Thursday, June 17, 2010

Corruption in the peace department

“Ah, it was an exciting novel. It was action-packed from Day 1.”

Thus started Secretary Annabelle Abaya, head of the Office of the Presidential Assistant on the Peace Process (OPAPP), when she recounted to the Inquirer the unraveling of the web of corruption in the peace office. Abaya headed the agency for less than a year, succeeding Avelino Razon who ran for Manila mayor and lost in the last elections. Soon she will leave her post when the newly elected president, Noynoy Aquino, assumes office and appoints a new head.

Abaya’s non-fiction “novel” deserves serialization. For now, here’s a teaser from the interview she gave the Inquirer. Hold your breath.
“Yes, no one warned me. At 9 a.m., on my first day on the job, I was briefed that I would get several millions on the first five days of each month, and was presented with a list of whom to pay. I pretended to act normal. I didn’t know if this was legitimate. I thought I was only being tested. But by mid-day, someone else came along with another list of persons we supposedly need to pay monthly.
“When I asked if the people on the list were the same people on the other list given to me in the morning, I was told, ‘Wala ho akong pakialam sa listahan ninyo. Ito lang yung sa akin.’ (I have nothing to do with your list. This one is mine.)

“Still I acted normally, not wanting to show alarm bells ringing in my head. I wanted them to think I was cool about it so they will tell me more. But by the end of the day, the same person came to me and said that a new release was made to my office for a specific project. I was given a list of people to be paid off for the release: “P10 million to this, P3 million to that, P1 million to this and that. I couldn’t hide my shock this time, so I asked what this was for. I was told, ‘Ganyan ho talaga ang kalakaran dito’ (That’s how business is conducted here.) I had to catch my breath and take hold of my panic. That night I couldn’t sleep till 3 a.m.”

That is just the prologue. Take a deep breath. There is more to the P170-million fund scam that Abaya brought to the open. The amount may be peanuts to big-time plunderers and highwaymen but this is not the Department of Public Works and Highways, this is the peace office, supposedly hallowed ground for peacemakers whom Jesus Christ extolled in the Beatitudes.

People are used to knowing about corruption in high places especially in government agencies involved in high finance projects, contracts, bidding, procurement, revenue collection and the like. But learning about corruption in an agency tasked to delve into the roots of unrest and discontent that lead to armed resistance of the citizenry, in an office mandated to find permanent solutions to decades of strife is so, so shocking.

What a letdown. Not that no one had suspected this all these years. I had heard horror stories from someone who used to work in the OPAPP and left in disgust, something about the resident auditor wielding power in liquidations and sowing fear in the hearts of those who did things straight. “Iipitin ka (You’d be in a tight spot) if you didn’t play along and your legitimate expenses and liquidations would be questioned,” an insider said then.

Now it is the head of OPAPP herself that has revealed what she discovered during her short stint. Abaya recently announced in a peace forum in Mindanao that she was “proud of breaking the back of corruption” in the government body directly tasked to facilitate peace negotiations with the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the communist New People’s Army. The OPAPP is, of course, expected to go beyond table talks and negotiations, and find ways to bring lasting peace to in strife-torn communities.
In the brief news report last Monday by Jeffrey M. Tupas of Inquirer Mindanao, Abaya did say she talked to her three predecessors, retired Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, Razon and Jesus Dureza, chair of the Mindanao Development Authority.

Abaya’s revelations were a shocker. So the Inquirer did a follow-up interview with Abaya who responded to our questions with a blow-by-blow account which reads like a whodunit novel on the deadly game of corruption.

What Abaya revealed during that recent Mindanao forum was just the scum on the surface of a deep, filthy pool. She said, “I didn’t know now long these things had been going on.”

Abaya said she did not want to be unfair to her predecessors. She did not want to go into the blame game. But she needed help. Most of all, she did not want to shame people. But she made it known to all that there was “something very wrong, something that we could not accept.”

Abaya zeroed in on the illegal disbursements. As a result of the investigation and to make a long story short, Abaya ended up dismissing some 70 OPAPP employees.

And how was Abaya’s second day?

“I walked into Deputy Executive Secretary Ching Vargas’ office unannounced and without an appointment. I told her my problem and asked her if the amount I am supposedly to be given month was legitimate. She looked puzzled as she reviewed the budget and said, ‘No.’ Now I really panicked. Ching is a good friend. I’ve known her to be upright and candid. She advised me not to sign anything and promised to look into the situation. She said, ‘Kawawa ka naman.’ (You are to be pitied.) Exactly the same comment from my close friends to whom I intimated my situation. But I couldn’t dwell on that. I had a problem and I was determined to do something about it. Inevitably, it was another sleepless night.”

A fuller story on Abaya’s revelations will come out another time in another space in this newspaper.#