IT may take a lifetime to convict or acquit 49-year-old Janet Lim-Napoles, alleged mastermind of the P10-billion pork barrel scam, if investigators would leave no stone unturned and if every one who had a hand in the anomalous transactions would be taken to court.
Given the speed by which the justice system in the country grinds, a lifetime may even be an underestimation.
If a simple libel case with only one accused and six witnesses—five from the prosecution and one from the defense —took 10 years for a regional trial court to decide, I cannot imagine how long the litigation process would be on a case that has practically involved all branches of government (the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary).
The trial of former president Joseph Estrada for plunder took six years and five months, from April 2001 to September 2007, only because a special division in the Sandiganbayan held trials three days a week.
Estrada was charged for accepting P545-million proceeds of jueteng, misappropriation of P130 million in excise taxes from tobacco, receiving P189.7-million commission from the sale of shares of real estate firm Belle Corp. and owning P3.2-billion in bank account under the name of Jose Velarde. He was convicted of the charges on jueteng and on Belle Corp. shares, but was given executive clemency just a few days after his conviction in 2007.
With the P10-billion scam involving Napoles, if the investigators were to scrutinize all pork-funded projects, identify those tainted with irregularities, and to build a strong case against all accountable persons and take them to court, the investigation process could already take several years to complete.
But if the present administration were to prove that Daang Matuwid and Walang Mahirap kung Walang Corrupt mantras are more than mere campaign slogans, the pork barrel scam presents a golden opportunity to show that the justice system works fairly and swiftly.
Perhaps, it would make sense to focus on the top three biggest pork allocations that went to the purportedly dubious non-government organizations (NGOs) identified with Napoles, and charge some “big fishes” in politics, regardless of partisan leanings.
This “kahindik-hindik” episode, as what Commission on Audit (COA) chairperson Grace Pulido-Tan described the PDAF abuses, is a case that comes near every taxpayer’s stomach, particularly the fixed-salaried employees whose income taxes are automatically withheld from their monthly payroll.
Under our system of government, the President lays down the policies, Congress crafts laws, the executive department implements the policies and the laws, and the judiciary settles disputes involving legal issues.
Transactions involving the pork barrel funds have gone beyond the boundaries of each of the branches of government, thus adversely diminishing public trust in the systems of government.
The time calls for decisive and swift action from the executive and legislative branches to pave the way for an unbridled investigation of the suspicious and questionable transactions so that those accountable could suffer the consequences of their wrongdoings.
Malacañang ought to properly address the widespread perception, particularly voiced through the social media, that Napoles is being given special treatment because of her broad connections in govrrnment who could find themselves embroiled in what looks like a mafia-like conspiracy to pocket billions of pesos in hard-earned taxpayers’ money.
The judiciary could also redeem people’s trust by adhering to the principles of transparency, objectivity and fairness in the litigation process.
Meantime, I won’t be surprised if Congress would not approve a pork-free budget of the national government for 2014.
The House of Representatives and the Senate have begun combing Malacanang’s budget proposal. In the event the P25-billion pork funds under a new name is kept in the budget, President Benigno Aquino 3rd would have to thread a tight rope in handling it. He could even face the grim prospect of impeachment if he succumbs to the clamor to scrap the pork funds altogether.
Removing the pork from the budget looks unlikely to happen though. What the President abolished was just the official name of the pork barrel – the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).
Actually, PDAF still exists as it is in the P2.3-trillion budget for 2014. It will stay there until Congress removes it as a lump sum item or gives it a new name. Another option is to spread it out among the various agencies but still reserved to fund pet projects of senators and congressmen, in tune with the “new mechanism” for disbursement that the President’s political allies would craft.
The executive, the legislative, and the judiciary all have to be sensitive to the public opinion in handling the pork barrel scam if they were to live by the constitutional principle that public office is a public trust.