A sting of sadness hit me while I was reading recently the Detroit Free Press reports on the sentencing of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to a 28-year prison term.
I was sad not because I pitied Kilpatrick but because of my realization that the wheel of justice grinds smoothly in Detroit, and I cannot help but compare it with the judicial system in the Philippines, our homeland.
The bee in my bonnet is the cold truth that Philippine courts do not function well and are practically inutile in the efforts to put corrupt government officials behind bars.
Have you read any recent news report about a Philippine government official being convicted of graft and sent to prison?
There were recent news reports about the filing of plunder charges against some senators and congressmen with the Office of the Ombudsman, but I am not optimistic about the outcome of the cases. I fear that the cases would drag on in court for a long time, and I would consider myself lucky if the decisions are promulgated while I am still alive.
I also fear that the accused lawmakers would be eventually cleared of the charges not because they are innocent but because court decisions are often for sale. I know this because I covered the courts during the early years of my career as a journalist in the Philippines.
And the situation has not changed; in fact, it has worsened. According to a book written by magazine editor Maritess Vitug, the tentacles of corruption have not spared even the Supreme Court, the Philippine highest court.
Government officials in the Philippines who are crooked like Kilpatrick could easily get off the hook by paying their way out of the mess.
Compared to the level of greed of many Philippine officials, Kilpatrick is a small-time crook. To crooked Philippine officials, the former mayor is a penny-ante thief.
According to the Detroit Free Press reports, from all the anomalous deals Kilpatrick was involved, he pocketed some $70 million, an amount which is peanuts if compared to the 10 billion pesos, roughly $244 million, stolen from the Philippine government coffers through the “pork barrel scam” alone. And there are many other big fund scams.
Kilpatrick is being condemned for having steered contracts for city projects to Bobby Ferguson, his friend. In the Philippines, this scheme is considered by corrupt officials as a normal business transaction. Mayors of many towns and cities in the Philippines think they have the inalienable rights to make money from projects in their localities. They would set up dummy companies or ask their “kumpadres” to act as bidders for projects on their behalf.
Some mayors would even go to the rival bidders and tell them to back off because as the top officials of their towns, it is their turn to make money. If the opposing bidders are recalcitrant, goons would be hired to terrorize them.
And big money they make. They would use substandard materials for the projects to lessen expenses and increase their “profits.” If it is a road project, they would use less cement or asphalt. It is no wonder that roads in many towns easily deteriorate.
Worst, it could even be a “ghost project.” I know of a bridge project in Mindanao which, on government papers, was completed and inaugurated, complete with ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Two or three years after its supposed completion, a national government official passing by the place found out there was not even a makeshift bridge built there.
One may ask: Are there no government auditors in the Philippines? There are, but many of them are also … “well, you know.”
It appears that the entire system for the implementation of public works projects is rotten. In the first year of his term, President Aquino launched an anti-graft drive at the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), but the campaign is getting nowhere. Reporters covering the DPWH said that the drive has barely scratched the surface and that it is still business as usual for corrupt contractors.
And there is no hope for corruption in the Philippines to be checked soon.
Detroit is much luckier than the Philippines. With the closure of the tragic Kilpatrick case, there is now hope for Detroit to become a much better city.
US District Judge Nancy Edmunds, who sentenced the former mayor to 28 years in prison, is very clear on this point. She said, “This case is not so much about punishing people from the past, but about shaping our future.
With a message like this, it is very clear that public officials will be held accountable in the city of Detroit. And we hope it would deter people from abusing their public office, and encourage good and honest people to seek public office.”