Column: The bully in Miriam Santiago

This column, written in the immediate aftermath of supertyphoon Yolanda or Haiyan, generated intense feedback in the comments thread on — many of the abusive kind. I guess that’s what happens when a politician is treated, or treats herself, as a celebrity, as a “darling of the media;” the fans come out with their daggers drawn. An interesting experience. Published on November 12, 2013.

I write out of a sense of duty—knowing not only that “politics” is the last thing people want to read about these days but also that other subjects (discussed fortunately in other columns or in the news pages) are, truly, matters of life or death. But Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s “star turn” at the Senate blue ribbon committee hearing last week was so wrong, on so many counts, that letting it slide under a storm surge of post-“Yolanda” media attention would be an injustice. Bear with me.

Last Thursday, Santiago jumped the queue of waiting senators to spend almost an hour forcing Janet Lim-Napoles, the controversial businesswoman at the center of the P10-billion pork barrel scandal, to name Santiago’s enemies, and in particular Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, as the true mastermind of the scam. The contrast with, say, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, was striking. Cayetano used documentary evidence to try to understand exactly what it was Napoles was saying in her defense. Santiago used legal theory and a primordial but unproven belief that Enrile was behind a pervasive “empire” of influence and corruption to force Napoles to say what Santiago wanted her to say. As the twice-defeated presidential candidate said more than once, during the hearing, she already knew the true situation.

Just to be clear: The testimony of the many whistle-blowers and the available documentary evidence have convinced many Filipinos (including me) that Napoles is in fact behind the orchestrated plunder of pork barrel funds. (There may yet be others, though.) Her evasiveness at the hearing only confirmed the public’s worst suspicions. I remember clearly that when she visited the Inquirer last August, she said she had incriminating evidence against main whistle-blower Benhur Luy’s true boss, among other bombshells, which she was ready to unload at the right forum. Surely the nationally televised Senate hearing was the perfect venue for her revelations?

(When she was confronted with her own statements, for instance from the transcript of that Inquirer visit, she said she could not remember—not damning in itself, but taken together with her other rhetorical tics a kind of proof that she could no longer keep her version straight.)

I also think that the documentary evidence is genuinely incriminating for Enrile and Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla.

(I must also say that the first time I ever saw Santiago at work was when she was the trial judge in a famous martial law case involving student activists; she was impressive, but that was before she started to believe all the press that came the way of the “darling of the media,” as she continues to refer to herself in her own extensive curriculum vitae.)

But the objective of last week’s much-anticipated hearing was to help discover the truth behind the pork barrel scam. Santiago’s bullying tactics may have served other needs, such as an all-too-obliging media’s obsession with sound bites, but it did not serve the essential process of discovery.
Let us note that, under prolonged questioning by Sen. TG Guingona, the committee chair, Napoles did not once invoke her constitutional right against self-incrimination. It was only after Santiago’s blustery advice, given at the get-go, that rather than say she (Napoles) did not know who “Sexy” was—and thus commit perjury—she invoke her right against incriminating herself. But the advice was based on Santiago’s presumption that Napoles did in fact know who “Sexy” was, something she had not proven.

In my view, the worst instance of this kind of loaded question which Santiago forced on Napoles was the seemingly innocent, “Do you agree you are the most guilty?” Even when Napoles said no, the possibility that she was still guilty, just not the most guilty of them all, was already assumed.

But Santiago made other assumptions, foundational ones, that offend not only the highest standards of the legal profession but of ordinary experience as well. We should not let them pass.

Corruption requires an advanced education. Santiago asserted that Napoles could not be the true mastermind of the scam because the businesswoman lacked a proper degree. In the good senator’s view, the plunder of the pork barrel funds could only have been conceptualized by people like Enrile, master of Byzantine politics and law. This is not proof, but a hypothesis in search of verification. But as a notion, it does not square with reality. Legitimate fortunes have been made by people without college degrees or the right connections. Why not with illegitimate ones?

Lawyers are a cut above the rest. I am not sure whether Santiago realized that lawyer Rene Villa, chair of the Local Water Utilities Administration, once Napoles’ counsel, was also a resource person at the hearing. (She only had eyes for Napoles. “Ah. There you are,” she said, at the start, and that was that.) She went through his CV and pronounced his international law credentials mediocre. Noting his various foreign assignments, she said (I trust I remember the quote accurately), “He is only an OFW, not an international lawyer.” This inane privileging of lawyerly work, and that contempt for mere OFWs, show us that Santiago has her priorities exactly wrong.

Education is a quest for titles. The worst thing Santiago may have done was to advance her absurd notion, yet again, that education is a matter of degrees and fellowships. She kept pointing to the many books she had authored and to her doctorate, as though these constituted proof of incontrovertible wisdom. They proved to be just the opposite.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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