What do we do next? We’ve vented our spleen over the misuse—outright theft actually—of government funds in the Million People March the other day, but all that will be in vain if the culprits escape prosecution and conviction.
The cry is the abolition of the pork barrel, officially known as Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). It is a legitimate demand, but let us not lose sight of the fact that a terrible wrong has been committed, and that wrong must be rectified before anything else.
It is alleged that Janet Lim Napoles set up non-government organizations (NGOs), for the purpose of implementing poverty alleviation projects, but there were no projects.
The sole purpose of the NGOs was to serve as conduits for the legislators’ pork barrel allocations. Once the money was released, in some cases in the tens of millions of pesos a pop, Mrs. Napoles had it withdrawn, remitted 70 percent to the senator or congressman who owned the PDAF and kept the rest.
The legislators did all that in the name of the poor: marginal farmers and fishermen, even calamity victims. One cannot be more callous than that.
More than P12 billion of government funds was lost to thieves in this manner.
Two witnesses, Benhur Luy and Marina Sunas, told the NBI they had withdrawn money from the sham NGOs and deposited it to the account of the senators and congressmen. The transactions are supported by bank receipts the witnesses have in their possession.
Here is prima facie evidence that a crime or a series of crimes has been committed, to merit the issuance of an arrest warrant.
There are five senators and 23 congressmen involved in the scam, with the amount lost in each case way above the threshold for plunder: P50 million.
Already, we are given a preview of the explanation the legislators would offer in defense.
One of the senators, Juan Ponce Enrile, says that he has not met and doesn’t know Mrs. Napoles. A COA report, however, says that his chief of staff, Gigi Reyes, signed the release of the funds and even directed which NGO should the money go. But against that evidence, Ms. Reyes claims her signatures may have been forged.
Enrile had a P904.5 million PDAF over a two-year period, from 2007 to 2009. Would he allocate that much amount to several NGOs, or to any group for that matter, and forgot all about it?
Another senator, Ramon “Bong” Revilla, pursues the same tack, even going through the motion of asking a foreign expert to determine the veracity of the signatures that appear on the documents. The record shows he authorized release of his P853 million PDAF allocation to fake NGOs 22 times.
Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, who released his P825.15 million PDAF allocation to these NGOs, demands an investigation and the arrest of those involved in the scam.
All three and two other senators, Vicente Sotto 3rd and Lito Lapid, claim they could not have known that the NGOs were spurious. Now, that’s the most stupid defense of all.
That kind of defense won’t stand in court in another country, in the US for instance, either in a bench trial or trial by jury. In fact it will make it easy for the judge or the panel of jurors to arrive at a guilty verdict.
Not in the Philippines. If the record of our justice system is any guide, the judge will find a way to render a decision of acquittal for failure of the defense to prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt.
Former Sen. Edgardo Angara is more forthright in his approach. He set up his own NGOs and funneled a part of his P862.64 million PDAF to it. And his defense amounted to no more than claiming that the NGOs distributed pack lunches to children.
It seems like an open-and-shut case for plunder, but don’t bet on it.