SONA 2021: Duterte's anti-corruption legacy: What he said he'll do vs. what he's actually done

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 19) — Five years ago, then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte made a promise that sounded too good to be true.

"I will not promise you heaven, but I will try to stop corruption. In three to six months, I will stop corruption in government," Duterte said in a debate held before the May 2016 polls.

Some would argue this was wishful thinking. But Filipinos wanted change and they were willing to take a chance with Duterte.

"This is the first time that somebody mentioned a deadline 'no? It makes it even more believable," University of the Philippines political science professor Dr. Jean Franco said.

Duterte, however, would soon find out things are easier said than done.

Major scandals under Duterte's watch

In 2017, a shipment of shabu from China worth ₱6.4 billion slipped past the Bureau of Customs.

Of the main players in the incident, only one customs broker and two other Filipinos faced charges while the Chinese middlemen remain at large.

"Kung hindi incompetent ang mga tao sa Customs, corrupt sila," Senator Richard Gordon said during a Senate inquiry into the incident.

[Translation: People at the Customs department are either incompetent or corrupt.]

Customs chief Nicanor Faeldon was exonerated by the Justice department and ultimately by Duterte himself.

A similar incident happened in 2018, under former Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency Director General Isidro Lapeña's watch as the new Customs chief.

The biggest shipment of shabu yet — worth ₱11 billion — again eluded Customs agents.

Two years later in early 2020, all eyes turned to the Bureau of Immigrations and its so-called pastillas scheme, where Chinese nationals were supposedly allowed to enter the country without background checks.

According to one senator, the pastillas scheme masterminds netted some ₱40 billion while running the modus.

Also in 2020, in the thick of the health crisis, an anti-fraud legal officer of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) resigned due to alleged widespread corruption in the agency.

"Naniniwala po ako na ang perang winaldas at ninakaw ay humigit kumulang ₱15 billion," former Philhealth anti-fraud legal officer Thorsson Keith said in Senate hearing.

[Translation: I believe the money that was wasted and stolen was around P15 billion.]

Reappointment of officials linked to scandals

The rigodon of officials tainted with corruption would continue in the Duterte administration despite his pronouncements that they would be booted out with even just a whiff of it.

Former Customs chief Nicanor Faeldon was appointed to the Office of the Civil Defense after he resigned.

His successor in Customs, former PDEA Director General Isidro Lapeña became TESDA chief following the P11 billion shabu scandal.

Another example is Jose Garbriel "Pompee" La Viña, one of Duterte's staunchest supporters and his social media director during his presidential campaign.

La Viña would be reappointed three more times after he was fired as Social Security System commissioner for allegedly abusing government funds.

Then there's Melissa Avanceña Ardanas, cousin of Duterte's partner Honeylet.

She was fired as commissioner of the Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor due to alleged excessive foreign trips, only to be appointed assistant secretary at the Human Settlements department months later.

Despite favoring certain people mired in corruption controversies, Duterte's approval ratings remain high.

"People only lose trust in their presidents when the president himself or herself has been accused of corruption. That's what happened with Erap and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, di ba?" Franco explained.

Task force vs. corruption

In 2017, Duterte created the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission via an executive order.

Since then, the PACC claims its investigations have resulted in the firing of almost a thousand government officials and employees.

It has tagged the Department of Public Works and Highways, Bureau of Internal Revenue, Customs as the top three most corrupt agencies.

But critics say the commission barely scratches the surface.

"Ang corruption po kasi extends beyond presidential appointees hanggang sa mababang empleyado, hanggang sa elected officials and private persons, which under the law PACC has no jurisdiction," PACC Commissioner Greco Belgica told CNN Philippines.

[Translation: Corruption extends beyond presidential appointees, reaching even lowly employees up to elected officials and private persons, which under the law PACC has no jurisdiction.]

The President has also formed a task force led by the Department of Justice to go after corrupt officials in the "entire government."

"Apart from my usual responsibilities as SOJ, this new assignment is the toughest I have ever received from the President," Guevarra said of the assignment.

The DOJ has so far filed graft charges against a congressman and some Public Works officials for favoring a certain contractor.

Duterte's Ombudsman

There are pending complaints before the Office of the Ombudsman for major corruption scandals in the past years.

The Ombudsman has suspended around 80 Immigration officials as it investigates the alleged pastillas scheme.

PhilHealth officials, including the agency's former president Ricardo Morales, are also facing complaints.

Investigations are still ongoing, and it usually takes the ombudsman's investigators at least a year to decide whether or not there is sufficient evidence to bring the case to court.

Generally, the number of cases filed at the anti-graft court started to go down when Duterte's appointee, former Supreme Court Justice Samuel Martires, took over in 2018.

Martires has been criticized for implementing policies that go against his mandate as ombudsman.

He has moved to stop lifestyle checks and told prosecutors to review which cases they could drop.

Martires also restricted public access to Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth saying the document had been weaponized against government officials.

"When governments lack transparency or openness, especially on public documents then it lends itself to a corrupt environment," Franco said.

Duterte's resolve

In his speeches, the President would announce the firing or demand the resignation of officials accused of corruption.

This past year during his weekly address, Duterte would even read off from the latest dishonor list from the PACC.

But even he knows it's a losing battle. He practically threw in the towel two years ago.

"I have identified the enemy who dumped us into this quagmire we are in. I have met the enemy face to face and sadly, the enemy is us," Duterte said in his 2019 State of the Nation Address.

Duterte has vowed to fight corruption until the end of his term.

But with less than a year to go before he leaves Malacañang, and with the problem still entrenched in some of the government's most corrupt agencies, Duterte has clearly failed to fulfill a major campaign promise.