By Juan L. Mercado

“THE NAIL that sticks out gets hammered,” the old proverb says.  And a corrupt oligarchy, in this country, pounds down to sleaze-level any official of integrity. They stick out.

Isabela Governor Grace Padaca and Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo, for example, had to run gauntlets of smears and harassment to serve — and win, much later, recognition like the Magsaysay Award for public service.

Today, this pounding is most relentless in President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s home turf.  In Pampanga, officials wage what the Inquirer aptly calls a “shameful and shameless” 3-R campaign.

“Recount, Recall and Requiem” is the template for a furious drive to oust their 26th provincial governor:  Eddie Panlilio. Why?

Because this priest-turned-reluctant-candidate dented Malacanang’s patina of political invincibility. With citizen backing and a shoe-string budget, he trashed in the last elections, provincial board member Lilia Pineda and Governor Mark Lapid both preen as the President’s moneyed allies.

“Among Ed” fractured an unwritten rule:  “Never touch the politicians’ wallet.” Chief Justice Hilario Davide, for example, led the Supreme Court to rule on the notorious coconut levy. That saw Eduardo Cojuangco unleash the congressional “Brat Pack” in a bitter attempt to impeach Davide. Only furious protests, by citizens and church groups, beat back Cojuangco’s legislative gunslingers. .

Through efficient collection, Panlilio boosted government income from Pampanga’s number two political feeding through: quarry taxes. ( Jueteng is number one ). A month in office, Panlilio surpassed the P29.1 million collected by Mark Lapid in 2006.

One can follow “smell of money” in the Provincial Treasurer’s report on the collection track record: Governor Bren Guiao ( 1993-1994 ) P 3.82 million. The Mount Pinatubo eruption increased lahar in quarries.  Govenors Lito and son Mark Lapid collected P121.02 million, over the next 12 years. In contrast, Panlilio doubled Lapids’ collection to P230 million — in just three years.

This record stood the corrupt elite on its head. More significant, it gave startled citizens a glimpse of the massive amounts that leached into politicians’ wallets.

“Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example,” Mark Twain notes. With a robust P143-million development fund, Panlilio helped nine understaffed and poorly equipped district hospitals – including, alas, the Diosdado Macapagal Provincial Hospital. He shared with towns Capitol’s P37-million special education fund. He periodically split quarry revenues with towns and barangays.

Candor can turn the “annoyance factor” ballistic. In October 2007, the President met with 200 officials of the Union of Local Authorities in Malacanang. Brown envelopes were handed out. Panlilio confirmed he found P500,000 stuffed into his envelope received from a Palace staffer.  He deposited the shekels with the provincial treasurer.

A furious controversy erupted. Ironically, it swirled, not around “bribery” but on Panlilio’s alleged indiscretion. “No one blushed,” noted Cebu Daily News. “Even more telling, no one returned an envelope”— except Panlilio.

Instead of hailing Panlilio, Pampanga officials clipped his powers.  The provincial board granted mayors greater police powers over the quarry . It stripped P45 million from the quarry reform fund in his budget.

“Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”  King Henry II fumed against Thomas Becket. The Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170, stood   firm against the monarch’s abuses. Henry’s men cut Becket down at the altar. This became the theme of TS Eliot’s work: “Murder in the Cathedral.”

Today, an “3-R” campaign would rid Pampanga of this “meddlesome priest. The third “R” stands for the  first word in Requiem aeternam dona eiis Domini.  (Eternal rest give unto him, O Lord) Panlilio says little of this threat. But he dons a flak-jacket in more exposed situations. Men have killed for less, he knows.

The other two “Rs” stand for “recount” and “recall” The Supreme Court stopped the recount until it resolves an issue of abuse. Officials seek to gather 100,000 signatures— 10 percent of the province’s voting population, to force a recall election before January 200 Of Pampanga’s 137 priests, only 15 signed up.

“This petition has partisanship written all over it,” the Inquirer said. “But the brazenness is still breathtaking. Simply put, their “campaign” is both shameful and shameless. In Filipino, “nakakahiya, walang hiya!”

“Instead of recall, people should call for reform,” said Pampanga’s Bishop Pablo David. Majority of the province’s clergy support Panlilio. “This is not about a person. It’s about a whole moral crusade for good governance.”

This is a country-starved for officials of integrity “who stick out.” Alongside Cagayan’s Governor  Grace Padaca and Naga City mayor Jesse Robredo, stands Panlilio. They provide proof to a dispirited people that integrity still exists. “Example is the school of mankind,” Edmund Burke wrote. “And men will learn at no other.”

Malacanang meticulously distances itself from the “3-R” campaign. But would Pampanga officials pound  “Among Ed” down to their sleaze level, if the kabalen in  Malacanang didn’t wink?“ The voice may be that of Jacob. But the hand is that of Esau.”  (E-mail: juan_mercado@prime.net.ph)