Q. Did you discuss it with her?

A. I said, “Ma’am, it’s been three days and I feel like it’s been three weeks.” I said the job was right up my alley but I have reforms to deal with that I cannot do without her help in the next eight months. So she annexed my finance and admin services to hers. Fantastic. I had Ching Vargas and her team to swoop down on my office.

Q. Did you discover anything more?

A. Yes. Money in allowances, bonuses and perks were liberally given but not in accordance with law. Funds, assets, office property and equipment were unaccounted for. Documentation was missing or defective. We couldn’t even find the registration papers of 14 new cars. Of these, two cars were missing for months but then suddenly appeared in our parking lot, without keys or papers… I found out we had more than 60 cars in various parts of the country, some in various stages of decay.

Q, You were a killjoy.

A. You can say that. I was the sixth presidential assistant for the peace process (PAPP) and the people were probably tired of adjusting to a new PAPP every few months. I didn’t feel welcome. I was assigned an eight-year-old car, while lower ranking officials and their staff were using brand new vehicles.

Q. What were your other discoveries?

A. I felt strong pressure to immediately bring out the second half of a special fund. I was determined to be careful because I was tipped by Palace people when I was appointed that a large amount of money was coming and they needed someone they could trust to guard it. I insisted that a review be presented so I could be made comfortable to authorize disbursements. I found out that the first half of the budget was finished in one year. Only 36 percent went to the intended recipients. The rest went to unauthorized purchase of cars, set-up and beautification of offices, representation, travel, supplies and expenditures still being figured out to this day. I really saw red after this. I ordered the creation of a review team to give me a better picture of the situation, recommend how to improve the program and ensure that the fund is spent judiciously henceforth.

Q. What helped you fight corruption?

A. Three C’s: courage, compassion and collaboration.

Q. Weren’t you afraid?

A. It was more of apprehension while treading the unknown. But I woke up every day with a sense of excitement and purpose. Like many times in my life, I sensed so acutely that I was being guided. It was almost a spiritual experience for me. I was advised to beef up my security. I was told that other PAPPs had as many as 20 security aides. “Whoa,” I said. Compromise, they said, and that I should have at least eight and should not be foolhardy. I realized I didn’t have to be afraid because I did not antagonize people. I spoke to their understanding and connected to their values.

Q. You got people to work with you?

A. Yes. It was painful for people to give up monetary emoluments they were used to, but when they understood the circumstances and assessed their options, they gave them up. I know they want those responsible for the problem to be made accountable. The COA and Ombudsman are helping us.

Q. Is it true that you downsized the OPAPP from 350 to 270 people?

A. We call it “right-size.” First, those who were into questionable activities had to go. Second, those who didn’t have the qualifications for positions available also had to go. We realized we were doing them a disservice if we kept them and not contributing to their personal growth.

More next week. Let me say here that I don’t know Abaya personally. Her initial disclosures at a peace forum several weeks ago intrigued me so I sought her out to make her reveal more.