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Safety of pork scam witnesses worries De Lima

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Safety of pork scam witnesses worries De Lima

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima made a last-minute effort to stop from testifying before the Senate blue ribbon committee on Thursday the whistle-blowers in the P10-billion pork barrel scam, fearing their appearance could jeopardize their safety and telegraph the moves of the prosecution.

“It concerns me greatly that the public testimony of these witnesses before the Senate today may put them and their families—as well as the future of these cases—at greater risk,” De Lima said in her opening statement to the committee, headed by Sen. Teofisto Guingona III.

“In criminal cases, the Constitution only accords the accused the right to confront the witnesses during the trial itself, not before, and definitely not through pretrial depositions and written interrogatories,” she said.

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“I am worried that this public deposition and interrogatories of sorts might compromise the integrity and effectiveness of the prosecution when information known only to it is telegraphed in advance to those who will be charged before the courts.”

But Guingona, who scolded De Lima for her failure to present the whistle-blowers last Tuesday, ruled to continue with their testimony against Janet Lim-Napoles, the alleged mastermind of the P10-billion racket to channel the lawmakers’ Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) into kickbacks.

De Lima said she allowed the appearance of Benhur Luy, Merlina Suñas, Marina Sula, Arlene Baltazar, Gertrudes Luy and Simonnette Briones in compliance with the Senate subpoenas.

She said that most of these witnesses had not yet been exposed to the public in the earlier inquiry conducted by the National Bureau of Investigation.

Significant reservations

“They are still afraid to do so. In terms of their personal security, my better judgment tells me that the only time their public appearance is entirely necessary is during the trial, on the witness stand, and definitely not in front of national television,” she explained.

De Lima said the witnesses were presented “to preserve the peace, respect and goodwill between the executive and the legislative branches of government, with the understanding that their presence can aid in the refinement and crafting of legislation.”

“This action goes against my better judgment,” she said, and “I bring them here with significant reservations.”

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“My task is to ensure the successful prosecution of these cases and to hold accountable those who have stolen the people’s money,” she said.

De Lima said that the NBI was continuing the “case buildup,” even as the Office of the Ombudsman was conducting its preliminary investigation into charges against Napoles, three senators and 34 others.

“Having the witnesses talk in further detail about what they know can reveal parts of our legal strategy, the identities of others who may be charged in the near future and other matters regarded as privileged law enforcement information,” she said.

P20k to silence witnesses

In Thursday’s hearing, Sula said that before Napoles surrendered to President Aquino on Aug. 28, the businesswoman made a last-ditch effort to convince the whistle-blowers not to turn against her. Sula said a lawyer gave Napoles’ former employees P20,000 each that night to buy their loyalty.

“Baby, don’t turn your back on me. Talk to those with you there. Whatever happens, even if my money runs out, we will all be together,” Sula, nicknamed “Baby,” quoted Napoles. The employer said that she was confident a temporary restraining order against her arrest was forthcoming.

Afterward, she said she got another call, this time from Napoles’ brother Reynald Lim, who repeated the sister’s request.

Later that night, Sula said she and other whistle-blowers met with Napoles’ emissary, Cheryl Jimenea, at Trinoma mall in Quezon City and were introduced to a certain Alex Tan, who introduced himself as a lawyer.

“She gave us P20,000 each, for each president of [a nongovernment organization],” Sula told the Senate.

Asked if they were “presidents of corporations,” Sula said she and the other whistle-blowers replied that they were “presidents of NGOs.” Told that transactions had a paper trail, the lawyer allegedly warned in Filipino: “If there’s a paper trail, you all go to jail.”

Baltazar said the group had been offered lawyers earlier but on the condition that the witnesses would testify against Benhur Luy, the main witness against Napoles.

Conduit to Enrile, Estrada

Sula, president of a bogus NGO, said she once delivered money to Ruby Tuason, a social secretary of former President Joseph Estrada, who earlier was identified in affidavits as the alleged conduit for the offices of Senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Jinggoy Estrada.

She said Napoles ordered her to deliver money to Tuason’s house. “I didn’t know the house because it was the driver who knew. He brought me there,” Sula recalled in Filipino.

Benhur Luy said his former boss was so “liquid” that she usually “advanced” kickbacks to legislators who funneled their PDAF to a Napoles NGO.

Reading from a notebook, Sula rattled off names of Napoles’ alleged properties, including six in Kidapawan, North Cotabato, and a condominium unit at Rockwell in Makati City.

“They’re many. You may want me to just show them to you,” she told senators.

Sula said the Rockwell unit was bought from Brian Yamsuan, who had supposedly offered to sell it during a visit to Napoles’ office. She said the property was then under the name of Yamsuan’s wife.

Yamsuan used to work as a consultant of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr.

Money on bed, in bathtub

Gertrudes Luy, a former nanny of Napoles’ children, said she was often designated to receive millions in “collection from the government,” which allegedly started coming in 2006 and 2007.

She said amounts ranging from P30 million and P75 million were usually delivered to Napoles’ house in “boxes” and “trolleys.”

“We would pull them going to the room because the bags were big,” she said in Filipino, adding that when she and other employees could no longer “pile” the money on the bed, they would stack them in the bathtub.

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TAGS: Leila de Lima, pork barrel scam, Senate hearing, witnesses
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