Text by Ira Pedrasa and photos by Rem Zamora for ABS-CBNnews.com
BANGUED – Abra province is always on the list of election hotspots, but a candidate in the town of Lagayan wants to change this.
Bernardine Joson, a whistleblower, will go head to head against her former boss in the municipal government, Jendricks Luna, who is part of a famous political clan here, as mayor of Lagayan.
Lagayan actually comes from the word “laga” or “to weave.” Long time ago, woven baskets were used as containers for vegetables or used catch fish. A symbol of the latter is prominently displayed in the seal of Lagayan. Fishing, aside from farming, is one of the sources of livelihood in Lagayan.
To most Filipinos, however, “lagayan” means bribery, or according to Philippine laws, the act of giving something to alter the behavior of the person receiving it.
Joson said the town’s name is “masagwa (in bad taste),” and it is her dream to change the name of the town to St. Francis of Assisi, which is also the name chosen by the Catholic Church’s new Pope.
Running for mayor
In 2011, Joson – then the municipal planning and development officer of Lagayan – filed plunder charges against Jendricks’ mother, former Abra Rep. Cecilia Seares Luna, and others for plunder, graft and corruption, technical malversation, unethical conduct, violation of the government procurement law and forfeiture.
Joson said the alleged plunder or large-scale graft took place from 2003 to 2010 and amounted to at least P133.9 million. Cecilia was mayor from 2003-2006. She was succeeded by her son Jendricks, who served from 2007 to 2010.
The complaint is still pending before the Office of the Ombudsman.
“Siyempre, tumatakbo ako as mayor dahil first, yung pag-file ko ng case sa Ombudsman, ine-expose ko doon ang tunay na nangyayari dito sa Lagayan na talagang rampant ang graft and corruption. Nag-file ako sa Ombudsman pero siyempre….our justice system, mabagal,” the 45-year-old said.
On the day of ABS-CBNnews.com’s interview, Joson was wearing a yellow, long-sleeved top, jeans and yellow flip-flops. Yellow is the election campaign color of President Benigno Aquino III, and Joson believes he can help get Lagayan out of its current rut.
The interview took place at her home, just a stone’s throw away from the welcome sign of “Lagayan.” A tarpaulin covered the exterior of Joson’s house to help hide it from strangers.
Inside the house, there were many rocks aimed at protecting her from death threats she gets frequently. “Nung pumutok ang plunder [case] ko, syempre kailangan ko namang i-extend ang buhay ko, hanggang eleksyon.”
‘Lagayan’ in Lagayan?
Joson said she knows that public money went to the pockets of the Lunas.
She said she was able to enter government service – after doing the rounds in the private sector – because her parents are friends of the Lunas. She said a cousin was supposed to run against Cecilia, but backed out as a compromise.
Joson believes, however, that Cecilia did not like her because she was “maingay” (noisy). She said she was not even given a regular employment contract, despite her many years of service in the municipal hall. It was only when Jendricks came in that she was regularized as part of governmental processes.
“Sinabi ni Cecilia sa akin iyan. Sinabi niya sa akin ‘Kung ipepermanent kita, kung iaappoint kita as permanent, dadating ang panahon na susuwagin mo ako.’ Kasi alam nila right from the start, nakita ko na ang sistema sa gobyerno,” she said.
Asked why she filed the plunder case, “Kasi nga wala naman tayong nakikitang program. Tapos gumagawa na lang ako ng accomplishment reports na wala naman.”
So why only now? She said she’s had enough.
In a separate interview with Jendricks, he said Joson’s complaint is a sham, which is why it is not moving at the Office of the Ombudsman.
He said he cannot comprehend where and how Joson got her numbers for the plunder complaint, adding that a falsification of document complaint has been filed against Joson.
He said Joson did not have a good reputation when she worked for the municipal government.
Jendricks believes that Joson is backed by the Lunas’ rivals in politics.
Joson said, however, that had the Valeras and the Bersamins backed her, the case at the Ombudsman would have already moved. She said she will continue to stand her ground.
Elaborating on the threats she has received after she filed the complaint, Joson said: “[Sa] Text, maraming text. Kahit noong nasa Manila kami, nakakatanggap ako ng text. Iuuwi daw nila yung ulo mo. Tapos yung ulo mo, isasako tapos dadalin sa Abra tapos yung katawan mo didikdikin, gagawing corned beef.”
She said she wanted to give up then, if not for her family. She said she needed also to protect them.
“Wala nang pupuntahan ang takot kasi patay lang naman ang pupuntahan natin eh. Any moment from now, kung talagang panahon na natin, kahit ilagay mo ako sa aparador, kung kukunin na tayo ng Diyos, wala na,” she said.
For her protection, Joson said she was first taken in by a religious group, until she entered the jurisdiction of the Witness Protection Program (WPP) of the Department of Justice.
She said, however, that she did not like being in a secret place. “Mayayabang sila,” was how she described her guards.
Her dream of ridding Lagayan of the Lunas was what brought her out of her secret place despite the threats.
“Sabi ko, hangga’t inaantay ko ang justice system natin na umikot, matagal talaga. Pumasok din ako sa WPP kasi may provision doon sa WPP na speedy trial ng cases pero wala din naman nangyari. Sabi ko, I cannot just sit here inside this room waiting for nothing. Sabi ko kailangan kong kumilos para yung ipinaglalaban ko na mabago ang Lagayan ay makamit ko. Doon ako nag-decide na tatakbong mayor,” she said.
David vs Goliath
Jendricks and Joson will be up against 8 other candidates for mayor. Jendricks, however, expects all of his rivals to back out by election day.
If Joson does not and gets just 10% of the votes, Jendricks said he will step down and won’t accept his win.
Joson said Jendricks only perceives he is popular. “He is now a barangay captain, but he’s the de facto mayor [of Lagayan]…Siya ang deciding factor. Di pumupunta ang mga tao sa 84-year-old na mayor [Purificacion Paingan] ngayon, dun sila sa Dangdangla sa Bangued (where Jendricks resides).”
She said the people are only afraid of Jendricks. She said that if she wins, she will return the freedom of speech to the people.
She admits is up against a Goliath, but “gigisingin ko ang kamalayan ng tao. Sabi ko sa kanila: ‘Wala akong pera. Pero alam nyo ang sitwasyon dito sa Lagayan. Eto sila, nandyan kayo. 26 years sila, nandito kayo. Tignan nyo ang Lagayan, tignan nyo ang kalagayan nila…Parang mga kabuti ang mga sasakyan nila na naglalabasan.”
Despite the slow pace of her case, Joson said she still believes in the government of the people. “Bilang baguhan sa pulitika, pinapanatili ko ang tiwala ko sa gobyerno.”