July 2006

By Perry Diaz

Jocelyn-Jocjoc-BolanteFor whatever reason the parents of Jocelyn Bolante named their son with a feminine-sounding name, it probably made Jocelyn the butt of jokes when he was growing up. However, his nickname — “Joc-joc” — gave him a more macho-sounding personality. But with his recent problems with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), his moniker has taken a different meaning — a “joke joke” or plainly speaking, a double loser.

What happened to Jocelyn “Joc-joc” Bolante couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. His problems started when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo appointed him as Agriculture Undersecretary for Finance and Administration 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 include 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.

But as Lord Acton once said, “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” 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 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.

The report named Bolante as the “master architect of the scam.” He negotiated the release of funds from the Department of Budget and Management and then authorized the funds’ release. He also wrote the congressmen and local officials of the availability of the funds. According to the Commission on Audit, the “funds went through a circuitous route thus resulting in fragmented accountability.” It is interesting to note that the fertilizer funds were “released” during the harvest months of February through May 2004 — which coincided with the election campaign period — instead of the planting months starting in November.

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. Of the three suppliers who cumulatively received P145.6 million, two companies could not be traced and the third company, a medical supplier, has no prior track record of dealing in fertilizers.

But here is the stinger: the joint committees revealed that the P728 million fertilizer fund is just a portion of a larger fund — P2.806 billion — released during the 2004 elections. The joint committees also recommended the overhaul of the Department of Agriculture and the filing of criminal and administrative charges against Bolante and numerous Department of Agriculture officials who participated in the fertilizer scam.

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 has been subpoenaed four times and his whereabouts were unknown until July 7, 2006, when 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, the ICE unit detained him.

Speculation is rife as to why Bolante was not deported immediately as usually is the case. Several scenarios have been spreading around. One scenario is that Bolante asked for asylum claiming that he fears for his life should he be sent back to the Philippines. Another scenario is that the Philippine government wants Bolante detained in the US for fear that Bolante might spill the beans should he appear before the Senate joint committees. A third scenario is that Bolante is being held because part of the P728 million fertilizer funds — as much as US$10 million — originated from the US agricultural aid program to the Philippines.

The Philippine and US governments would not explain or give any information on the true nature of Bolante’s arrest. But one plausible scenario surfaced a few days ago when it was speculated that Bolante was being held on alleged money laundering charges by the US government. If this were true, the “cancelled visa” issue would not be the cause of his detention. A key element that supports a “money laundering” scenario is that Bolante is in the custody of ICE, a “law enforcement” unit of the US Department of Justice. If his detention were due to a “cancelled visa,” his case would be handled by the Immigration Department, which would then initiate a deportation hearing.

It was speculated that Bolante might have tried to bring into the US a large amount of undeclared money. Under US anti-racketeering and anti-money laundering laws, individuals entering the US are allowed to bring in an undeclared amount of no more than $10,000. Any amount in excess of $10,000 must be declared. Assuming that Bolante was arrested on money laundering charges, this would explain the unusually high bail — $100,000 — set by the US authorities, which is usually 1% of the amount of the money being laundered.

Joc-joc Bolante may finally find himself the butt of the biggest joke of his life. But for all others concerned in this scandal, the Joc-Joc affair is no joking matter.