GOTCHA By Jarius Bondoc, The Philippine Star, Monday, August 11, 2008
Moro rebels began pulling out of nine Cotabato barrios six-and-a-half long hours after the military’s deadline Saturday. “Whew,” sighed generals in
But what of the 85 houses the pillagers had razed, plus the hundreds of livestock and sacks of rice they stole, as reported by the military? What about the villagers who are now homeless and hungry?
Manila authorities, invoking “sanctity of the peace process,” forgot all about them. But if the victims organize a posse to recover their possessions and exact justice, expect the authorities to go after them.
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Guard your money. That was Cora dela Paz’s advice to SSS members end-July as she turned over the helms of the provident fund to Romy Neri. It sounded more like an alarm. For, everything about the SSS is tempting to the immoderately greedy.
SSS is bursting with P248 billion assets, mostly forced contributions of 27 million private workers and their employers. Although a private fund, it is administered for the members by government. Malacañang picks the chief and trustees, who in turn flaunt loyalty to the appointer. A string of Presidents have abused the fund for brownie points, ordering nominees to give out doles even if unaffordable, so long as they looked good. When dela Paz assumed management in 2001, SSS barely had 12 years of life left. Erap Estrada had squandered hundreds of millions from it (and GSIS) in 1999 to prop up a crony’s sham stocks. Top managers either partook of the bounty or fell demoralized. But Dela Paz recharged the staff to nurse the fund back to health, extending its lifespan to a cozy 29 years. Members’ remittances were raised slightly and stock earnings sensationally. At present the SSS trades P200 million worth of stocks a day.
Enter Neri as unceremonious replacement. Dela Paz admitted she had long wanted out for health reasons, but that politics caused her sudden removal too. She declined to say more. Three reasons were whispered in political-business circles for her axing — all about shielding private SSS money from sticky fingers. Dela Paz reportedly had refused to have SSS subsidize the Palace’s plan for a universal ID system. This foiled some retired generals’ kickbacks from the ID cards. Then, dela Paz rebuffed a stockbroker close to Malacañang who wanted appointment as sole trader for SSS. Even for only one-percent fee from the P200-million daily trading, the influence peddler would have made a cool P2 million a day. The straw that broke the camel’s back was last May’s Meralco ownership fight. Dela Paz allegedly rejected buying new Meralco shares preparatory to wresting control from the Lopez clan. Neri had led the anti-Lopez campaign, though then with the Commission on Higher Education.
Only Neri can confirm the reasons for his hasty takeover. He pledges to run the SSS well for its members. But his role in last year’s ZTE scandal has left the public doubtful. In a Senate inquiry on the $330-million scam, Neri revealed a P200-million offer from then-Comelec head Ben Abalos to back the deal as economic minister. But when asked why his boss Gloria Arroyo approved it even after he reported the bribery, he clammed up. By invoking executive privilege, critics said, Neri gave weight to secrecy of presidential decision-making than to exposing high crime. He even risked constitutional crisis by siccing the Supreme Court on a Senate itching to arrest him for contempt. Then, he ignored pleas of whistleblower and close friend Jun Lozada for help against police abductors out to silence him.
Can a person of such character run the country’s biggest provident fund? Karina Constantino David, Civil Service Commission chief during the entire affair, perhaps summed it up best: “Like the rotten regime he serves, Neri has a gigantic perception problem. He has little credibility left — as a public official, as a technocrat, and as an academic. His name will forever conjure images of cowardly clueless-ness in the wake of high-level corruption, a failure of nerve in the existential battle with dishonesty and pretense. And now he is put in charge of the P248-billion fund belonging to millions of ordinary workers.”
The official basis for Neri’s move to SSS does not inspire confidence either. He had long wanted to return to the Cabinet, preferably his old post as economic secretary. In Dec., three months after covering up for Arroyo in the ZTE mess, he begged her for a meeting in which to plead his cause. But the boss was cold. Days before, Neri had also met with opposition Senators Ping Lacson and Jamby Madrigal, during which he thrice described Arroyo as “evil”. And there was word that he originally was to join the Nov. 29 siege of Peninsula Hotel by jailed Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV and Brig. Gen. Danilo Lim. Still came the SSS posting as Neri’s delayed consolation prize. Palace lawyers felt that he had to somehow be kept in the Cabinet (that despises him), so he can continue invoking executive privilege. Throwing him out could drive him into the open arms of the opposition, which is eager for more evidence on sleaze in Malacañang. So the SSS appointment was accompanied by an unprecedented marching order to put under Neri the GSIS, Dept. of Social Welfare and Development, and Dept. of Health. He was to lead them as a Social Welfare Task Force during the food and fuel crisis. This again sparked worries that Arroyo, thru Neri, would dip her fingers into private SSS coffers to dole to the disenchanted poor.
And so dela Paz was right to warn SSS members: watch your money.
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