Farewell, Erin Brockovich

Marlene Garcia-Esperat, a journalist/anti-graft crusader, was killed in Sultan Kudarat last week. Marlene was a good friend of PCIJ’s and a source for some of our corruption stories. This report pays tribute to her.

IT WAS hard to take Marlene Garcia-Esperat seriously. Each time she came to our office to report yet another corrupt government deal, she wore mini skirts, stiletto heels and tight dresses with low necklines that revealed more than concealed. Every visit from her was a sartorial shock. You could say she was a colorful person, as each time she came, her hair was dyed a different shade (her preferred hues were light brown and red) and her eye shadow was inspired by the rainbow. Once, she even came in fishnet stockings.

We liked to call her “Erin Brockovich” after the tireless, gusty and sexy movie (and real-life) heroine who made a giant utility company in the US pay for its misdeeds. Although Marlene did not quite look like Julia Roberts, she had the attitude and the fearless, in-your-face style of the filmic heroine. Once, she appeared on our doorstep wearing glitter in her eyes. “I want to look pretty when the assassins come to get me,” she said.

On Maundy Thursday, the assassins did come. Marlene was killed in cold blood, in front of her children, with a single bullet fired by a gunman who casually walked into the living room of her home in Tacurong, Sultan Kudarat.

For years, Marlene Garcia-Esperat was the resident whistleblower at the Department of Agriculture, which she said was one of the most corrupt agencies in government. The DA has one of the largest budgets but Marlene said that its decentralized operations make it hard to detect graft.

Marlene was determined and tireless. She was driven by righteous rage — she had seen how money that should otherwise be used to better the lot of farmers was instead being siphoned off to enrich bureaucrats and politicians. She dug up evidence to show that the government was pouring in millions for a nonexistent irrigation project in Cotabato. She also found documents proving that a bureau under the DA rigged the bidding process to buy overpriced speedboats.

In the last 10 years, Marlene had filed dozens of cases ranging from the smuggling of agricultural products to the overpricing of farm inputs and the diversion to private pockets or political uses of funds intended for farmers.

Last year, she filed a case against DA officials led by Secretary Arthur Yap and former Undersecretary Jocelyn Bolante, a close confidante of First Gentleman Mike Arroyo, alleging that the DA had bought overpriced fertilizer and that these funds were used in the 2004 presidential campaign. She has also accused Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay of complicity in chicken smuggling.

Marlene knew she was stepping on the toes of powerful people, but she often told us she had the support of well-meaning and honest employees who wanted to clean up the department. She also knew that being a whistleblower in this country was a thankless and dangerous job and was well aware that killers were hot on her trail.

“Is this how we reward and protect whistleblowers?” Marlene asked in 2001, in one of our meetings. “It would be some consolation if the cases were moving and the accused jailed. But most of the time, that’s wishful thinking. I know of corrupt regional directors who have been reappointed by the new administration, some with long lists of graft cases against them. There seems to be no effort to scrutinize the performance of these officials and to purge the bureaucracy of bad eggs.”

Marlene was an unlikely candidate to lead a one-woman crusade to clean up the DA. After all, she was a chemist, and when she wasn’t talking about the goings-on at the DA, she would lecture about the health benefits of various herbs or marvel at the new technology in forensic medicine.

She was really a scientist, and so she attacked corruption scientifically, by meticulously collecting documents and identifying people who provided first-hand information about the hypothesis she wanted to prove. She had a list of sources and could recite them from memory if she wanted to. Like Erin Brockovich, she also memorized phone numbers of possible sources and gave them to reporters to follow up.

Marlene’s crusade began in the early 1990s when she headed the Chemical Analysis Laboratory of DA’s Region 12, then located in Maguindanao. She had been lamenting the sorry state of the regional laboratory and its lack of facilities. But it was not until she attended a national conference and met other DA chemists that she found that her lab was entitled to more money than it had been given.

So she hounded RFU (Regional Field Unit) 12 for funds to buy the equipment she needed and to construct a new building for the laboratory. While following up on her request, she accidentally saw the regional unit’s 1991-1992 financial report, which said that there was an annual allocation for her laboratory of P400,000. “But I was receiving only P175,000,” she said. “That’s when I became suspicious.”

Marlene reported the incident to then DA Secretary Salvador Escudero, who ordered a probe. In the course of the investigation, a fire hit the DA office in Cotabato City. Because the incident took place just a few days before the 1992 presidential elections, the fire was dismissed as just another election-related event.

But one year after the fire, two witnesses, both employees of RFU 12, swore in written affidavits that RFU Finance Officer Osmeña Montaner and his friends burned down the DA office to destroy evidence of their wrongdoing.

The incident prompted DA officials to place Marlene under the witness protection program. Although the other witnesses were kept under lock and key, Marlene was allowed to work, and absorbed as action officer of the DA’s resident Ombudsman in Quezon City. The case wrenched her away from her family for about two years, but it brought her face to face with many other incidents of corruption at the DA.

At the time of her death, Marlene was a frequent visitor at the Office of the Ombudsman, where she hounded employees and told them they were dragging their feet in investigating the cases she had filed.

She was also investigating the complicity of top DA officials in chicken smuggling. She sued DA Undersecretary Cesar Drilon and others for allowing the entry of chicken leg quarters by a company that did not have the proper documents to import chicken. That firm, CSP International Commodities Inc, is partly owned by Pichay, who was included in the charge sheet.

A few days before her death, Marlene had gotten in touch with Mindanao journalist Carol Arguillas to provide her information about “the sale of audit certificates” in Cotabato, but the meeting never took place. It was typical of Marlene to poke her nose wherever she suspected wrongdoing was taking place.

Marlene left the DA last year and made a living by selling Tupperware and running a small sari-sari store in Tacurong. Relatives helped out as did others who believed in her work. She also wrote a weekly column for a local newspaper entitled “Madam Witness,” after an article about her published in PCIJ’s i-magazine. Before that, she also had a program on local radio and was even accredited by the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas. But she was an accidental journalist: She was killed mainly because she was a whistleblower and anti-graft crusader.

Her family says that Marlene angered many people doing what she did. Her friends and family have repeatedly cautioned her and asked her to slow down. But she said once, “I am not exactly new to this. Lumaki ako sa bala (I grew up on bullets.) My father was a farmer who became the first chief of police of our town. After that he was a municipal councilor. There were threats on his life. He survived two assassination plots, but two of my uncles were not as lucky. They were felled by assassins’ bullets.”

Like her uncles and so many others before her, Marlene was gunned down because she lived in a violent place where all it takes is a bullet to silence those who seek justice and to end even the most tireless crusade.