Santiago proposes independent probe panelBy Gil C. Cabacungan and Cathy C. Yamsuan |Philippine Daily Inquirer
Go on leave while an independent panel formed by President Aquino and made up of retired magistrates determines your culpability.
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago offered this unsolicited advice to five senators linked to the alleged P10-billion pork barrel scam involving a network of bogus people’s organizations and ghost projects set up by Janet Lim-Napoles.
“Out of delicadeza, the five senators should go on leave to erase any doubt that they might use their power or their money to pressure the investigators,” Santiago said.
She described Senators Ramon Revilla Jr., Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Gregorio Honasan II as “persons of interest” who allegedly funneled a combined P2.358 billion of their pork barrel into ghost projects in exchange for kickbacks of at least 50 percent from fictitious NGOs set up by Napoles.
“I was not only extremely angry that they have sullied the name of the institution which I am associated with. I felt the bottom has fallen out of my world because of the amounts involved,” Santiago said.
Also on Monday, Sen. Francis Escudero filed a resolution calling for a “full-blown investigation” by the Senate blue ribbon committee of the allege misuse of pork—formally known as the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF)—once the 16th Congress opens for business next week.
But Sen. Franklin Drilon, touted as the next Senate President, shot down the proposal, saying the probe was better left to the National Bureau of Investigation because the Senate investigating a case that involved its members would reek of conflict of interest.
Escudero, however, argued that “accountability and transparency dictate that this report be quizzically looked into … to show that neither sacred cows nor the notion of an ‘old boys club’ exists in a government working for change.”
He said the public perception that the PDAF was spent with “neither constraints nor accountability” was damaging. A senator is entitled to P200 million in PDAF every year and a member of the House of Representatives, P70 million for their pet projects.
Honasan said he would rather wait first for the report that the NBI would file before heeding Santiago’s suggestion.
“In the interest of justice, fairness, transparency and public interest, any call for a leave of absence, resignation or inhibition among pubic officials mentioned must be considered only after all records of (special allotment release orders) from the (budget department) are made public (including) the local government units and beneficiaries,” Honasan said in a text message.
Prima facie evidence
In an interview with reporters, Santiago said the eyewitness accounts of and affidavits executed by whistle-blowers who had worked for Napoles constituted prima facie evidence against Revilla, Enrile, Estrada, Marcos and Honasan.
She cited Revilla who authorized the use of P1 billion of his pork barrel for 22 projects over the past 10 years.
“If the allegation is correct, he must have received one half of P1 billion, or P500 million. They are presumed innocent, but under our justice system presumption of innocence does not prevent government from investigating a complaint,” the senator said.
In addressing the alleged scam, Santiago said the main problem was to decide the body that would probe the five senators—the Office of the Ombudsman, the Department of Justice or their peers in the ethics committee.
“A senator cannot be impeached. A senator cannot be charged in the Ombudsman because under the Ombudsman Act, the Ombudsman has no jurisdiction over senators. A senator can be subjected to preliminary investigation by the prosecution service under the Department of Justice. But the justice secretary, being a Cabinet member, is always solicitous of the desires and wishes of a senator, for fear that they might concoct an investigation against her, or they might cut off her budgetary appropriation,” Santiago said.
She said the Senate committee on ethics and privileges might investigate a senator for improper behavior and might even impose the penalty of removal from office.
“But the empirical history shows that senators are loathe to investigate their fellow senators, much less expel their colleague. So that would be a futile route,” Santiago said.
Ameurfina, Flerida Ruth
She said that this would leave the President with no choice but to create an independent panel just like “the practice of the American president, who appoints a public prosecutor to handle the prosecution of egregious scams and scandals in government.”
She suggested that panel be composed of three members “who are beyond the reach of politicians,” preferably former Supreme Court Justices such as Ameurfina Melencio Herrera and Flerida Ruth Romero.
She said the most depressing aspect of the scandal was the involvement of former Senate President Enrile himself who granted the second-biggest amount of pork barrel to fake NGOs and “considering his (Enrile) posture that he is a legal expert and fond of the wisdom of the old.”
“He might be old but it has been (shown) he has no wisdom,” Santiago said.
Drilon said he would propose that the PDAF be used only for social services such as medical assistance for indigent patients and the construction of school buildings.
“It is best to let the NBI do its job. We cannot investigate ourselves because whatever the results would be, people would not believe it,” he said.