Philippines Free Press
August 19, 1961
How Quezon handled government crooks
by Rodrigo C. Lim
NOW that President Garcia seems determined to weed out the scoundrels in the government service who have brought disrepute to his administration, it may be interesting to delve a little into past history and recall how, in his time, the late President Quezon handled such crooks.
Being as old as the oldest profession in the world, graft was not unknown in the good old prewar days. It is true that the modern C.B. ten percenters, ACCFA tobacco up-graders, etc., were then unknown, but there were quite a number of get-rich-quick Wallingfords in the different branches of the government who enriched themselves through their positions.
Among others, there were judges and fiscals whose decisions were for sale to the highest bidders; P.C., and police officers who were on the pay roll of vice operators; B.I.R. and customs men who, like their present counterparts, were leading princely lives through their under-the-table or fuera mirar operations, and others in various departments who were more concerned with making easy money than serving the public.
Although these grafting activities were not as scandalous as the postwar vintage, they were serious enough to deserve the attention of Quezon immediately upon his becoming president of the Commonwealth.
“I knew all about the racketeers in the service and was determined to get rid of them”, the late chief executive said in his autobiography, The Good Fight.
M.L.Q. first made this determination known when, on the induction of Osmeña, Quirino and Alas as secretaries of public instruction, interior and finance, respectively, he declared: “I expect this government six months from now to be the cleanest government that it can be made.”
Now, how did the late President make good his word? How did he go about in his anti-graft war? Did he really go after the crooks without regard to personal considerations, or did he just play for the headlines?
As newspaperman at that time, I had numerous occasions to bring to his attention cases of anomalies involving high personages in the government, some of them among his best friends. Talking with me one evening shortly before his inauguration, he asked for my cooperation by furnishing him with such information as would help him in weeding out the leeches in the government.
“I will give no quarter to the crooks and grafters in the government,” M.L.Q. told me with vehemence that night. “I will expect only one norm of conduct from public officials”, he went on, “and that is absolute honesty and integrity. Any official found guilty of dereliction of duty or enriching himself through his position shall be dismissed without ceremony.”
Elucidating further, the late President explained that the moment he was morally convinced that a government official was corrupt or otherwise unfit to continue holding a public trust, out he would go.
Some of the incidents which I am revealing here for the first time show that Quezon was never disposed to compromise with crooks and grafters on the public pay roll; that in cases of conflict between his loyalty to his friends, relatives and political henchmen and his loyalty to his oath of office, he always placed the latter over and above the former.
A good example of swift Quezonian justice when it came to upholding the standard of morality in the public service is the case of a certain prosecuting attorney in the department of justice.
The fiscal, according to the writer’s information, had received from the offended parties in a case he was prosecuting a check for P7,000, supposedly for the expenses of government witnesses. Because there was no way of checking upon the information, banking records being strictly confidential, I decided to pass it on to the President.
That was one of the few occasions on which I saw Quezon really mad.
“What business did this d…n fiscal have to get that money?” he asked.
Without further ado, he grabbed the telephone and asked for the president of the Philippine National Bank.
“Carmona, this is the President talking”, M.L.Q. almost shouted into the telephone. “Take your pencil and paper. I want you to find out right now who cashed this check”, and he gave the date, number, amount and the name of the payee.
After a few minutes the presidential telephone rang and the bank official confirmed my information. The check was endorsed and collected by the fiscal himself. Quezon then took the phone again, this time to tell the undersecretary of justice: “I want District Attorney So an So to resign right now.”
The following day the papers announced the resignation of the fiscal for reasons of “ill health”.
The next case that comes to my mind was that of a Malacañan Clinic physician whom Quezon dismissed despite the intervention of his wife, Doña Aurora. This physician, who is incidentally holding a high government position today, was accused in court of abducting a young lady patient. Although the trial of his case was a front-page sensation for days, the debonair doctor-Romeo had not been suspended contrary to the general practice then of suspending officials accused of crimes involving moral turpitude.
I happened to mention the case while chatting with the President one day and after hearing the facts, he took the telephone and called up the chief of the clinic.
“This is the President talking”, he said, “I want you to dismiss right now Dr. So-and So.”
Quezon had hardly put down the receiver when his telephone rang.
“Pero, hija,” I heard the president answer, “ese sinverguenza no debe estar un minuto mas en el servicio,” which meant, “But, dear, this shameless fellow should not stay a minute longer in the service.”
The President himself told me later that it was Mrs. Quezon who tried to persuade him not to be hard on the physician. But “no dice”—the doctor was canned the same day.
There was also the case of a justice of the peace from a central Luzon province whose proclivities for making easy money had been brought to Quezon’s attention. When this J.P. learned that he was scheduled to be fired, he sought the help of a high church official, who asked for an audience with the President. As far as the President was concerned, however, there was nothing more to explain. There was ample evidence on file in Malacañan on the anomalies the J.P. had committed. So, despite the wire-pulling of the high church dignitary and of the J.P.’s brother who was a ranking official of the department of justice, that J.P. was kicked out of the judiciary.
Many prewar newspaper readers will undoubtedly recall the so-called immigration scandal that resulted in the mass suspension and, later, dismissal and transfer of practically all immigration officials and employees. Convinced after a quiet protracted investigation conducted by the Division of Investigation (D-I) of the venalities in the immigration office, Quezon one afternoon ordered the suspension of all personnel, from the chief to the last messenger. The D-I was made to take over the office. The immigration chief then was the nephew of the President’s wife, but that did not save him from being suspended and transferred to another office later.
Many will also recall perhaps the case of bureau of commerce director accused of negligence. A private merchant had been authorized to import rice, free of duty, to relieve a shortage. It was understood that the rice was to be sold to the public at landed cost plus a certain margin of profit for the importer. To enable the importer to withdraw the rice from the customs, he had to get a certification from the commerce director as to the quantity, and the director certified the padded quantity. Had the fraud not been discovered by an alert customs examiner the government would have been cheated of thousands of pesos in revenues. Quezon immediately suspended the director, despite the latter’s allegation that he signed the certificate without scrutinizing its contents. An ironical twist to the case was that the director received the notice of his suspension at the very moment that he was dressing up for a state ball in Malacañan. He did not go to the affair, of course.
Still fresh in my mind is the clean-up Quezon ordered in the bureau of customs and the Manila police department.
The Manila customhouse then, as now, was a crook’s paradise. Customs secretaries, examiners, appraisers, etc., were living like Oriental potentates—with palatial mansions, flashy automobiles and queridas—on their P100 or P200 monthly salaries. Their thieving operations were an open secret and, without being told by intelligence operatives, the President knew just how they went about their illegal activities. In no time, without fanfare, the undesirables in the customs service resigned one by one, having been confronted with the evidence of their venalities gathered by a customs survey board headed by then Secretary of Finance Miguel Unson, one of the most brilliant and upright men we have ever had in the government service. They were given the choice of resigning voluntarily or submitting to an investigation and sure dismissal. In almost all cases, they preferred to resign. Incidentally, a good many of them made good after they started anew in private life.
The Manila police department was also cleaned of its undesirable characters soon after Quezon entered Malacañan. Acting on presidential orders, then City Mayor “Amang” Rodriguez and the late Col. Antonio C. Torres, chief of police, had the record of each and every member of the department scrutinized. After an honest-to-goodness probe by a special investigator, Assistant City Fiscal Francisco Albert, the force was swept clean of crooked elements, from police rookies to captains and majors.
But the most memorable case in which Quezon showed beyond doubt that he held his loyalty to his oath of office over and above his loyalty to his friends, concerned one of his proteges, who was holding a key position in the Philippine National Bank. As general agent of another bank which was acting as trustee of a sugar central, this bank official was sued, with several others, in the Manila court of first instance by one of the central’s directors. Part of the complaint charged him with having “committed a series of irregularities in the administration of said central which resulted in the plundering and looting of the central’s funds and properties amounting to P72,766.65″.
Quezon was indignant on reading a copy of the court of the court complaint which I showed to him. Quivering with anger, he picked up the telephone and ordered the banker to come to Malacañan – immediately. The Manila business world was surprised when the newspapers the following day announced the banker’s resignation because of “ill health”. The President some time later told me that many of his friends had tried to persuade him to give the banker another chance – “but painful as it was, had to stick to my decision. I could never subordinate the public interest to that of my friends”, he explained.
Again comes to mind another case in which was involved the wife of cabinet member then considered the closest to the presidential family. From the former “encargada” of the cabinet man’s wife I got hold of a little notebook in which were recorded the usurious transactions of the latter with market vendors. The president had just ordered an anti-usury campaign and I thought he would be interested to take a look at that little notebook.
After hearing the “encargada” explain the entries in the little book, Quezon called for one of his legal assistants (who became executive secretary after the war) and told him: “I want you to go to the bottom of this case and prosecute her criminally if necessary.”
The legal assistant found the charges against the cabinet man’s wife true but considered them insufficient to warrant the filling of a criminal complaint in court. Morally convinced of the lady’s guilt after reading his assistant’s confidential report, the President called the lady’s husband and told him to resign. He would have been out of the cabinet had not the war broken out.
If there was anything of which Quezon was overzealous in protecting, it was the good name of his family and relatives.
My very good friend, the late Assemblyman Oppus, once told me the story of how Quezon called for him one day and asked him to reveal how much his (Quezon’s) nephew, an assemblyman, had received from a mining group that was interested in killing a bill pending in the assembly.
“I do not care to know how much the other assemblymen received”, the Leyte representative quoted Quezon as saying. “All I want to know is how much my nephew got.”
There had been no money for the nephew, however, but the president’s inquiry showed his concern for the good name of his family.