Column: Why Abad?

Published on June 10, 2014.

There is a concerted effort to pin Budget Secretary Butch Abad to, well, something, anything. Alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles swears she learned her evil trade from Abad (a risible claim that has since been expertly demolished by columnist Solita Monsod). The information that he paid only P8,150 in taxes in the three essentially jobless years before joining the Cabinet, information that was available since at least 2010, suddenly became news. And the datum he himself supplied in his most recent statement of assets, liabilities and net worth, that he has nine relatives by blood or marriage working in the government, has been transmogrified into a sweeping claim of nepotism—with the number now inflated to 11.

I have always known Abad to be an honorable man; in July 2010, at the start of the second Aquino administration, I was moved to defend him (and his wife Dina and their daughter Julia) in this wise: “It pains me to see the incorruptible Abads suffer so much speculative intrigue, when anyone who knows them at all can testify, not only to their commitment to public service, but also to their integrity.”

It has been four years, and I haven’t seen any evidence that would make me change my mind. If the worst that can be thrown at him are Napoles’ attempts at fiction or Rep. Toby Tiangco’s shoot-from-the-hip accusations or PR man/columnist Yen Makabenta’s glittering generalizations, then Abad remains the same man I have looked up to all these years: the competent Catholic exercising his faith as engaged, and honest, politician.

So why Abad? Why this orchestrated campaign to paint him as the real mastermind of the pork barrel scam or (failing that) as the face of daang matuwid hypocrisy? Any citizen sufficiently attentive to recent events would know who the real target is: President Aquino, at a time of intense political drama. But why Abad in particular?

I can think of at least two reasons. First, some of Mr. Aquino’s critics think, or sense, that Abad is the administration’s weakest link. The pork barrel scam has made almost any use of government funds suspect. Because Abad handles the budget, and because he is the architect of the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program, he seems vulnerable to any attempt at tainting.

Second, some of Mr. Aquino’s critics know that Abad is the administration’s first source of strength. In the President’s own thinking (as I see reflected in his speeches and remarks), the budget reforms of the last four years form the administration’s foundational achievement.

When the Philippines took center stage as first-time host of the World Economic Forum on East Asia last month, for example, President Aquino’s inventory of reforms began with the budget. “For the past four years, through the unwavering support of our people, we have enacted reform after reform. We overhauled systems that were prone to abuse. We reformed the way we do our budget—consulting as many stakeholders as possible, crafting the budget from the grassroots up, and implementing what we call the zero-based budgeting, which makes sure that all government spending will have corresponding and tangible benefits for our people.”

In this light, demolishing Abad is good strategy.

* * *

What about the nine relatives in office? “The appointment of Abad’s relatives all over the government map,” Makabenta argues, “is indisputably nepotism.” I would like to dispute that. The common-sense meaning of nepotism is the unfair favoring of family members. In the Philippines, the legal definition prohibits the hiring of relatives of “the appointing or recommending authority” (with the uncontroversial exception of so-called confidential positions, such as executive assistant). Both meanings depend on the unfair use of the appointing or recommending power.

Who exactly are these relatives? (Of all the stories that have come out, only that by ABS-CBN’s RG Cruz carried the details.) I asked around, and this is what I found out.

There are four Abads, three Baronas and two Pisigs in the list. Myla Pisig is a niece in government service since 1999; after serving in various legislative offices, she now works for Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa. Parrish Pisig is a nephew-in-law, who joined the Philippine National Oil Company in 2002. Arvin Barona, a nephew, was appointed tribal affairs assistant at the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples in 2001. Fernando Barona Jr., a first cousin, was a long-time bailiff of the Ivana Municipal Trial Court who retired this year; he joined government service in the 1970s. (I don’t have the exact date.) And the third Barona? Ramon, another first cousin, was appointed a Regional Trial Court judge in 2010, by President Gloria Arroyo.

That leaves the Abads. John Dominic Abad is another nephew, who became a regular member of the nursing staff at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center in 2005. Another nephew, Mark Angelo Abad, is an assistant of Dina’s.

Dina is on her third (but nonconsecutive) term as Batanes representative.  Julia served as Mr. Aquino’s chief of staff when he was still at the Senate; it was only natural that she fulfill almost exactly the same function in Malacañang, as chief of the Presidential Management Staff.

The inflated number of 11 is based on the willful inclusion of Abad’s son Luis, who once served as chief of staff of Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima. (That would then make Butch “the 11th Abad” in government.) It is easy enough to check that Luis, in fact, is pursuing an MBA at the Harvard Business School.

None of these facts has prevented Tiangco from casting aspersions. “Having 11 Abads appointed in some very sensitive positions in government by one person? I don’t see how is that not nepotism.” That’s because Tiangco misunderstands the situation. Appointed by one person? To very sensitive positions? It’s enough to make one’s hair stand on end.

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