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Extraordinary secrecy in Philippine pork scam
Publication Date : 30-08-2013
Extraordinary secrecy surrounded the surrender of Janet Lim-Napoles to no less than the head of state, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, on Wednesday night. Tagged by the government virtually as the country’s public enemy No. 1, Napoles thought it was beneath her dignity to surrender to lesser authorities after eluding arrest for two weeks the largest task force ever deployed, in recent memory, by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) to hunt and arrest a fugitive of justice.
In a triumphalist mood, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda announced: “At 9:37 p.m. on August 28, Janet Napoles surrendered to President Aquino. Napoles is wanted on charges of serious illegal detention arising from the alleged kidnapping of Benhur Luy,” a former employee of Napoles, a key witness in the corruption scandal involving the diversion of 10 billion pesos (US$229 million) in congressional pork barrel funds to a group of NGOs (nongovernment organisations).
As soon as the President received the information that Napoles had turned up at the PNP headquarters in Camp Crame, he was driven to Crame to accept the surrender. He promptly turned over Napoles to the custody of Interior Secretary Mar Roxas for the formal procedures of arrest and booking. The President also met Napoles’ husband, Jimmy, a former military officer.
On orders from the Presidential Security Group, the police barred news reporters from entering the camp. Reporters found this secrecy abnormal, pointing out that criminal suspects were usually immediately presented to the media. With this ban, the Aquino administration’s creed of transparency flew out of the window. The public might as well say goodbye to it.
What’s so especial about Napoles? What state secrets are involved—if and when Napoles talks in captivity—to warrant this secrecy? Will her disclosures in the ensuing interrogations in Crame compromise the security of the state?
The surrender came shortly after Malaca๑ang announced a 10-million peso bounty for the arrest of Napoles. Prior to the surrender, there were reports that, according to Napoles’ lawyer, her client had sent surrender feelers through Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle. His spokesperson denied that the Manila archbishop had spoken with Napoles or her lawyer.
The Inquirer reported, citing her lawyer as source, that Napoles had decided to surrender before she could be charged with plunder or other cases related to the pillage of public funds. A PNP spokesperson said proposals to make Napoles a state witness would be studied. This possibility is plausible and suggests that a deal might have been struck between government and Napoles to put her under protective custody for whatever revelations she might make in the course of the trial of cases that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is preparing against her.
Napoles’ lawyer was reported in media as saying that she surrendered because she feared for her life. “There are really people who want to keep her silent permanently,” the lawyer said. Roxas echoed the lawyer’s claim and said the President has vowed to secure Napoles. She might be safe now under the PNP’s custody, but many in the public are asking: What sort of information could the government allow Napoles to reveal or cover up?
Whatever it is, the case over the pork barrel diversion did not end with her arrest. With Napoles’ arrest, the government has now in its hands a witness who can shed more light—who can confirm or invalidate what 10 whistle-blowers, all former employers of hers, have revealed in their affidavits submitted to the NBI. Somehow, the DOJ investigation has turned a corner and has opened new doors. The question is, what government sector will be held criminally liable for the pork barrel diversion in the redirected investigation?
At the formation of the Interagency Anti-Graft Coordinating Council last Tuesday, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said the council would look into the alleged misuse of the pork barrel fund, which was uncovered in a special audit from 2007 to 2009. The review conducted by the Commission on Audit showed that 82 NGOs received 6.165 billion pesos from the allocations of 12 senators and 180 members of the House of Representatives under their Priority Development Assistance Fund. De Lima vowed there would be no “sacred cows” in the review. “We will go where the evidence will lead us.” The investigation will be nonpartisan—meaning, it will cover both the administration allies and the opposition, she said.
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, had similar fighting words. “We don’t have any record of being tools of anybody, to spare this fellow and make it hard for the other fellows. So we assure you of the credibility of the investigation,” she said.
De Lima said the NBI was set to file with the Office of the Ombudsman the first batch of cases, including plunder, against Napoles and those involved in the diversion of public funds in “one or two weeks.” The NBI is gathering evidence from the COA and the Anti-Money Laundering Council, she said. The NBI has a “roomful of evidence” in the COA photocopy machine. “We want to be sure that the cases we will be filing have enough evidence,” she said. We hope by “enough evidence” she did not mean tons of rubbish.
What’s of utmost concern is that this zeal to investigate does not turn into the biggest witch-hunt in Philippine legal history.