Culture of impunity (Part I)

The main focus in the war against corruption has been fixed on national scandals. That’s probably because there have been so many gargantuan transactions that leave the ordinary citizen trying to figure out how much has been stolen. In terms of magnitude, a number of scandals that have erupted in Iloilo City could equal, or even surpass, the corruption on the national level.

Number one on the list is the Pavia housing project anomaly. Here’s a project where more than P130 million have gone to waste, with not a single housing unit being completed and used for the purpose of providing affordable shelter to ordinary City Hall employees. It’s not exactly a ghost project, but the dilapidated structures that still stand on the city-owned property in Pavia stand as silent, mute witnesses to this slaughter of decency and honesty in governance.

So far, after six long years, nobody has been formally charged before the Sandiganbayan. The Ombudsman handed down a resolution a year ago that found probable cause against former City Mayor Mansueto Malabor and several other respondents. But no Information has been filed before the Sandiganbayan which is the next step in the judicial process. Without an Information, there is legally no judicial case. No warrants of arrest can be issued.

Strangely, one of the key players in the Pavia housing anomaly, Iloilo City congressman Jerry P. Trenas, was spared in that resolution. The allegations against him have been pushed back to the Field Investigation Office (FIO) of the Ombudsman for “further review and investigation”. After a year, the reinvestigation does not appear to have moved an inch. In fact, there is grave danger it might altogether vanish into thin air.

Number two on the list is the P63.2-million purchase by the city government under then City Mayor Trenas of a 16.2-hectare agricultural land in Barangay San Isidro, Jaro in January 2006. The transaction was fraught with irregularities, and it was only last July when Trenas was finally charged before the Ombudsman for his indispensable participation in the massive anomaly. This is a classic case of an overpriced purchase in which public officials conspired to make it happen.

As documents show, the property had an assessed value of only P330,480. The fair market value, which is the estimated price it will fetch in the real estate market, was placed at P2.7 million. There was nothing about the property that would have made it attractive. Having dabbled in the real estate business myself, I’d estimate the property could have reasonable been sold at P85 per square meter. The whole deal could have been sealed at P13.8 million with the seller feeling satisfied at having obtained a good price.

But Trenas didn’t play his part as a diligent public official. Because of his position, he was supposed to exercise prudence in how he spent the people’s money. He should have endeavored to strike a good bargain. Aside from big property developers, only government can really afford to buy wide tracts of land.

In the case of private developers, that San Isidro property wouldn’t even have warranted a second look. Its location wasn’t suitable for a housing development. It was far from the nearest road, there was no electricity, and there was no water. That factor alone was enough to depress its price.

Trenas ignored all these considerations. Instead of trying to haggle for a much lower price, he agreed to a buying price of P392 per square meter. This is the selling price for raw land properties in areas close to the main highways like Mandurriao, where existing subdivisions make them more saleable to customers once developed.

What Trenas did was manipulate the paperwork to justify buying the property at that stiff price. That is a betrayal of his oath of office. It was a crime against the people. Based on the circumstances, we can safely assume what the motivation for Trenas was: kickback.

Number three on the list is the City Hall project.

I will discuss the details of this big anomaly in my next column. But let me just say that our city officials, past and present, have become bolder and bolder in their schemes to rip off the public treasury. And the only reason that happened is because nobody got punished even if caught. This is the classic description of a culture of impunity having taken root in a society.

Maybe these anomalies failed to capture the people’s imaginations because they’re not yet in the billions of pesos. The peso amount is not the point. It’s the degree by which huge portions of public funds earmarked for projects are stolen. In Pavia, we don’t even have a single house to justify the expenditure and loss of P130 million. In the San Isidro project, the overprice might just be in the vicinity of P50 million, but that represents 80 percent of the budget.

In the past, kickbacks were measured only in the 10-12 percent level of the project cost. Nowadays, it is commonplace to see half of the project cost going to corruption. That’s indeed unfortunate, and it can only happen because of this culture of impunity. (To be continued)

About Manuel "Boy" Mejorada
Manuel "Boy" Mejorada is a journalist and social media activist. A former Iloilo provincial administrator, he is now waging a crusade against corruption and narco-politics.

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