Buencamino is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the Business Mirror, May 07,2008 edition, p. A10.

“You can fool some of the people all of the time and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.” – George W. Bush, Washington, DC March 31, 2001

Which one of the following three newspaper headlines about a controversy involving Hanjin Heavy Industries and two Misamis Oriental mayors do you think made Palace factotums smile?

“Bribery or extortion on $2B Misamis Or. project?” (Malaya).

“Puno forms task force to probe Hanjin project pullout” (Philippine Star).

“’Furious’ Arroyo orders Hanjin extort probed” (Philippine Daily Inquirer).

The third? I think so, too.

The PDI headline followed the line laid out by DILG secretary Ronaldo Puno:

“The President was furious over these charges of extortion, galit na galit (she’s livid) …. The conflicting statements of the mayors and Hanjin officials on the charges of bribery and extortion are puzzling, to say the least…. It does not make sense for a group that claims to have been bribed to respond by ordering the attack on a company driver of the alleged briber.”

Why is it important for the Palace to sell the story as extortion rather than bribery?

Because Tagaloan Mayor Paulino Emano said he told Mrs. Arroyo about a bribe offer from Hanjin and instead of ordering an investigation, she scolded him. That has an eerie resemblance to her reaction to Romy Neri telling her about a bribe offer from Ben Abalos.

Imagine if Mrs. Arroyo had taken Puno’s “the best defense is offense” approach when Romy Neri testified that he told her about a P200 million bribe offered by Abalos instead going on wild cover-up spree?

If she had said, “I didn’t pay attention to Romy because I was informed much earlier by Commissioner Abalos that Romy tried to extort money from him during a round of golf in Wack-Wack.”

And if she had added, “I should have fired Neri and ordered Gonzalez to investigate him right away,  but I didn’t because I thought it might damage our economic and diplomatic relations with China. It was a lapse in judgment by a human being, a wife whose husband was critically ill at the time. I am sorry.”

She could have avoided embarking on a futile campaign to convince the public that Romy Neri, Joey De Venecia, Jun Lozada, and Dante Madriaga created and coordinated lies.

She wouldn’t have had to go on a crusade to destroy Jun Lozada, that he engineered an auto kidnapping and liquidation attempt and his wife gave a stellar performance worthy of an Oscar just to destabilize the country or because Lozada wanted to run for Congress.
Well, at least, she’s learning from her mistakes.

Going back to the Misamis Oriental-Hanjin controversy, I’m not sure if it’s about bribery or extortion or a little bit of both.  I’m sure I’ll never know. And neither will you.

But I do know one thing. Malacañang is following, religiously, Dubya’s advice on audience targeting.

Press secretary Ignacio Bunye, addressing suspicions about Mrs. Arroyo’s behavior in the Hanjin case said, “President Arroyo will never violate any existing law just to accommodate persons, individuals or companies who want to invest in the country.”

That will work on some people all the time.