Implosion of ES Vic Rodriguez shakes confidence in Marcos administration
The Manila Times
First word BECAUSE lawyer Vic Rodriguez was built up as “the little president” during his brief stint as executive secretary, it is inevitable that his sudden departure will also impact the Commander in Chief and his administration. However Palace communicators may play it down, the composure and surefootedness of the presidency has been ruffled. The days ahead will show whether the damage has been either great or small. A matter of confidence In her fascinating book on the subject of confidence in business or government organizations, Confidence, (Random House, New York, 2004), Harvard management guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter argues that what causes organizations to rise or fall is a matter of confidence. “Confidence is the bridge connecting expectations and performance, investment and results. It is a familiar term used everyday to indicate future prospects in a wide variety of circumstances — the self-confidence of athletes, consumer confidence in the economy, public confidence in leaders, or votes of no-confidence at board meetings.” The fundamental task of leaders, Kanter explains, is to inspire confidence in advance of victory, in order to attract the investments that make victory possible. Confidence lies at the heart of civilization. Everything about an economy, a society, an organization or a team depends on it. Every step we take, every investment we make is based on whether we can trust in ourselves and others to accomplish what has been promised. Confidence determines whether our steps are tiny and tentative, or big and bold. Viewed in this context, the implosion or failure of Vic Rodriguez as executive secretary is much more disruptive and debilitating than media reports and analyses have portrayed it so far. The efforts to soften Rodriguez’s departure through semantics and euphemism are pathetic and puerile. It was said first that Rodriguez asked for permission to ‘step down’ from the 24/7 job of executive secretary, the point being to highlight the fact that he did not resign, or was forcibly removed or fired by the president. Rodriguez generously agreed to go because he wanted to spend more time with his young family. Then there was an effort, again instigated by Rodriguez, to soften the blow of losing the “little presidency” through the invention of a new post to which the President could appoint him as a palliative for his departure. It was suggested that the President appoint him as chief of staff in the Office of the President through an administrative order and a special order, which would confer on him even greater powers than those he earlier enjoyed and mishandled as executive secretary. The proposal was flatly turned down by the President, after chief presidential legal counsel Juan Ponce Enrile recommended its rejection, saying in a memorandum that it would duplicate functions already vested in various offices, I probably injected this idea into the thinking of Rodriguez and his deputies because of a column I wrote last August 18, “PH executive secretary or WH chief of staff: Which sounds better?” In that piece, I contrasted the American practice of designating a White House chief of staff as the gatekeeper of the US presidency with the Philippine practice of appointing an executive secretary to head the Office of the President, whom the media gleefully nicknamed as the “little president.” I also discussed in another column how the first President Marcos abolished the post of executive secretary after he became disenchanted with two little presidents in his administration. He opted instead to appoint two presidential executive assistants and several staff directors in the presidential office. The point to stress about the positions of executive secretary and chief of staff is that it is a choice between two approaches to presidential staff management; they cannot both be adopted without causing mayhem. On reflection, our problems in the institutional design of the Philippine presidency really began when the planners tried to turn the Office of the President into a department equivalent to the various departments of the executive, and then raised the executive secretary to membership in the Cabinet. For a very sound reason, the White House chief of staff in the US system is not a member of the president’s Cabinet. Failure in accountability The shortcomings of Vic Rodriguez as executive secretary are the result of an inflated view of the powers of the office and a misguided understanding of the executive secretary’s authority to act on behalf of the president. Some will naturally be squeamish to see Vic Rodriguez fall summarily into nowhere, with no safety net to break his fall from grace. It seems unthinkable for the lawyer of Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. in his unsuccessful vice presidential election protest, and who also served as the campaign manager in his recently successful run for the presidency, to now be denied a seat at the table in the new Marcos administration. Seriously though, a sober scrutiny and evaluation of Rodriguez’s 79 days as executive secretary must be undertaken now. His turn at the wheel has hardly been sterling, Sentiment aside, Rodriguez’s stint as executive secretary has been on the evidence a flight from accountability. It can be fairly judged as a failure or possibly even a disgrace. When closely reviewed and scrutinized, there could be plenty that he needs to explain or justify, and probably plenty more to be shocked about. Sugar importation controversy Start with Rodriguez’s role in the sugar importation controversy, which three hearings by the Senate blue ribbon committee, and the executive secretary’s personal testimony, could not resolve. The controversy involved chiefly an “illegal” order to import 300,000 metric tons of sugar, supposedly to address a shortage that had steeply raised the retail price of the commodity. Documents authorizing the transaction were issued by the Sugar Regulatory Administration, without the President’s approval. In the ensuing Senate inquiry, the embattled SRA officials claimed that they approved the order after receiving positive signals from the executive secretary. Incredibly, the then Agriculture undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian produced for the panel a July 15 memorandum from the ES which authorized him to represent the President in the SRA board, and to sign orders in the President’s name. Incredibly, the blue ribbon inquisitors forgot to ask Rodriguez to explain why he issued the July 15 memorandum in the first place, or how it serves the public interest. In the third hearing, when Rodriguez again appeared two testify and take questions, the senators again forgot to ask him to explain his memo, and why he never bothered to correct or rescind it. The blue ribbon committee thereafter rushed to close out its sugar importation inquiry. It quickly produced a report which a majority of the panel members signed. Two minority members refused to endorse the report, and issued their own report. Incredibly, Rodriguez emerged unscathed in the committee report. And then he was personally cleared of responsibility in the mess by Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri, because by then Zubiri appeared to realize that the chamber could not compel the executive secretary to testify without the President’s consent. The Palace claimed in Rodriguez’s defense that the ES approved only the need for an importation plan, he did not approve the actual importation order, which was nullified by the President. What shines through this entire controversy is the incomprehensible failure of ES Rodriguez to admit his accountability for the July 15 memorandum, which evidently triggered the entire fiasco. The ES pretended before the Senate committee that he was not answerable for the document that may have set off the sugar mess. Not once in his actions or his testimony did Rodriguez admit his share of responsibility in the sugar importation mess. Never did he profess a desire to correct a personal mistake or misjudgment in the affair. He has been a disruptive and debilitating force in the administration. Of major concern now is the possibility that his record shakes public confidence in the President and the entire executive branch. The picture gets even worse when you consider the new stories on Rodriguez in social media and the mainstream media, which talk about bribery in the appointment of people to sensitive positions in government, and about 40 foreign bank accounts of Rodriguez and his wife. The ES has not commented on these reports, let alone file a libel complaint against the authors or publishers. He just pretends that nothing has happened or that it will go away. In this light, Rodriguez as executive secretary must be viewed as a shaky part of the Marcos presidential transition. He has derailed and harmed the hopes for a harmonious and productive 100-day transition. Running in wrong direction For new presidents and prime ministers, Professor Kanter wrote in an aside, the first hundred days are considered the critical period in which an agenda is set and leadership is established. President Marcos took charge on June 30, 2022, shortly after he was sworn into office and had delivered his inaugural address. He immediately set to work. He knew that he was on the clock. Secretary Rodriguez for his part turned upside down the cliche about “hitting the ground running” during the first 100 days of the Marcos presidency. He was fast and in a hurry all right, but it turns out that he has been running in the wrong direction for his own personal reasons. I used to marvel at the surefootedness of Bongbong Marcos’ campaign for the presidency, and how he deftly handled the issues, attacks and persistent baiting by his opponents. He just flicked away all the negativity. Now, I worry that BBM as president may be losing control over the presidential transition and his agenda.