Out of the barracks and into the pits

Corruption talks trigger
worry, debates in AFP

Last of three parts

IF MONEY is the root of all evil, particularly in the corruption-tainted Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), then perhaps the government might do well to deny soldiers access to cold cash.

At the same time, however, it must make sure that the logistics and supplies get to the battlefield in the right quantity at the right time.

Or perhaps the government might require that all military contracts for goods and services be covered by a strictly enforced electronic procurement system.

As well, if the logistics system is good and efficient, the government might ban the conversion of funds and congressional insertions in the AFP’s budget altogether.

Or even, that the Armed Forces be restricted to managing only its budget for Personal Services, and civilian agencies be tasked to disburse the military’s monies for Capital Outlay and Maintenance and Other Operating Expenses.

Moreover, it may make sense to just give soldiers and officers each their own automated teller machine or credit cards, so that their salary and every financial transaction could be billed on it, and a paper trail of who spent what for which items could be preserved.

These are among the reforms for cleansing the AFP of corruption that have been pitched not by technocrats or finance managers but about a dozen officers who spoke with the PCIJ for this series.

The proposals, all well-argued and reasonable but some in contradiction with each other, stem from a lot of reflection amongst soldiers that had been triggered by the ongoing Senate public hearings on corruption in the AFP.

The flipside of this resort to rumination is a sense of worry and foreboding among officers that too much talk about corruption, and little action, will injure the AFP more.

For one, they say the public parsing of the graft and the warts of the AFP is causing demoralization in the ranks, especially among frontline troops. The toll on troop morale may not be visible yet, say the officers, but it could soon reach rupture point unless the commander in chief and senior officers step in promptly to clarify the issues.

For another, the officers fret that the discussions are sending the wrong message to young officers that, by the examples of the generals now accused of corruption, it is all right to steal, and when caught, to just feign loss of memory or forge a plea bargain deal. That way, one gets to still keep part of the money.

Faith in the chief

One general remains hopeful, saying he wants to keep faith in the commander-in-chief, President Benigno Simeon Aquino III. “Before the elections (May 2010), I wanted to leave the service or stage a coup,” he says. But when P-Noy ran, I thought, there’s still some hope.”

But he says President Aquino – who is still a few months short of completing his first year as the country’s chief executive – should reach out more to the troops amidst the assault on the AFP’s honor, and the troops’ morale.

“We need top leadership who could drive down the message to the lowest levels,” the general says of Aquino’s clarion call of integrity in public service. “The problem is it hasn’t been driven down, from him to the Cabinet to the chief of staff, downward. That’s really hard.”

For sure, though, the officers familiar with the flaws of the procurement and accounting processes in the AFP are happier now that corruption in the military is a topic out in the public domain. Says another general: “Those in the know, we know this is just the tip of the iceberg and we have a golden opportunity to clean up now. If only we could, we’d distribute kwitis (sparklers) and have fireworks at the camps to celebrate!”

Corruption glossary

Indeed, the level of corruption in the military has risen to the point where it has spawned its own language. Military officers interviewed by the PCIJ shared some of the common terms used within the organization to describe corrupt practices:

  • Cost of Money – the money or resources lost to corrupt practices. For example, 20 to 30 percent of a military project cost may go to bribes and other corrupt practices.
  • Conversion – A unit that has a budget allocation for paper clips or bond paper may opt instead to “convert” the items into cash for other uses. Normally, the conversion entails a loss, or a “cost of money.”
  • Cleared Money – Money that has already been “fixed” or freed up for use by a unit commander. Usually, this is money obtained through unauthorized means, such as conversion or RTS.
  • RTS (return to sender) – “The AFP is one big laundry machine,” one very senior military officer told the PCIJ. Legislators and other executive departments insert items in the military budget in exchange for a return of up to 30 percent.

Retired Commodore Rex Robles admits that the problem of conversion in particular is so widespread in the military that many unit commanders take it as a fact of life. “I admit I converted, too,” he says. “We have converted items into cash that we can use.”

One of the founders of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), Robles was also a  member of the Feliciano Commission that looked into charges of military corruption in the wake of the 2003 Oakwood Mutiny led by then Navy Lt. Sg. Antonio Trillanes.

Trillanes and 300 officers and men from special forces units in the military had taken over the posh Oakwood Apartments in Makati to demand the resignation of then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Trillanes and his group accused Arroyo and her officials of milking the military and selling arms to the government’s enemies.

Robles believes the problem of conversion arises from the inflexibility of the military. If, for example, a unit is given reams of bond paper when it really needs more boots, a field commander will resort to conversion in order to get the equipment he needs. Inevitably, there is a “cost of money” involved in the conversion.

“It became acceptable because of the restrictive policies,” says Robles. “If (the item needed) is not in the budget, you’d find a way to get it.”

Lokohan na lang?

Most military officers PCIJ has talked to insist that conversion is a necessary fact of life under the AFP’s present system of the armed forces. Most logistical supplies are programmed and purchased in Manila, before being shipped to remote areas such as Jolo or Tawi-Tawi. What this means is that many times, programmed items are far removed from needed items.

But conversion may be only the tip of the problem. Ironically, the knee-jerk reaction of military officers to unbending bureaucracy is what causes a host of other problems with corruption.

Officers say that once soldiers think they can justify circumventing standard operating procedures in the name of “improvisation,” abuses follow easily. Robles himself says the tactic has been “abused.”

Brig. Gen. Benito de Leon, head of the AFP Management and Fiscal Office that is tasked with the disbursement of funds to line units of the AFP points out as well: “The big problem there is the culture that you encourage, ang lokohan (resorting to lies and trickery). We are making them more inured to the idea of corruption.”

“We are now breeding a new generation with a twisted or mangled understanding on the process and perception of government,” de Leon adds. “Naglolokohan lang pala tayo (It seems we’re all just lying to each other).”

He says that contrary to popular perceptions, there are already mechanisms in place that provides a check and balance within the AFP organizations. “For example,” he says, “when it comes to procurement, the logistics family should be providing the oversight function. There is also no lack of offices that aim to make sure that transactions are in order, such as the internal audit service, which looks into the use of funds, and the inspector general’s office, which checks the efficiency and economy of the functions of other offices.”

“The problem, however, is the people involved,” says de Leon. “When you look at why there seems to be some collusion, you’ll see that some people have been assigned to a particular office for a long time, so there’s already familiarity. There should be rotation, as much as possible.”

Reforms under way

According to de Leon, the AFP has been taking steps to strengthen internal control of funds at its highest levels beginning in 2006, when it abolished the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Comptrollership J6, and set up four independent offices to take over the functions. These include the Resource Management Office (RMO), the Management and Fiscal Office (MFO), the Office of the Internal Auditor (OTIA), and the Accounting Center, which all report directly to the Chief of Staff.

De Leon relates that the breakup of J6 caused some logistical issues because personnel whose functions overlapped were initially confused about their assignments. Still, he says, the breakup introduces more checks and balances to the system. “It also makes it harder for the heads of the offices to collude,” he adds. “The close association that was there in the past (when J6 was in place) no longer exists.”

These days, de Leon proposes more specific reforms:

  • Develop a more efficient logistics or procurement system to avoid or eliminate conversion of funds.
  • Have fewer bulk purchases in Manila that entail tremendous costs for forwarding supplies to the frontlines.
  • Allow ground commanders flexibility in deciding how to spend their units’ budgets.
  • As a complementary effort, shift the accountability for funds from GHQ finance and budget officers to the ground commanders.
  • Develop a culture of honesty and transparency among officers assigned to budget, finance, and accounting duties, from Day One of their assignment.

The proposal appears counter-intuitive: to prevent corruption, government must relax its rules on the disbursement and allocation of funds in the military. But de Leon argues, “You provide more lattitude to your officers, but you also require greater accountability.”

De Leon concedes that the proposed system probably has its own set of problems. But, he says, this would still be an improvement to the present system, where almost all military units think they are justified in using conversion to meet their needs.

De Leon may have an ally in retired army Brig. Gen. Ricardo Morales, who says, “If the AFP had an efficient and effective logistics system, there would be no need for conversion. Everything would be provided for.”

No excuse at all

A fierce advocate of reforms in the military, Morales says that there’s no excuse for the AFP to not be able to streamline its logistics system. “We’ve been fighting the same battles for 40 years!” he says. “There are no needs in the field that we can’t already anticipate.”

Curiously, though, the core values that the PMA had drummed into the heads of military cadets for four long years should have helped its graduates in the military guard against corruption. The PMA motto is “Courage, Loyalty, Integrity” – values that no God-fearing citizen would argue against.

A cadet pledges to abide by a time-honored code from the very first moment he steps into the PMA: “We, the cadets, do not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate among us those who do so.”

But then PMA graduates are a fraternity of their own, and fraternal bonds are sometimes stronger than the more ambiguous concepts of loyalty to government, country, or the rule of law. Classmates call each other ‘mistah,’ and hold dearly to the concept of fraternal loyalty with the ferocity of a medieval knight.

In his 1999 book, Closer than Brothers, Alfred W. McCoy noted the intense bond of loyalties that link Cavaliers, or graduates of the PMA. He cited the example of Col. Oscar Martinez, who was accused of mismanaging the Retirement and Separation Benefits System (RSBS), the AFP pension fund.

“Without pausing to assay the credibility of the charges, both (former Police Director-General Panfilo) Lacson and (former Army Col. Gregorio) Honasan rallied to their class valedictorian, threatening reprisals against any who would harm him,” wrote McCoy. “’Remember,’ said Senator Honasan, ‘this is the notorious class ’71. There were 106 of us who graduated in that class, and we’re solid.’”

Integrity forgotten

“What is commonly said of the academy’s motto is: Courage, Loyalty, Integrity,” recalls a PMA graduate who is now a general in the Armed Forces. “The last one (Integrity) is erased easily in most grads. Especially for those exposed in their line of work to the public.”

There is, in fact, another pledge that seems to have an even more far-reaching effect on PMA graduates. Written by 19th century U.S. writer Elbert Hubbard, it is also used by many law enforcement and security agencies around the world: “If you work for a man, in heaven’s name, work for him/ Speak well of him and stand by the institution he represents/Remember- an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness…./If you must growl, condemn, and eternally find fault/Why! Resign your position/And when you are outside, damn to your heart’s content/But as long as you are part of the institution,  do not condemn it/ If you do, the first high wind that comes along  will blow you away.”

It’s a well-meaning pledge, says an active-duty Navy captain. But he also says that it has become the common justification among military men not to reveal any information that may be detrimental to even just the image of the armed forces. This is even if corruption is already happening right in front of them.

“What I say myself is that, don’t include me (in the deal), give it to someone else,” says the captain. “I’ll pretend I didn’t see, keep it to yourselves.”

“That’s how we are, whatever the commander wants, we follow,” says another officer. “If you’re unwilling to, then get out of the service.”

Honor vs whitewash

Yet there are many officers who bristle in such situations and find themselves seething. Asks a senior officer: “Why is it that some cavaliers seem to be using PMA traditions and the concept of honor in order to hide corruption issues from the public, in the name of ‘protecting the honor of the institution.’ When is it a matter of honor, and when is it a whitewash?”

Robles also comments that while there are bad eggs, majority of the officers corps and the rank and file are honest soldiers who make do with what resources is handed to them by their leaders, whether civilian or military.

“Many of us grew up with a stilted sense of honor, or an overestimated sense of honor,” says Robles. “But if you want to excise a cancer, excise it, but use a scalpel and not a backhoe.”

Morales, a graduate of PMA class ’77, for his part remarks, “What is the important word in the PMA? It is ‘Philippines!’ The people own the academy.”

“This is all happening in spite of the honor code,” he says. “In the end, the PMA is just a school that is just supposed to produce officers who can fight and win battles. Yet we’re not only losing, (some graduates) are also corrupt!”

De Leon meanwhile says that the current swirl of controversy involving the military may yet turn out for the better. “I think there’s a window of opportunity right now for the AFP,” he says. “Maybe something good, in terms of policy or even awareness, will snowball out of (these discussions).”

Morales also warns, “The younger officers are watching us. Can you imagine what they will do years from now if this is uncorrected?” – With additional reporting by Jaemark Tordecilla, PCIJ, February 2011