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Monday, June 24, 2024

A newsman’s standpoint: When justice is served

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“The Ombudsman’s decision serves as a reminder that vigilance is crucial to safeguarding public funds”

ALL my life I have been (and will always be) a journalist.

Sometimes struggling, but most of the time gratified and grateful that I always manage to make ends meet, keep body and soul together.

From a newsman’s perspective, there are more to things mundane than the eye meets.  One decisive action strikes me as fascinating if not outrightly superb.

And it’s affirming and reassuring to know that justice has been served well.

A national director of a government bureau, a key factor in the country’s food security, has been made accountable not only for a simple misdemeanor, but for a case of graft in a large-scale fashion.

I refer to the decision of the Office of the Ombudsman which recently ordered the dismissal of Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources National Director Demosthenes R. Escoto for an anomalous act:  awarding a P2-billion contract for the vessel monitoring system project in 2018, defying several court orders.

The multi-billion-peso project – billed the Integrated Marine Environment Monitoring System Project Phase 1 (or the PHILO Project) – was necessary to implementing a vessel monitoring system for fishing vessels.

This included the procurement of VMS transmitters and transceivers.   

Originally, the project was supposed to cost P1.6-billion as approved in 2017.

It was meant to be a clean and tidy project with an above-board financing package to be bankrolled by the French government.

However, the top executive of BFAR, by sleight of hand maneuver only he and his subordinates orchestrated, made the cost to balloon to P 2.09 billion in 2018, using local government funding.

The equipment, originally planned as French-made, became a British-manufactured product.

There was something obviously wrong.

Based on well-meaning complaints by well-intentioned sectors, a temporary restraining order was issued.

Then a permanent injunction was subsequently ordered by a competent court.

Not only that. In various times, BFAR was cited in contempt for multiple violations in connection with the project. The several court orders despite, the BFAR leadership pushed through with the flawed project.

The BFAR national director was ordered dismissed, and it came with wide-ranging penalties – cancellation of civil service eligibility, forfeiture of retirement benefits, and perpetual disqualification from holding public office.

In swift response to the dismissal order, Agriculture Secretary Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr. appointed career official Isidro Velayo Jr. BFAR officer-in-charge.

The decision of the Ombudsman has delivered a powerful message to public servants: Your days of impunity are over. You cannot simply ignore the processes of prosecution and justice. More to the point, you cannot get away with the abuse and misuse of taxpayers’ money.

The Ombudsman’s commendable act was made possible by the thorough investigation by Graft Investigation and Prosecution Officer I Cezar M. Tirol II, and the subsequent approval by Ombudsman Samuel R. Martires.

Their resolute acts demonstrate the seriousness with which corruption cases are being pursued.

The Ombudsman’s 22-page decision found Escoto guilty of grave misconduct and should therefore be held accountable.

The Ombudsman’s decision also serves as a reminder that vigilance is crucial to safeguarding public funds.

In a real sense, the Ombudsman’s act has strengthened our justice system.

And I wish to see more judicial decisions that serve the ends of justice, that make erring officials accountable, giving value to the painstaking efforts of our investigators.    

In a larger sense, this simple act has strengthened the foundations of democracy in this country.

It is fitting therefore to use a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr, the American Reformed theologian, ethicist, and political commentator, who said “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

(The author was Managing Editor of Manila Standard for 15 years until 2021).

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