Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Saga of Joc-Joc Bolante

PerryScope: by Perry Diaz

Seven years ago, Jocelyn "Joc-Joc" Bolante never had it so good. He was on top of the world. In my article, "The Joc-Joc Affair is No Joking Matter" (July 28, 2006), I wrote: "He was appointed as Agriculture Undersecretary for Finance and Administration by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2001, shortly after she assumed the presidency from deposed president Joseph Estrada. 'Joc-Joc' was 'right' for the job with his impeccable credentials which included membership and various leadership roles in the Rotary International, the prestigious service organization whose motto is 'Service Above Self.' Up to that point in his life, Bolante appears to have done everything right and maintained an unblemished business and professional reputation."

Four years later, in sudden turn of events, his world turned upside down. As Agriculture Undersecretary, Bolante had administrative and "discretionary" authority over the multi-billion peso fertilizer funds. In June 2004 -- following the controversial 2004 re-election of President Arroyo -- former Solicitor General Francisco Chavez filed plunder cases against President Arroyo and several Department of Agriculture officials including Bolante for alleged misuse of the fertilizer funds.

In 2005, the Senate Committees on Agriculture and Food, and Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations (Blue Ribbon) initiated a series of joint public hearings to investigate the alleged fertilizer scam. Consequently, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism conducted its own investigation and discovered that a large portion of the P728-million fertilizer funds was released to fictitious -- or "ghost" -- foundations. In December of 2005, the Senate joint committees chaired by Senator Ramon Magsaysay, Jr. issued a report which concluded that the fertilizer funds intended for farmers were diverted by Undersecretary Bolante for the 2004 electoral campaign of President Arroyo. According to the report, collaborative testimonies from Agriculture officials, 13 farmer groups, Commission on Audit officials, the Budget Secretary, and alleged "runners" of Bolante indicated that the "farmers did not get a single farm input or implement" in 2004.

Soon after the report came out, Bolante disappeared and became a fugitive from justice after failing to appear before the Senate joint committees. Senator Magsaysay said that Bolante was subpoenaed four times but his whereabouts were unknown. On July 7, 2006, Bolante was arrested after he tried to enter the United States with a cancelled visa. Unbeknown to Bolante, Senator Magsaysay had previously requested the US Embassy in Manila to cancel his visa. However, instead of refusing him entry into the US, he was detained by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit of the Department of Homeland Security.

To avoid deportation, Bolante sought political asylum claiming that he would be persecuted if he returned to the Philippines. On June 25, 2007, an Immigration Judge denied his application for asylum and was ordered deported.

Bolante did not waste any time in filing an appeal with the Federal Court of Appeals. His lawyers made their oral arguments before the court last February 11, 2008. The court is expected to make its decision by July. Meanwhile, he is detained at the Kenosha Detention Center in Wisconsin where he is treated like a common criminal. Should the Court of Appeals uphold the lower court's decision, Bolante can still exercise his rights to appeal his case before the U.S. Supreme Court. If he succeeds with his appeal, he would then become a permanent resident.

Recently, a leader in the Filipino-American community in the Midwest notified me of a rumor that has been going around. Accordingly, Bolante is pleading poverty and is also trying to be moved out of detention for health reasons, claiming that he is ill. The Fil-Am leader said that they are opposing his release and a letter-writing campaign was started to make the proper authorities aware of what he has done.

Indeed, the "Fertilizer Scam," of which he was named in the Senate report as the "master architect of the scam," has recently been mentioned as one of the reasons for the poor production of rice; thus forcing the Philippine government to increase its importation of rice. Today, the Philippines is the top importer of rice. According to the testimony of Chavez, the fertilizer funds were disbursed as follows: 25% to Bolante; 30% to a group of 26 mayors, 49 governors and 103 congressmen; 20% to the supplier of farm inputs; and 25% for Bolante's "runners." The biggest chunk for one individual -- a whopping P182 million -- went to Bolante.

With Bolante's deportation almost a certainty, his homecoming could jolt the political landscape and destabilize the Arroyo government. It is anticipated that the Senate would reopen the "Fertilizer Scam" investigation and summon Bolante to give his belated testimony. With nowhere to go, Bolante wouldn't have too many options. The question is: Is he going to sing like a canary and implicate government officials including those in Malacanang? If he would, it could be the mother of all scandals.