Saturday, October 20, 2007

'SOPs' and the Grease Money Administration

by: Aya Fabros / IPD
Social Movements

The past couple of weeks, we've been bombarded with news of one government scandal after another -- from the ZTE-NBN deal and golf meeting offers to the impeachment vote bribes, to the Malacañang brown paper pabaons. These unfolding series brings together a cast from various government units, as it bares exchanges among powerful players including appointed and elected officials. It's not just the scale of corruption and the amount of bribes and kickbacks that make the cases shocking and explosive. It's also the way that the cases are insidiously interconnected, rather than separate, isolated incidents. We bear witness to a trail of kickbacks and bribes, one deal spawning, requiring, demanding yet another, underscoring the critical engine that actually drives this government: grease money.

The ZTE-NBN project alone demonstrates the kind of grease going around these days. If we go by Joey De Venecia's statement, the project was overpriced by 100%, with at least $160 million dollars allotted for the pockets of Mike 'Mystery Man' Arroyo and other related 'items' such as pay offs and bribes to competing firms (Amsterdam Holdings, 10 million dollars), possible collaborators (NEDA chief Romulo Neri was offered 200 million pesos), and close cohorts (COMELEC Commissioner Abalos, ? ). The Chinese government provides a soft loan to cover the bloated cos
t of the project, under the condition that a Chinese firm bags the deal. ZTE gets the broadband project, Mystery man and company anticipates its cut, Comelec Commissioner goes around offering bribes to swing officials in favor of ZTE, a competing firm proposing a BOT scheme is told to 'back off' and we almost end up with yet another anomalous debt.

The dimensions of this sort of plunder is so incomprehensible, it has to be spelled out. We're talking about officials incurring loans, with our names on it, that only
serves to fatten their bank accounts. We're talking about $ 160 million dollars worth of grease that adds to our national debt, which we end up paying for, with our taxes. The three percent interest on the grease alone translates to an added burden of approximately $ 4.8 million dollars. That's an added P211 million pesos worth of interest payments, that we have to shoulder each year, thanks to their kick backs and cuts. We're talking about the way, our government officials, their friends and families, can just easily cook up such a scam, at our expense. It's an unbelievably shameless and incorrigible scheme that they expected to carry out right before our noses. That is, until Joey de Venecia exposed the whole scam, which led to a senate inquiry and headline after headline that links the president's family to our generation's Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. GMA retreats and the ZTE-NBN deal is scrapped. But then again, it doesn't end there.

The $329M ZTE-NBN scam generated enough dirt for the president to get impeached, analysts say. The impeachment buzz over the ZTE-NBN scandal begets new cases of bribery and pay offs to insulate the president. Listen to the reports and you'll find an exaggerated version of the gameshow 'Deal or No Deal. Those who go 'deal', get as little as P200,000 to as much as $10 million dollars. Before ZTE spilled over to Congress, Joey de Venecia was being offered $10 million dollars by Abalos, just so he would 'back off' the project. Former NEDA Chief Romulo Neri would've gotten P200 million, had he accepted Abalos' proposition. Representatives in the house were offered P2 million pesos, according to Represenative Beltran, to favor the 'weak' impeachment. Governors and Mayors, according to Gov. Ed Panlilio, got loot bags containing P 200,000 to P 500,000 after their breakfast meeting in Malacañang. It's these 'deals' that seem to link the different government agencies and institutions, from COMELEC to NEDA to CONGRESS to MALACAÑANG down to the different LGUs of the archipelago. Rather than set up a broadband network that would ensure the smooth coordination of government offices, this whole National Broadband Network episode brought to light an existing ' bribeband network' that facilitates the sinister collusion of government officials.

Of course, grease money isn't just about who gets how much. It's about projects being bloated to accommodate the kind of grease that has to go around. It's about loans we have to make to finance the grease projects. It's about anomalous debts that taxpayers have to pay. It's about Comelec commissioners suddenly becoming jetsetters, spreading the word about a project that promises to link up the different agencies of government, dangling millions of pesos for possible 'interagency collaboration' . It's about impeachment cases being resolved in Malacañang and not in the halls of Congress. It's about our representatives being bought. It's about cash being spread around to keep the whole thing together.

In every sense of the term, SOP, the euphemism for cuts, kickbacks and payoffs, has become standard operating procedure, spearheaded by the highest officials of the land. Standard operating procedure describes the way millions can be offered and taken so casually and so frequently. It portrays the manner that this perverse protocol has become so ubiquitous and pervasive. It explains how easily certain officials can turn their backs, invoke executive privilege and move along, just because they didn't take the money. It captures how other officials can promptly rationalize their acts, even if they did take the money. It accounts for elected officials just going public about how these gifts are actually 'common practice'. It depicts the way a president can get away with just saying “huwag mong tanggapin”. It tells us why we can just shake off the news, and ignore the fact that this whole fiasco started escalating around the same time the budget hearings have been taking place in Congress.

Think about it. On the one hand, long grueling debates on how to make ends meet, extensive discussions on how much money should go to which agency, how little is left to health, education and other social services. On the other hand, quick, casual meetings, with hundreds of millions of pesos up for grabs in just one encounter, where half a million can easily be handed out, to hundreds of officials-- no vouchers, no line items, no questions asked. Now, what's wrong with this picture?

What we are seeing now tells us that grease money does not only 'facilitate' transactions ('pampadulas' ). It characterizes how state institutions relate with each other. It determines which policies, projects and programs are thought of, initiated and carried out. It dictates the sort of loans and deals we get into. It defines the way this government operates. Forget about sound governance and a strong republic, this is how things are run under the Grease Money Administration. The thing is, as SOPs have gone higher and higher, our standards of governance have sunk lower and lower.

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