MANILA, Philippines—It’s not only Janet Lim-Napoles and her associates who will be on trial if the pork barrel funds scam reaches the courts—she’ll be dragging along with her the Philippines’ political and justice systems, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said on Friday.
Santiago made the remark as authorities entered the second day of a manhunt for the alleged mastermind of the P10-billion racket amid doubts that the lawmakers supposedly involved could be brought to justice.
“We’re on the verge of one of the most sensational cases of corruption in Philippine politics,” Santiago told reporters after addressing physicians in a Mandaluyong hotel. “We are all shocked that she has disappeared from plain view but there are many possibilities.”
“Either she went on her own and has been planning this all the while … or she has been actively persuaded quote unquote by some of those senators—senators are more powerful than congressmen—to disappear for her own good with maybe a quid pro quo agreement.”
Santiago also took issue with President Aquino’s decision to continue to provide for billions of pesos in the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF)—more derisively known as the pork barrel—in the proposed national budget for 2014.
“This entire scandal is the offshoot of kickbacks in pork barrel so, of course, the public began crying for the abolition of pork barrel,” Santiago said. “Yet the President refused to abolish it. It’s the Office of the President that prepares the budget and it’s still there and he even defended it.”
“Maybe there are certain political imperatives that preclude him from abolishing it. There are many things you can think of … He’s also the chief politician. If that is the background, will the President allow these persons of interest a graceful exit?” Santiago added, in apparent reference to the lawmakers implicated in the scam.
‘Spotlight is on us’
Napoles is facing arrest for the alleged illegal detention of primary whistle-blower, Benhur Luy. The court recommended no bail for Napoles and her brother, Reynald Lim.
Luy and other whistle-blowers have filed affidavits detailing how billions of pesos in the PDAF entitlements of some senators and House members went to dubious nongovernment organizations.
“Maybe you’ll find that abroad she has suddenly committed suicide, in which case the presumption should be that she was murdered to silence her,” Santiago said. “All kinds of scenarios come to mind but generally it’s a crime to jump bail.”
Santiago expressed fear the politicians involved could get a “not guilty” verdict from an administrative proceeding, such as before a committee on ethics in Congress, or in judicial proceedings, “which is also vulnerable and penetrable by the Office of the President, even if they belong to an independent branch of government.”
“So, in effect, you know the spotlight of history is on all of us, we are all on a stage and we are all playing roles,” Santiago said. “What will be the final consequences will be decided by future events. But certainly this is the most impactful event in Philippine politics.”
Santiago adverted to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s continued lack of confirmation by the Commission on Appointments (CA) and how it could affect the Department of Justice’s investigation of the scam.
The CA is composed of senators and congressmen tasked to screen the President’s appointees.
“The justice secretary has not yet been confirmed by the Commission on Appointments. If she names a senator as one of the persons of interest, meaning to say suspects, that senator by himself would be in a position, if he is a member of the CA, to cast a veto on her nomination,” Santiago said in her speech.
She said if the senator was not a member of the CA, “it will not be impossible for him to connive with his party mate, who is a member, to cast the veto.”
“But if the justice secretary has the full backing of President Aquino, she will go ahead and discharge her duty because she could still continue as a Cabinet member, even if her nomination has been bypassed,” Santiago said.
Santiago said her proposal for Mr. Aquino to form a prosecution panel composed of retired Supreme Court justices “with impeccable honesty and competence in public service” had been met with silence.
“In any event, under the Senate rules, the Senate committee on ethics and privileges can meet by itself and analyze the NBI report,” Santiago said. “If this committee decides to recommend disciplinary action, the Senate may punish any senator for accepting kickbacks on pork barrel issues.”
She said the erring lawmaker would still have to face a trial in court.
‘Is there true justice?’
“It is easier for the Senate to expel a member than for a court to make a finding of guilt because in court, the standard of proof is proof beyond reasonable doubt while in the Senate there is no such standard,” Santiago said.
Santiago told reporters those that would be brought before the courts were expected to appeal all the way up to the Supreme Court.
“Is there true justice in this country when the lady justice is blind to whether the accused is a senator or not? Is it true that justice delayed is justice denied?” Santiago said.
“It’s not only a case of the administration or of the opposition on trial or the pork barrel on trial. It’s actually justice being tried before the Filipino people. We’ll see what kind of justice this administration is capable of.”