POSTSCRIPT / February 18, 1999 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Why not focus first on SALs of officials?

INSTEAD of harassing small wage-earners, President Estrada should first zero in on his fellow officials who are required by law to file regularly their sworn Statement of Assets and Liabilities.

What is Mr. Estrada doing with these piles of official SAL gathering dust in some forsaken corner in the bureaucracy?

Most of the SALs of officials have been doctored to hide illegally acquired wealth. Still, these statements can be used, together with other documents, to pin down officials who have systematically stashed away the fruits of their corruption in real estate and other valuable property.

At least half of officialdom could go to jail for illegal wealth, and the government recover millions, if only there is an honest attempt to unmask and prosecute corrupt officials. As a veteran politician, Mr. Estrada knows that.

The trouble, as we often lament, is that officials cover up for one another. Nobody wants to cast the first stone.

Incumbents do not want former officials prosecuted because they themselves would want protection after they step down from office with their own loot. Top officials do not want to crack down on corrupt lower officials because they don’t want to appear as “nagmamalinis.”

* * *

THE purpose of the SAL requirement for plain citizens is to make it difficult for them to hide taxable income, and thereby force them to pay the right taxes.

But why impose a law giving legal cover for self-incrimination? If the government wants to track down undeclared income, it should look for a more reasonable and less abhorrent device.

The government should not force citizens to testify against themselves in violation of their constitutional rights. Even in the cat-and-mouse game of tax collection and tax-avoidance, there should be a modicum of fairness.

If the government insists on wielding an iron hand to wrest information from citizens, we can see a tax revolt a-brewing.

Obviously, the Estrada administration does not have the will to go after officials who already have their SALs on file. Then, it does not have the moral right to require plain citizens to submit statements of assets ands liabilities on top of their income tax returns.

* * *

THE ulterior motive for a universal SAL requirement is admittedly to raise more revenue. That we can understand, since Mr. Estrada has made so many extravagant promises that require billions to fulfill.

But taxing the people to death is not the only way to raise money. In fact, it is counter-productive since it whips up resistance and resentment.

As we keep saying again and again, what the administration should do is cut down high-level corruption, which is illegally diverting at least 40 percent of government funds to private pockets. Reducing corruption by only half will raise enough money to take the place of additional or new taxes.

A law that Mr. Estrada can use in prosecuting crooks and raising revenue is Rep. Act. 1379 (Forfeiture Act) which provides that:

“…(W)henever any public officer or employee has acquired during his incumbency an amount of property which is manifestly out of proportion to his salary as such public officer or employee and to his other lawful income from legitimately acquired property, such property shall be presumed prima facie to have been unlawfully acquired.”

This law alone is enough to raise the millions that Mr. Estrada needs.

* * *

TO illustrate, internal revenue records show that the combined income of the late dictator and his first lady from 1949 to 1984 amounted to only P16.4 million.

Based on this combined legitimate income, how could the Marcos couple have amassed assets worth at least P500 billion that Mrs. Imelda Marcos claims are merely being held for them by their cronies in blue chip corporations?

This is aside from the $580 million in Marcos assets held in an escrow (pronounced “screw”) account at the Philippine National Bank.

The law is clear: That portion of the Marcos wealth that is manifestly out of proportion to their legitimate income is presumed to have been illegally acquired.

But is Mr. Estrada ready and willing to go after his friend and ally Imelda?

That’s just the point. If the whole exercise is clothed in hypocrisy, wala pong mangyayari.

* * *

TAKE the case of the P3-million extortion exposed recently right in Malacañang.

Mr. Estrada is no political babe-in-the-woods. He knows what exactly happened. He also knows that former Executive Secretary (now Makati congressman) Joker Arroyo was just telling the plain truth when he said that such shenanigan is SOP (standard operating procedure) in Malacañang.

How come Mr. Estrada is not displaying the same Olympic wrath in going after crooks in the Palace? Instead, he wants the book thrown only at the woman who delivered the P3 million.

They say it was bribery. How can the woman, Mary Ann Maslog, be a briber if there was no one bribed? Mr. Estrada should bring out the official who was bribed so his bribery line can be credible.

* * *

BEFORE we get brainwashed about the supposed bribery, we should be told that it was not bribery but pure and simple extortion. Mr. Estrada knows that, but he has to protect his boys by making it appear that they were being bribed.

Somebody, a “secretary,” in the budget office must have demanded the usual grease money for Maslog’s papers to move and the partial payment to her company marked for release.

Ms. Maslog was just delivering the amount being extorted from them in easy installments. Contractors have to come across every step of the way. It’s not bribery (who is the businessman who wants additional expenses?), but extortion—and contractors have no choice.

Some coffee shop habitues are even saying that the nameless “secretary” in the budget office is giving corruption a bad name by demanding only P3 million for a P200 million textbook contract.

That’s how pennyante the crooks have become. Or it indicates the desperation of some officials who feel they may not stay long in their seats of power.

* * *

WE received a letter from Administrator Eduardo Nonato N. Joson of the National Food Authority denying that a “son of a high Malacañang official is cornering the grains importation deals at our (NFA) office.”

“We know no one in Malacañang who is influencing, or even manipulating importation deals on rice or any other commodities being handled by NFA,” he said.

Okay, so we will tell the frustrated traders who had been elbowed out of their niche that their whining is without basis.

Para isang denial na lang, do we also tell everybody that it is not true that Lakas spokesman Gualberto Lumauig was stripped of his lucrative cargo cart business at the NAIA to accommodate the same favored son and his associate, a certain “Tantoco”?

* * *

ASST. General Manager Conrado C. Zabella of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office said in a letter that it is “absolutely not true that there is lack of information on how PCSO has made instant millionaires of many of its (Lotto) winners.”

He gave the usual explanation that while the PCSO announces if there are winners, security demands that the winners are not identified. The winners may come out in the open on their own if they want, he added.

Of course, we are told after each draw if there are winning numbers. But gone are the days when there are stories describing (without names and pictures) the jackpot winners who came to claim their prizes and talked with then Chairman Manuel Morato.

During the time of Morato also, there were regular updates in media on what prizes are still unclaimed, so ticket holders could recheck their numbers before the one-year deadline for claiming prizes.

* * *

PRIZES not claimed in one year go to a charity fund. I erroneously called this a special fund, but whatever it’s called, it is a rich source of easy money for various expenses.

Zabella rolls out the hoary line that there are auditors at PCSO, saying in so many words that these auditors detect and prevent anomalous disbursements. Really? Since when?

But our observation stands that Lotto tickets are printed on thermal paper where prints fade out before the one-year deadline. Because of the poor quality of Lotto slips, many winners have lost their prizes because their numbers just faded away.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 18, 1999)

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