THIS WEEK the Office of the Ombudsman finally filed suit – after seven years of supposed preliminary investigation – against some officials in connection with their use of the controversial P728-million fertilizer fund.

On Thursday, the Ombudsman named three local officials from Sorsogon in a graft case for “overpricing” of the fertilizer products purchased using the fund.

On Friday, it ordered the filing of plunder charges against former Agriculture Secretary Luis “Chito” Lorenzo, former undersecretary Jocelyn “Joc-Joc” Bolante, and some private persons, apart from malversation cases against two governors, three members of Congress, and regional directors of the Agriculture department.

The fund was disbursed by Bolante and Arthur Yap, who had also served as Agriculture secretary, to local officials of towns and cities, including those without farms and farmers, and thus had no need for fertilizers. The fund was disbursed, too, well beyond the harvest season, when farmland need not be fertilized. Coincidentally, it was the campaign period for the 2004 elections, and the recipient local officials were mostly allies of then presidential candidate Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

It may seem that the Ombudsman may at last be doing its job by suing at least some of those supposedly behind the fertilizer fund scam. But then the Ombudsman has yet to do the same to Yap and Arroyo herself – who were by all accounts the most responsible for the fiasco.

The Ombudsman’s complaints therefore come not just a little too late; they also fall far too short of expectations. Seven years of preliminary investigation and these are all that the Ombudsman could file?

In truth, it is not just seven years of unproductive work against which the Ombudsman should be measured on this issue. Too, it must be held to account for the sweat and blood, literally, that had been spilt on account of the fertilizer fund scam by government employee-turned-anti-graft crusader-turned-journalist Marlene Garcia-Esperat.

The Ombudsman had known about the fund shenanigans long before the controversy hit the front pages as a result of a Senate inquiry into it in 2005. Months earlier, Esperat, then employed as action officer of the resident Ombudsman of the Agriculture department, had precisely exposed it and filed the appropriate complaints with the Ombudsman. She had served well as the department’s resident whistle-blower.

But it was a role that would extract so much from her. And as Roman Catholics prepare for Holy Week next week, the media community also remembers the passion and death of Esperat.

Pacencia Garcia holds a photograph of her slain daughter, Marlene Esperat, as she and her husband attends the ral wake after she was killed in a brutal execution-style killing in the Philippines in 2005. (Mark Navales/AFP/Getty Images)

Pacencia Garcia holds a photograph of her slain daughter, Marlene Esperat, as she and her husband attends the ral wake after she was killed in a brutal execution-style killing in the Philippines in 2005. (Mark Navales/AFP/Getty Images)

On Mar. 24, 2005, Maundy Thursday, Esperat, a good friend of the PCIJ and a source in some of the Center’s stories, was gunned down in full view of her children at the family home in Tacurong, Sultan Kudarat province. The lone gunman had knocked on their door. He then exchanged greetings with Esperat before firing a shot to her head.

Days after her death, in tribute to Esperat, “the Philippines’ Erin Brockovich,” the PCIJ wrote: “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.”

The PCIJ had christened her the Philippines’ 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.” Esperat had “the attitude and the fearless, in-your-face style of Brockovich,” and once even appeared at the PCIJ office wearing glitter on her eyelids, explaining, “I want to look pretty when the assassins come to get me.”

Esperat, the PCIJ noted, was determined, tireless, and driven by “righteous rage.” Far too many times, she had apparently seen the agriculture department’s monies being diverted to line the pockets of bureaucrats and politicians instead of being used to help farmers.

The department has one of the biggest budgets in government but its highly decentralized operations made detecting graft a hard task to do. Yet Esperat dug up documents and evidence to prove the nonexistence of an irrigation project in Cotabato and the rigged bidding of a contract to buy overpriced speedboats, among others. She filed dozens of cases – “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,” the PCIJ wrote.

In 2004, she even filed a case against Yap and Bolante, a close confidante of then First Gentleman Jose Miguel ‘Mike’ Arroyo, who is in turn the schoolmate at the Ateneo Law School of Ombudsman Ma. Merceditas N. Gutierrez. Esperat had also accused then Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay of complicity in chicken smuggling.

Esperat knew full well that she was challenging people in power but kept faith that she had the support of honest employees at the agriculture department. She was aware that hired killers were stalking her, as that was par for course when a whistleblower takes on “a thankless and dangerous job.”

“Is this how we reward and protect whistleblowers?” Esperat had asked in 2001, in one of her meetings with the PCIJ. “It would be some consolation if the cases were moving and the accused jailed. But most of the time, that’s wishful thinking.”

She had reason to speak thus. Esperat said she knew of “corrupt regional directors who have been reappointed by the new (Arroyo) administration, some with long lists of graft cases against them.” Yet she also offered a view that has yet to lose validity: “There seems to be no effort to scrutinize the performance of these officials and to purge the bureaucracy of bad eggs.”

In the PCIJ’s estimate, Esperat was the perfect whistleblower.

A chemist by trade and training, she “attacked corruption scientifically, by meticulously collecting documents and identifying people who provided first-hand information about the hypothesis she wanted to prove.” She always came ready with a list of sources, could recite their names and phone numbers from memory if she wanted to, just as well as the Brockovich did (or at least as portrayed by Julia Roberts).

As a one-woman anti-graft crusader since the ’90s, Esperat had exposed quite a number of crooked deals, first as a fed-up civil servant and then as an equally fed-up columnist and radio commentator:

The misuse of funds in 1990 intended for the a new laboratory building of the Agriculture department’s Regional Field Unit 12 in Cotabato City where she was then working as a chemist. The allocation was for P400,000 but her office received only P175,000. Then Agriculture Secretary Salvador Escudero III ordered an investigation but soon after, a fire hit the DA office in Cotabato City just days before the 1992 presidential elections.

A year after, 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 complicity of top DA officials in chicken smuggling. Esperat had sued then DA Undersecretary Cesar Drilon and other persons for allegedly allowing the entry of chicken leg quarters by CSP International Commodities Inc, which did not have a permit to import chicken. The company was partly owned by Pichay, who was included in the charge sheet.

The alleged selling of audit certificates by certain employees of the Commission in Audit in Cotabato City. Days before she was killed, Esperat had requested a meeting with Mindanews editor and esteemed PCIJ Fellow Carolyn O. Arguillas to discuss this story. The meeting did not take place, however.

Amid all these, Esperat was also a devoted mother and dutiful provider.

In 2004, she left her job at the DA and began selling Tupperware and running a small sari-sari store in Tacurong. She also wrote a weekly column, “Madam Witness,” for a local newspaper and hosted a program on local radio, with accreditation from the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas.

In the months leading to her murder, Esperat was a frequent visitor at the Office of the Ombudsman, where, the PCIJ learned, she hounded employees and told them they were dragging their feet in investigating the cases she had filed.

This Apr. 14, the Ombudsman sued Sorsogon Governor Raul Lee, his provincial accountant, and the provincial treasurer for buying fertilizer that was overpriced at P3 million. The funds had come from the agriculture department. Curiously, the resolution, although dated Nov. 24, 2008, was approved by Deputy Ombudsman Orlando Casimiro only last Mar. 29.

This Ap.15, the Ombudsman, at long last, in a 134-page resolution of its panel of investigators found that “there exists probable cause” to pursue criminal charges of plunder, graft, and malversation against Bolante et. al.

At the very least, the Ombudsman has finally filed suit against some officials in connection with Esperat’s biggest expose, the fertilizer fund scam. But the foot-dragging is far from over, including in Esperat’s own murder case.

Four men, including the gunman identified by her children who witnessed her killing, are now respondents in the case that Esperat’s family filed five years ago. But while the implicated gunman and lookout have been jailed, the two alleged masterminds remain free and are even back in active service with the Agriculture department.

Two of three witnesses have recanted, apparently for fear of their lives. The third and lone state witness, a police sergeant, Rowee Barua, who served as go-between for the alleged masterminds and the alleged hired guns, chose to tell all that he knew about Esperat’s murder.

Nearly a year ago, on May 17, 2010, Barua was “dismissed without honor” by the Philippine National Police and stripped of his pittance of a salary. Today he sustains his eight children with the P5,000 he receives as monthly stipend from the Witness Protection Program of the Department of Justice.

Esperat’s case had had to be moved to three regional trial courts in the five years since her murder. The courts had had to issue three warrants for the arrest of the alleged masterminds. But in all instances, the alleged masterminds and their clearly more influential patrons and lawyers foiled the service of the warrants.

The case of Marlene Esperat is one of only two murders of journalists in which the alleged masterminds had so far been identified and implicated as respondents. Since 1986, 178 journalists and media workers have been felled by assassin’s bullets, including 121 killed in the line of duty. Of the 178 cases, 79 murders – or over four in every 10 – occurred under the nine-year presidency of Gloria Arroyo. Indeed her dubious honor has been to watch idly by as hired guns and goons of politicians muted nearly nine journalists every year, and as the police, the prosecutors and the courts moved exceedingly slow on the cases. The Philippines has been called the poster child of impunity in the world. But then again, we might ask: Wasn’t Arroyo its midwife?

In life Esperat had demonstrated absolute faith in the justice system and the Ombudsman, choosing over and over to file suit against crooks, including those with more than considerable clout. While the Ombudsman and other authorities were taking their time, she wound up taking a bullet to her head. – PCIJ, April 2011