October 14, 2010

No transparency, no accountability

President Benigno Aquino III’s handling of the Incident Investigation and Review Committee (IIRC) report on the August hostage-taking fiasco exposes his administration’s lack of transparency; his abuse of presidential prerogatives in order to shield his friends and allies from accountability as public officials; and his propensity to operate by means of ad hoc “reviewers” of policy when it suits him even when this jeopardizes the rule of law and undermines the authority of government agencies and institutions.

In suppressing critical parts of the IIRC report thereby preventing full accounting of responsibility for the fiasco, Mr. Aquino also undermines serious efforts to prevent similar crises from ending once more in tragedy when proposed measures are applied selectively, unevenly and in a band-aid fashion.

The foremost purpose of the IIRC, after determining the facts and circumstances of the botched hostage crisis management, was to determine official culpability.

The Palace acknowledged that the findings of facts contained in the IIRC report are correct and indisputable. Thus Mr. Aquino’s order for a review of the IIRC report, purportedly “to find the viable legal actions which can be taken against the concerned parties” and thus avoid “frivolous lawsuits” smacks of a complete cop out.

What better judge of legal viability is Mr. Aquino looking for when the head of the IIRC is no less than the justice secretary who supervises and oversees all prosecutors’ work?

Unless, as many quarters suspect, Mr. Aquino used the review to gain time and eventually let certain people of the hook, pick out those who would take the rap (yet still soften the blow by merely recommending administrative charges), and design a “communications plan” to help sell the whitewash.

Not only did Mr. Aquino set aside the principle of command responsibility by exculpating Local Government Undersecretary and de facto National Crisis Management Committee head Puno and former Police Chief Verzosa, he also did the same with Manila Mayor and Local Crisis Management Committee head Lim, who merely got a slap on the wrist with an administrative charge.

Why does the Aquino review implicitly uphold the position that the crisis was a local one when it is loud and clear, especially from the IIRC report no less, the hostage situation had developed into a crisis of national proportions?

Not only were there twenty five hostages, twenty one of whom were foreign nationals, the situation was dragging on and in fact deteriorating in the wake of the patent incompetence of the ground command and the weak and later wrongful overall leadership provided by the local CMC.

At the minimum, the corresponding national supervisory authority, from the police headed by General Verzosa, to the National Crisis Management Committee headed by Usec Puno, are guilty of criminal neglect of duty.

In fact, Mr. Puno’s decision “to downplay the situation due to the apprehension that the hostage taker might ask bigger demands if national officials are seen” is not only a mistake in judgment, it led to the concerned national officials abdicating their role of supervising government response in light of the dangerous and volatile situation.

Mr. Aquino, after giving the impression that he means business and wants to get to the bottom of the messy incident, was faced with a dilemma when the report pointed to people close to him as being administratively and criminally liable for the hostage-taking fiasco.

Mr. Aquino was looking for scapegoats given the international uproar over the incident and the need to assuage the Chinese government and the Hong Kong people. When his initial attempt to blame the media did not wash, he accepted responsibility in principle and created the IIRC.

He tried to buy time as the IIRC, a quasi-independent body composed of credible government and private individuals, labored to investigate and piece together the evidence. But their findings and recommendations didn’t come up to Mr. Aquino’s expectations and liking.

While he was forced to give the IIRC report right away to the Chinese government in order to squelch further diplomatic repercussions and bad international press before his US trip, he kept crucial parts of it secret from the public. He then subjected it to review by two of his lawyers who would acquiesce to his desired outcome.

Aquino’s avowed interest in determining where police and civilian officials went wrong in order to correct mistakes and prevent future ones was overtaken by his desire to cover up for his friends and allies, shield them from prosecution and justify maintaining one of them within his circle of trusted aides.

It is also important to point out that Mr. Aquino stripped the Interior and Local Government secretary of his mandate and authority over the national police and handed it over instead to his buddy, Mr. Puno.

Until the hostage crisis, many trusted in the Aquino administration being all too transparent. If not for the fiasco, we would not have known the real reason why the DILG post took so long to fill with Aquino even considering taking it on himself. It turns out the only reason Mr. Puno was not given the post, according to him, is that he shuns scrutiny by the Commission on Appointments.

Then the justice secretary de facto loses her mandate and authority to decide whether a government official should be charged criminally or not, that being given to the presidential legal counsel and executive secretary who constituted the low-caliber IIRC “review” committee.

In both cases, the winner is the self-proclaimed closest friend and longtime business associate of the president himself.

Malgovernance is too mild a term to describe the series of anomalous decisions Mr. Aquino has been making.

Indeed, there is a thin grey line between misuse and abuse of presidential prerogatives. That line is easily breached, along with public trust, when there is no transparency and no accountability. #

Published in Business World
15-16 October 2010


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