Before President Rodrigo Duterte took over the helm of the national government, the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) was a boon to illegal gambling operators, local government officials and top ranking policemen and some members of media. But PCSO was a bane to the Executive Department too. Former Pres. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo affixed a marginal initial on the P320-million plus funding request of the PCSO board and that landed her in the hospital while those who expended the amount were out on bail. But that is another story.
I personally heard it from Duterte that one of the sensitive positions in revenue-earning agencies in the government is the PCSO. "Where can I get an honest man to manage this corrupt agency?", the President asked but nobody from around him had an answer.
Weeks later I found out that he had appointed Gen. Alexander Balutan to the sensitive post. Balutan of course is no stranger to Duterte and Duterte to the former Marine General. "Alex" was Deputy Commander of Eastern Mindanao Command.
The colorful career of the Marine General is best described by his peers in one word: "Mandirigma". When his commander-in- chief appointed him General Manager of PCSO, the marching order was clean the mess and put things in better shape.
The PCSO collection performance speaks for the Mandirigma, a graduate of PMA Class 1983. In 2015, total collections of PCSO was P34-billion. In 2016, with half of the year under Duterte, the collection went up to P40-billion. GM Balutan is now estimating that they will be able to generate not less than P60-billion by the end of the year.
The Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office operates Lotto Lottery, Small Town Lottery, "Scratch It, Instant Tama", "Kascash" and peddles the traditional sweepstakes tickets.
STL was supposed to address local illegal gambling like "jueteng" in Luzon, "masiao" in Visayas and "last two" in Mindanao. Instead of eradicating the illegal gambling, however, operators used it as shield of their illegal activities.
Enter the "Mandirigma". He conducted a probe on how much does each illegal operator make. Since most, if not all, of the franchised operators are also into illegal games, Balutan imposed a monthly collection target equivalent to their take on illegal gambling. To ensure that they deliver, each franchise holder was made to submit a performance bond. Those who will run short of their assigned targets also run the risk of losing their franchise and their bonds forfeited in favor of the government.
The result was dramatic not only in terms of collection performance but also in curbing illegal gambling.
In my brief and chance meeting with the General, he said that there are major changes which he intends to introduce in PCSO. Among the most recent innovations he put in place was to allocate funds for police and local government units. Checks are addressed not in the name of a person but direct to the police command and to the treasury of local government agencies. LGUs can only spend the amount if covered by legislative resolutions.
Inside PCSO itself, General Balutan instituted a strict control of internal rules, regulations and procedures. I heard from insiders that during his first week in office as General Manager, he browbeat a staff from the procurement division who entered his office and asked him to sign blank purchase orders. He gave the stunned employee a dressing, warning him of some serious consequences if they will attempt to put one over him. Since that incident, he earned a new moniker: "killer".
"Mandirigma" or "killer" has sent a strong message not only to PCSO employees but to everybody who are holding on to their precious franchise. Balutan said there are still very wide areas all over the country where illegal gambling proliferates. He said only the illicit operators are profiting from it. He is however confident that one day soon they will be able to eradicate these syndicates. With legitimate operations, PCSO will be able to generate more jobs and will be able to extend more help to the needy, to hospitals, Red Cross, local government units to name a few. Last week, for example, PCSO turned over 36 ambulances to the municipalities, cities and Lanao provinces.
PCSO, under Balutan, is now the biggest employer of the country. "There is no age limit and no educational requirement. Cabos, cobradors, ushers can now do their job in the open without fear of being arrested or harassed. In many areas where legitimate PCSO operators are located, we monitored that not a few drug pushers have become cobradors. With their monthly earnings that exceed minimum wage they feel proud knowing they have legitimate jobs," Balutan explained
"President Duterte wants to reach out to as many remote towns and provinces to help government medical objectives," Balutan said. To address this challenge, some innovative technical solutions should evolve from the present traditional techniques, he said.
The General must have forgotten me now for our meeting was brief. But he impressed me as one who is a true Mandirigma and killer of corruption. He should be cloned.
(Mr. Jun Ledesma is a community journalist who writes from Davao City and comments from the perspective of a Mindanaoan)