A corruption scandal in which retired Philippine generals and their wives were accused of living lavishly off funds skimmed from one of Asia’s weakest armies took a dramatic turn Tuesday with the apparent suicide of a former military chief.
Retired Gen. Angelo Reyes, 65, was pronounced dead on arrival at a Manila hospital from a single gunshot wound to the chest after visiting his mother’s grave, Health Secretary Enrique Ona said. Reyes, a prominent figure, had been accused along with two other former Philippine military chiefs of embezzling at least $1 million from the armed forces.
Mr. Ona refused to immediately confirm that Reyes had committed suicide, saying he was awaiting autopsy results.
Witnesses interviewed by DZBB radio station at the cemetery said they saw Reyes send his children to his car before a single shot rang out.
The powerful military expressed shock at Reyes’ death and urged Congress to expedite its probe into military corruption. President Benigno Aquino III, elected last year on the promise to prosecute corrupt officials, sent his condolences while his predecessor praised Reyes as a good soldier.
Corruption, an explosive issue
Corruption is an explosive issue in the Philippines’ inadequately equipped and poorly paid 120,000—strong military. It has sparked several insurrections in the last two decades by disgruntled soldiers.
In startling testimony last month, retired military budget officer Col. George Rabusa claimed that huge amounts had been diverted from key military units into a kitty for all kinds of illegal payoffs.
Among the recipients of the unaudited payoffs, Col. Rabusa said, were three ex—military chiefs of staff who each month collected millions of pesos (tens of thousands of dollars) for personal use plus huge “send—off” payments when they retired.
Col Rabusa alleged that Reyes, who served from 2001 to 2003, was among the recipients of the payoffs, including more than $1 million when he stepped down that had to be converted into dollars because the peso equivalent was too bulky.
A stunned Reyes at the time denied pocketing funds but also declared “I’m not a saint.” He later filed graft charges against Col. Rabusa and a senator he accused of conspiring to malign him.
Emotions ran high when Reyes tried to confront Col. Rabusa at the January 27 hearing but was restrained by senators, including Antonio Trillanes IV, a former navy officer who was detained for more than seven years for alleged involvement in failed coups against former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Reyes was among Mr. Arroyo’s most loyal backers.
“I’m just trying to protect my reputation here,” Reyes said during the Senate hearing in what would be his last public appearance. “I have served this government for 48 years.”
“No, no, no, you don’t have any reputation to protect,” Mr. Trillanes responded. “I believe this is the time of reckoning. ... You better find very good lawyers.”
Wives also used military payoffs to purchase U.S. real estate
Col. Rabusa’s allegations were disturbing. Aside from the ex—military chiefs and two comptrollers, he testified that their wives also used military payoffs to purchase U.S. real estate and finance foreign trips, shopping sprees and parties. He said the money was illegally taken by cutting Congress—approved funds, including those for troop salaries, ammunition and a military hospital.
The magnitude of the accusations against Reyes and two other retired military chiefs shocked many in this Southeast Asian nation, which has grappled with government corruption scandals for decades but produced few convictions.
“Death is not a graceful exit to such a distinguished officer,” Sen. Kiko Pangilinan said.
“A more honourable way would have been to come out with the truth and win back the admiration of his fellow soldiers,” he said, urging other generals accused of graft to cooperate with a government investigation.
Reyes known for his temper, lighter side too
Reyes was among the country’s most prominent generals. He had led counterinsurgency battles and was in charge of the departments of defence, environment, energy, interior and local government affairs and other top posts under several presidents. He was known for his temper but revealed a lighter side too, as part of a three—member soprano group in which the macho general sang and danced in charity shows.
Col. Rabusa grieved over Reyes’ death, saying they were close friends until the congressional investigation. Col. Rabusa also said he feared for his life.
“I’m really sad and I don’t know why he did that,” Col. Rabusa told DZBB radio, his voice cracking. “I know his children, they treated me like a second father. ... We ate together. He served me meals.”