Corruption Proves Costly to Businesses In the Philippines

AMIDST growing charges of corruption, Philippine President Fidel Ramos's reputation for running a clean administration is unraveling somewhat. Business executives and politicians say bribes are solicited by everyone from traffic cops to government ministers.

``We had come to expect something different from Ramos,'' says one Filipino executive who has had to pay bribes, ``but his administration looks just as corrupt as all the rest.''

Studies estimate that the Philippines loses $3.6 billion a year from government corruption. This is a growing concern among both foreign and Filipino businesspeople. On Jan. 11, Mr. Ramos formed a special commission to investigate corruption complaints against government officials. The commission will focus on cases involving more than 10 million pesos ($360,000). On Jan. 6, he ordered an investigation of some Bureau of Customs officials who earn $400 a month but still support lavish lifestyles.

Supporters of the president say he has never accepted bribes and that corruption is far less pervasive today than under both Presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Corazon Aquino.

``There might be corruption at the lower levels, but not at the top,'' says Sedfrey Ordonez, a former minister of justice and currently chairman of the Human Rights Commission. ``If it's not done by the highest person in office, the underlings will follow that example.''

Ramos is less corrupt than previous presidents, says investigative reporter Shiela Coronel. ``The Ramos family is actually rather low-key compared to the Aquinos,'' she says. Nevertheless, Ms. Coronel says her investigations have turned up widespread corruption in granting government contracts, particularly for power plants. Some of the bribery went up ``to the level of Cabinet ministers,'' she says.

The reporter broke a story in the Philippine Daily Inquirer charging that Ramos has a longtime mistress named Rose Marie Jimenez-Arenas, who exercises undue influence over the president. The paper alleged that some businessmen seeking favor with the Ramos administration had to first meet with Ms. Jimenez-Arenas.

After the Inquirer articles appeared, a government agency put the paper into receivership, alleging irregularities in its ownership. The Inquirer stopped publishing stories about Ramos's affair and the receivership was later dropped.

Jimenez-Arenas power ``is considerable,'' says Congressman Ferdinand Marcos II, son of the late president. ``A friend from the US in the construction business always ended up having to deal'' with her, he says. ``It's unbecoming of a president to have such a complication in his life.''

But compared with the Marcos years, Ramos runs a clean administration, says Alex Magno, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines. ``The scale of corruption declined 30 percent from Marcos to Aquino,'' he says, ``and has dropped another 70 percent under Ramos.''

``The nexus of corruption is now in local government and government contracts at the provincial level,'' Mr. Magno says. The Ramos administration has moved vigorously against this regional corruption with campaigns to arrest scofflaw mayors and dissolve the private armies that business executives and politicians use to protect their illegal activities, he says.

But businesspeople dealing with government officials in Manila are not so pleased. ``Sure he can arrest some local mayors far from the center of power,'' says one executive who asked to remain anonymous. ``But we'll believe the anticorruption drive when he jails some high-ranking officials.''

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