MANILA, Philippines—The filing of plunder charges against three senators in connection with the P10-billion pork barrel scam won’t stop the Senate blue ribbon committee from pursuing its probe of the racket.
“The sub judice rule was never followed by the Senate in previous hearings,” Sen. Francis Escudero told reporters a day after the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed the charges against Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla Jr.
Escudero said Justice Secretary Leila de Lima committed to the blue ribbon panel to submit the whistle-blowers’ affidavits that the DOJ had used in filing the criminal information in the Sandiganbayan.
“On top of that, we also invited the manager of Napoles’ bank, who after she retired became an auditor in the JLN group of companies. It is likely that we can get a lot of information if she will testify on the modus operandi of JLN,” Escudero said.
Sen. Teofisto Guingona III, chair of the blue ribbon committee, has asked the authorities for Napoles to appear before the panel, Escudero said.
It was Escudero who filed the resolution seeking the inquiry into the alleged misuse of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) over the past decade.
“[The Senate inquiry] is perhaps needed even more because the probers appear to be tight-lipped as regards this matter. They didn’t even give actual copies of the affidavits to the public and to the media,” he said.
“They will make representation with the court. The invitation will be sent to the PNP and the PNP will ask permission from the court if she could attend,” Escudero said.
“If she’s ordered by the court to appear, because she’s already under the custody of the court and of the PNP, she has no choice but to appear here,” he added.
In the House of Representatives, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said the chamber would fully cooperate and provide all necessary documents in the investigation of legislators accused of pocketing up to 50 percent of their PDAF-funded projects.
Belmonte said he would not let his personal ties with anyone affect the probe.
“I promise to give full cooperation to them in terms of records. I will provide 100 percent cooperation. Friendships aside, this is really a blot on all of us. It is necessary for the sake of the institution that we cooperate with the authorities,” Belmonte told reporters.
Five former members of the House, but no incumbent representatives, were included in the first batch of plunder and malversation cases the DOJ filed in the Office of the Ombudsman on Monday.
Escudero said the committee was still working on having Janet Lim-Napoles, alleged mastermind of the scam, appear before the blue ribbon committee.
Napoles is detained at a Philippine National Police antiterrorism training school in Sta. Rosa City in Laguna, for the alleged illegal detention of Benhur Luy, the principal whistle-blower.
On whether the lawmakers implicated in the scam would be named in the committee hearing despite the charges in the Office of the Ombudsman, Escudero said, “That’s what [Justice] Secretary De Lima said. They just wanted the cases to be filed first.”
De Lima allowed Luy to testify in the Senate last week on the condition that he would not name any of the legislators involved. De Lima asked the senators to just wait for the filing of formal charges.
Luy said certain lawmakers got 50 percent of the funds allotted for projects financed by their PDAF, the official name of the pork barrel that funds pet projects of members of Congress.
“If you recall, the case of Major General Garcia (Carlos Garcia, the former Armed Forces comptroller accused of pocketing millions of pesos in kickbacks) was already in the plea bargaining stage before the Sandiganbayan, and yet the Senate continued its investigation,” Escudero said.
Expose the guilty
Vindicate the innocent and expose the guilty, said Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano as he led the chamber in prayer a day after the DOJ filed the charges.
“Whoever walks in integrity walks securely but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out. Proverbs 10:9,” Cayetano said on the floor.
“Lord Father God, it is only you who knows the truth and the whole truth as we plead to you as a nation and as we lift up to you our nation we ask that you vindicate those who are innocent and to make found out those who are guilty,” Cayetano added.
Estrada complained that he and the other lawmakers “are portrayed every day in the headlines of the newspapers as if we are really guilty. As far as I’m concerned I’m innocent.”
Estrada said his father, former President and now Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, told him that the situation he was in would eventually pass.
“[He told me to] just be patient,” Estrada quoted his father as saying.
“My mother, on the other hand, told me to hold on to the Lord. You know my mother is quite religious. Especially when I was detained before at Veterans’ [Memorial Medical Center], she always gives me novena prayers,” Estrada added.
Estrada’s mother, Luisa Ejercito-Estrada, was a former senator.
The young Estrada was previously charged with plunder in 2001 but was acquitted.
Acknowledging that the controversy had put a stain on legislators, Belmonte said helping the Office of the Ombudsman, Commission on Audit and the Department of Justice in the investigation would benefit Congress as an institution.
He said only a handful of the nearly 300 House members had been implicated and most of them “handle their PDAF very well to the satisfaction of the people.”
But Belmonte said he was troubled by those who have had repeated questionable transactions involving their pork barrel.
“I’m really concerned about people who repeatedly do it because it’s very hard for them to claim good faith. If it happened to you one time, especially if another friend said ‘That’s OK, maybe you could be innocent,” he said.
“But if you repeatedly do it… of course you come to a different conclusion,” he added.
Belmonte said he had not talked recently with any of the former lawmakers included in the complaint, but he said he was ready to lend a sympathetic ear if ever they tried to talk to him. Still, he will let the wheels of justice turn, he said.