Thursday, September 18, 2008

Was it the handling?

Favorite topic of conversation in coffee shops these days is the tempest in the Senate. For those who have not read the narrative that we printed in this space Thursday and Saturday last week, let me encapsulate the events:

On Monday, September 8, in a hearing of the DBCC on the budget, Senator Ping Lacson confronted Secretary Rolando Andaya Jr. with a discovery: A double appropriation of 200 million pesos for an identical project. After Andaya consulted his staff, he responded to the Senate Finance Committee that the additional 200 million for the C-5 Extension road was a "congressional insertion." Asked by Lacson caused the insertion, Andaya could not answer.

By Monday afternoon, before the session opened, the speculation over media was that the insertion was initiated by Senate President Manuel Villar. For one, some budget department sources had told media that the insertion was done at the instance of Villar. Then again, Lacson sent his staff to check if there was a billboard proclaiming the proponent or "political benefactor" of the project, and while there was no billboard any longer, tricycle drivers plying the neighbourhood routes said that there used to be one with SP Villar claiming the project. Media came to town with the revelation.

This is where politicians of high stature and big dreams usually call in a coterie of media and communications advisers. Some senators have none, and rely on their own instincts. Some have a battery of such. I would not know for certain how many "handlers" Villar has, or whether he relies purely on his own political instincts.

But Villar’s handling of the issue, as most every political observer and coffee shop habitué these days wonder, was clearly wanting. And wanting is putting it kindly.

At the time he called a press conference in his office (Tuesday afternoon, September 9), Lacson had not accused him of any wrongdoing, and had not identified him for certain. The person who said it was a congressional insertion was Gloria’s budget secretary. But Villar was angry. He lashed at his critics, even said something disparaging about a colleague whose lady friend, a well-known broadcast journalist, was stridently critical of him. Which should be par for the course for someone who has been Speaker and is now Senate President, and who wants to be president.

But while he praised the C-5 extension road project, also known as Carlos P. Garcia Avenue, he did not specifically say that it was he who requested the insertion, or call it amendment albeit not done on the floor.

One week after the discovery of the double entry, Lacson delivered a strongly-worded privilege speech, and in front of the dais where Villar sat glumly, directly asked Villar to own up to the additional 200 million. It was supposed to have been delivered the day after Villar’s press conference tirade, but the rains interfered. So both Villar and his handlers could have come up with a cogent explanation between the rains of Wednesday and the expected tempest of Monday of the next week. Why the eerie silence on the part of Villar, mismo?

A man whose integrity is being questioned, and who railed and ranted six days about "political motives" a week before, this time meekly reiterated that he has been clean all his life, that every centavo of his fortune was derived from the sweat of his honest labor. That is rather uncharacteristic for one who feels his reputation was maligned, and frontally at that, in front of peers among whom he is primus inter pares.

He should have gone down from the dais, and defended himself, with righteous indignation.

Yet he did not. Instead, it was Juan Ponce Enrile, the senator from Cagayan who chairs the Finance Committee, who manifested on the floor that for the sake of transparency, for the sake of the budgetary process that has become questionable in the minds of the public, an investigation should be made, and "let the axe fall where it should." Earlier, in an interview, Enrile identified Villar as the one who requested him for the insertion of an additional 200 million.

On the eighth day (Tuesday the 16th), Villar gave exclusive interviews for the two major television stations where he finally admitted it was he who requested the additional appropriation, but explained that these were two distinct parts of the total C-5 road project. He now parroted the line given by DPWH Undersecretary Manuel Bonoan, that the addition would fund a flyover. Note that Bonoan made the explanation five days after the Monday discovery.

Why should a simple explanation of the specifics of a massive undertaking such as this take the DPWH five days to produce? The project exists. There are plans and specifications, even cost estimates for every phase. To begin with, as Lacson pointed out in his speech, why were these alleged two phases of a project not so specifically described in the GAA? Other projects which Lacson named were very, very specific. In the case of 400 million, there clearly was sleight-of-hand in the generic listing of identical projects, the legerdemain being "neat" – an old name, and a new name for the road.

And why did it take Villar eight days to finally admit the additional appropriation, not before his peers in the Senate, but in two "exclusive" and presumably arranged interviews?

Meanwhile, through all of the previous week, his political acolytes did the contorted explanations for him. Even a party spokesman had to bear the brunt of speaking for his party boss on an issue that was on the plate of a Senate he is not part of. Why, simply because he had, in the words of Ms. Korina Sanchez, "an angelic face"? The advice of "handlers", perhaps? Or simply an eager-beaver who wants to be in the limelight because he harbors senatorial plans for 2010?

In falling all over the place, the explanations were varied. Two stretches of the same road, later, a flyover here and a flyover there. But then again, the DBM secretary, he who holds the power of disbursements from the purse, earlier and forthrightly declared that he was impounding the additional 200 million. But these are "two legitimate phases of the project", hindi ba? What gives?

It should have been a simple phone call right after the Monday, September 8 DBCC hearing, between the secretaries of DPWH and DBM, and on the same afternoon, a clear explanation about the "two phases" of the C-5 project would have been produced, and communicated to the public. Why did that take five days for a career "senior" undersecretary? Why did it take eight days for the DPWH Secretary? And why is Malacañang now the one clearing the "opposition" Senate President, through Andaya, plus this Golez, and now, even the presidential legal counsel, Apostol?

Was it a case of "nagpa-palusot" as plain folks call such contorted, delayed explanations? Delayed justifications to save the day for a beleaguered Senate President who did not have either the righteous indignation to defend himself from questions on his honor, or the presence of mind to explain what ought to have been so simple to explain away, if, and that is the big IF, he is telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.

In the meantime, through all that week of wagons circling their beleaguered master, Villar’s political allies and acolytes spewed arrogant words so similar of the way Malacañang dismisses alleged "political noise". "Bring it to court!" (That’s very, very, Palace-plagiarized). "A mountain out of a molehill," which gave Lacson a chance to come to town. And "200 million is just loose change", which gave Lacson the opening for comparing the standards of the mighty and the wealthy with the little dreams of the ordinary Filipino.

So, was it the handling?

Trying to be dispassionate, especially since I know some of the acolytes very well, and since I know some of the "handling" advisers as well, I could only conclude that the fault lay, and lies, in the character of the man who would be president.

Why the evasiveness? Why send your lieutenants to do battle over a matter which only needs a clear and simple explanation following a clear and simple admission, if indeed nothing was the matter? Or is something the matter?