Nov 2 column for Manila Standard Today, page 5
Why challenge the status quo?
Bernie and Ruth are an American couple in their 70s. They have two sons, Andrew and Mark.
They are not your ordinary senior citizens. They are, after all, the Madoffs. Bernie was arrested in December 2008 and is now serving a 150-year jail term in North Carolina for pulling a Ponzi scheme, defrauding hundreds of high-profile investors of a total of $65 billion over many years. Madoff's feat is the biggest financial fraud in history.
Ruth, who now lives in Florida, was interviewed on the program 60 Minutes. She told the story of how she and her husband tried to kill themselves on the Christmas after the scheme had unravelled. They swallowed sleeping pills – obviously, these did not work.
Who did succeed in taking his own life was their son Mark, who hanged himself in his New York apartment on the second anniversary of his father's arrest.
Ruth says she would not be able to forgive Bernie for driving their son to kill himself. Apparently, while the boys had been working closely with their father, they had no idea what he was up to.
Andrew, who is now promoting an authorized biography, says he is never going to speak to his father for the rest of his life. As for Ruth – well, she just has to live with the shame of being Bernie's wife. (She became estranged from her sons in the aftermath of the arrest. Andrew "struggled to understand" why his mother stuck it out with his father after everything. She only decided to end her loyalty to Bernie after Mark's death.)
The public's reaction to this latest set of revelations are mixed. Some doubt that Ruth and the boys did not know about Bernie's grand-scale scam. Could it be that they had so much faith in their father's financial genius that they assumed all of the benefits came from honest work? How stupid could they be?
Another possibility is that they had started enjoying the comforts – no, the luxuries – that they had simply decided not to think about where the money might have come from. Perhaps they never even asked, so he never told.
Back here at home, another elderly couple has gained notoriety for financial dishonesty. Former military comptroller Jacinto Ligot and wife Erlinda, charged with failing to file their tax returns for 2003, remain missing. There is a warrant for their arrest in connection with the tax case.
The family's unexplained wealth has brought them to the Senate, where the couple uttered the standard answer of "I cannot recall" to practically every question thrown their way. Husband and wife could each post a bail of P20,000, however – loose change, some would say.
Mrs. Ligot is not alone. Remember the other military wife, Clarita Garcia, wife of Major General Carlos Garcia who has been charged with plunder? She thoughtlessly gave her husband away when she wrote a letter to American authorities explaining that the wads of cash found in her and her sons' possession were gratuity and shopping money from military suppliers who had their contracts approved through her husband.
Remember, too, the wives of the Philippine National Police generals who were stopped at the Moscow International Airport for carrying euros equivalent to P6 million? The generals were in Russia for a conference – what the wives were doing aside from keeping their men company, nobody knows.
I raise these examples to point out the crucial role of spouses with regard to the conduct of a government official or a businessman. Spouses who remain together most likely have achieved a certain level of intimacy such that one would feel secure to tell one's secrets to a partner. This is what the law assumes when it says that spouses cannot be compelled to testify against one another. This implies is that the bond between husband and wife is superior, inviolable.
It is thus natural to assume that the wife, for instance, knows what her husband is up to. Because how could she not know? Any thinking person would know how much a particular job or position would rake in. If a family lives sorely below, or beyond, the breadwinners' official means, then something is not quite right.
Unfortunately, some families don't care what fuels their lifestyle – the nice house, the expensive schools, the cars, the houses, the vacations. They simply feel entitled to all these. It may be that they know their husband/ father is up to no good, but they choose to ignore it. Worse, some know and knowingly join in as well. This is why in some parts of the country, politics is seen as a family enterprise. They have to keep all the good stuff – power, money, influence – among members of the family. Some kill for this.
All this is sad because families are supposed to guide each other into doing the right thing, or at least keep each other from doing wrong. Take for instance the various cases of corruption that permeate all levels of government, nationwide. Corrupt officials are not just government employees – they are also husbands or fathers, wives or mothers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. What face do they show their families – do they pretend to be honest, or make no bones about it and expect their families to just accept what they are doing? It feeds them well, after all, and enables them to live in luxury. Who would be so stupid as to challenge the status quo?
Citizens would – no, should. This is, hence, a plea to the wives and sons and daughters and other family members: Ask questions. Don't feel entitled to your lifestyle. Pressure from the public through the media may move some officials to action. Family pressure, however, could be stronger.
Of course, one can always choose to keep quiet. Many of us were raised to belive that family is the most important thing there is. So if one's "cooperation" – even if it means just staying quiet – is needed to keep the family together, or protect it, then why not, right? The (financial) benefits are nothing to sneeze at, besides.
Fortunately, there are still those who recognize that there are things of a higher order than what we generally hold dear. If you are unfortunate enough to be such a situation, remember: Neglecting to act, or worse, refusing to, is tantamount to committing the same wrong yourself.