Faced with a roomful of evidence, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales vowed Tuesday to decide in “a year or less” the plunder case against Janet Lim-Napoles and powerful senators and congressmen implicated in the alleged P10-billion pork barrel scam.
Morales made the remarks a day after the Department of Justice (DOJ) charged Napoles, Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla Jr., and former House members Rizalina Seachon-Lanete and Edgar Valdez with allegedly siphoning their Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) into ghost projects.
The three senators were accused of receiving a total of P581 million in kickbacks from Napoles.
“I didn’t like to be optimistic in saying that we can resolve it in one month or two. We have to go over the evidence,” Morales said during her presentation of the Office of the Ombudsman’s proposed P1.8-billion budget for 2014.
The office will immediately go over the voluminous pieces of evidence against the DOJ’s first batch of respondents, she said, even before the government files the rest of its cases in connection with the scam that used Napoles’ fake nongovernment organizations (NGOs) to convert public funds into fat kickbacks.
Also by batches
“The Department of Justice filed cases by batches and if that is the case then we should also file cases by batches,” said Morales, whose office will decide if the complaint would merit prosecution in the Sandiganbayan. “The one year that I gave is really just an estimate. It could be less,” she said.
Sen. Francis Escudero asked Morales if she could make sure the resolution of the cases would not take more than a year.
“I will see to it that it won’t be more,” Morales replied.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima on Tuesday said she was imposing a gag order on herself and all officials of the DOJ and the National Bureau of Investigation on the plunder case “in deference” to the Ombudsman.
Asked if the government would also inquire into the bank accounts of the current and former lawmakers implicated in the scam, De Lima replied, “That is being done.”
She said there would be “coordination” among the members of the Interagency Anti-Graft and Corruption Coordination Council on the matter.
De Lima, however, said she would leave it up to Morales to request the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) to inquire into, or possibly even freeze, the bank assets of the respondents.
“It’s an independent constitutional body and has plenary powers to do that, coercive powers. She can always compel any agency of government, including the ALMC, to produce all the necessary documents,” she said.
The AMLC has petitioned the Court of Appeals to initiate inquiries about banking transactions involving Napoles and freeze such accounts while the inquiries are being made. The NBI had sought the freeze order.
Acute public interest
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, a former Regional Trial Court (RTC) judge, said the Ombudsman should not allow any postponement of the proceedings during the preliminary investigation phase.
She even proposed that Morales and the whole agency devote all their resources to the resolution of the plunder cases, citing “acute public interest.”
“When I was RTC judge of Quezon City, I discovered that the country suffers from pandemic diarrhea. That is the most common ground for postponement sought by lawyers, the parties, and their witnesses,” Santiago said.
“No postponement should be granted in the name of the almighty diarrhea,” Santiago added.
Santiago, who has been elected to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, said the judicial branch cannot afford to lose its credibility over a slow resolution of the plunder cases, particularly the accused lawmakers.
She made the remark amid fears “that the plunder cases will take five or more years to be finally decided by the Sandiganbayan, and, in cases of appeal, before the Court of Appeals and even by the Supreme Court.”
“If our judges are lackadaisical and allow such a gross delay, the public, in line with the temper of the times, will definitely howl in protest and possibly seek extralegal remedies,” Santiago said. “I don’t know if our judicial system is ready to take that risk.”
Senate President Franklin Drilon stressed Tuesday that only the Senate or the House of Representatives could discipline members. While the law provides that a government official shall be suspended when a case for plunder is filed against him or her in the Sandiganbayan, he said the suspension was only preventive.
However, the Senate ethics committee that has the power to recommend the suspension or expulsion of erring senators such as those implicated in the multibillion-peso pork barrel scam, has yet to be organized.
“It’s not difficult to organize,” Drilon said. “If needed, we can do so.”
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Malacañang was deferring to the Ombudsman on the actions it would take on the plunder complaint, adding that the Aquino administration would “like everything to be expedited.”
Sen. Jinggoy Estrada expressed hopes that the case against him would be resolved swiftly. “If I really don’t have any fault, then I would like to be cleared immediately,” he said.
Catholic bishops welcomed Tuesday the filing of plunder charges, saying that finally the search for truth had begun.
“We are also praying for a speedy and just conclusion of the proceedings,” Marbel Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez told reporters on Tuesday.
“What is just must be done,” said Jaro Archbishop Angel Lagdameo.
“I hope Napoles and the guilty senators will be jailed for life. They have committed crimes against the nation,” said Sorsogon Bishop Arturo Bastes. He also said President Aquino’s “tuwid na daan” (straight path) policy would become credible again if the pork barrel will be outlawed and declared unconstitutional.
Over Church-run Radio Veritas, Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo said prosecuting lawmakers linked to the scam was one of the best ways to restore the integrity of Congress. “First, the guilty must be prosecuted so they may be able to clean their ranks. Second, all kinds of pork barrel must be abolished and the legislators themselves must push for that,” he said.
In a pastoral letter early this month, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines joined calls for the abolition of the pork barrel, saying it was an “act of terrorism” against the poor.—With reports from Jerome C. Aning and Jocelyn R. Uy