Conflicting testimonies from state witnesses in the pork barrel scam could erode their credibility and weaken the government’s case, Sen. Grace Poe said on Thursday.
The senator voiced her concern at the hearing of the Senate blue ribbon committee on the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scandal.
In the spotlight at the hearing was Dennis Cunanan, the director general of the Technology Resource Center, one of the witnesses presented by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima.
Cunanan told the committee he had signed documents related to the release of PDAF allocations to non-government agencies that were linked to Janet Lim-Napoles, but he denied receiving kickbacks for it.
His testimony differed from that of Benhur Luy who said Cunanan went to Napoles’ office at least once to get his commission for the PDAF transactions.
Poe told de Lima, who sat between Cunanan and Luy at the hearing, that the discrepancies in the statements of the two witnesses could damage their credibility.
“The last thing we need is for a witness to poke holes on another star witness’ testimony,” the senator said.
De Lima said the Department of Justice (DOJ) is careful in choosing whom to admit to its witness protection program.
“We cannot guarantee 100-percent credibility, but we know how to gauge if a story is plausible,” she said.
Sen. Teofisto Guingona 3rd, blue ribbon chairman, was not too impressed with Cunanan’s testimony.
“What we will do is to first review all his [Cunanan’s] statements, compare it with the testimonies of the other whistleblowers and also his demeanor during the hearing. Only after all these that we can say if the testimony of Cunanan has relevance,” Guingona said.
At a press conference after the four-hour hearing, Guingona said there were too many questions raised about what Cunanan told the panel, particularly his claim of innocence.
During the hearing, Sen. Francis Escudero cited a portion of Luy’s affidavit where he identified Cunanan as one of those who received payoffs for pork barrel transactions from Napoles.
Luy recalled the time when Cunanan visited Napoles’ office at Discovery suites in Pasig City.
Luy said Cunanan was received by one of Napoles’ staff, Evelyn de Leon, and was led to the conference room to meet Napoles.
“So the instruction of Ms. Janet Napoles is to prepare, I remember the amount, which is P960,000 and I handed it to Evelyn de Leon inside the conference room,” Luy said.
Luy said he saw Cunanan leaving the office carrying a paper bag similar to the one where he placed the money Napoles ordered him to prepare.
Cunanan said he cannot recall the particular incident.
He did say he talked to Senators Ramon Revilla Jr., and Jinggoy Estrada and lawyer Jessica Reyes, chief of staff of Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, on the phone to confirm if they really signed off on PDAF transactions with non-government organizations (NGOs), which they endorsed.
Cunanan said the phone conversations happened sometime in 2008 when Luy visited his office to lobby for the projects of his NGOs being funded by the PDAF of Revilla and Estrada.
He said he explained to Luy he could not fast-track the approval of the projects because there was a process to be followed.
Cunanan said Luy offered to call the office of the legislators to talk to their representative and vouch for him.
“I was even doubting if he could really call [the legislators]. And he did,” Cunanan added.
He said Luy called Pauline Labayen, secretary of senator Estrada, and then passed the phone on to him.
Labayen told Cunanan Estrada wanted to talk to him and he was shocked.
“What is the problem? Why don’t you finish that [transaction]? It is expected on the ground,” Cunanan said, quoting Estrada.
Luy also called Richard Cambe, a staff of Revilla, and handed the phone again to Cunanan.
He said Cambe asked him if there was a way to speed up the transaction, and he said that he was doing his best.
Cunanan said Cambe put him on hold and he was surprised after hearing the voice of Revilla on the phone.
He said Revilla told him to speed up the processing of the project and not to expect any problems because he had authorized the NGO.
“I have no doubts about that I’m talking with the senators. I have seen them on TV I have watched their films and I can identify their voices,” Cunanan said.
Sen. Miriam Santiago said that while she doubts Cunanan’s innocence as far as receiving PDAF kickbacks is concerned, she believes his testimony could be considered direct evidence.
Asked by Escudero why Cunanan was included in the graft cases before the Ombudsman in connection with the pork barrel scam, de Lima said Cunanan signed vouchers, checks and other documents related to the PDAF transactions.
De Lima also said Luy had implicated Cunanan.
“The statement of Benhur Luy says that there was a receipt of kickbacks by the named officials. And of course, in the process of vetting Mr. Cunanan in his application as a possible or provisional state witness, we had to ask the same questions and he was denying it,” she said.
Poe asked Cunanan why he failed to mention the time when he went to see Napoles at the Discovery suites, as Luy claimed.
Cunanan said he might have gone to Napoles office as part of TRC’s inspection procedures.
Cunanan told the committee his net worth stood at P2,161,547, and his annual income was P776,216.
Poe said she found it hard to believe that Cunanan was living in an exclusive subdivision on such an income.
Poe said she needed to probe Cunanan to determine his credibility and his claim that he did not benefit from the scam.
She said Cunanan is different from the other witnesses in that he is the only one who denied having committed any wrongdoing.
While Cunanan’s testimony left doubts among the members of the blue ribbon committee, Malacañang believes it will help strengthen the case against those responsible in the pork barrel scheme.
Cunanan’s testimony “is a development that will hopefully shed more light in the people’s quest for truth and justice,” Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. told reporters Thursday.
Still, it is up to the judiciary to decide whether Cunanan should be kept as a witness, Coloma said.
“It is clear to all that so much is at stake here. That’s why the government wants justice to be served and do everything toward this objective,” he said.
Regarding Luy’s apparent reservation about having Cunanan as a fellow witness, Coloma said the government cannot control the “emotional states” of individuals.
With a report from Jose Joel M. Sy Egco