Ruby Tuason vs Estrada: Truth over friendship
Hell hath no fury like a friend scorned.
Saying she “chose” to speak the truth over friendship, an unflinching Ruby Tuason on Monday told the Sandiganbayan that she delivered some P19 million of detained Sen. Jinggoy Estrada’s kickbacks for projects he had endorsed to the bogus foundations of suspected pork barrel scam architect Janet Lim-Napoles in 2008.
Coming face-to-face with her “former friends,” Tuason testified in the antigraft court’s Fifth Division that she decided to sever her ties with Estrada and his family after they refused to come to her aid when she sought refuge in the United States after she was dragged into the P10-billion pork barrel mess.
During her much-awaited testimony against Estrada, she said she delivered his commissions in at least eight separate instances to his house in Greenhills, San Juan City, and to his office in the Senate.
The money, she told the court, was placed in fake Harrods designer bags that she would usually pick up from Napoles’ office in a ritzy commercial building in Pasig City.
Tuason recounted one payoff episode. She said Estrada phoned her sometime in 2008 and told her he needed cash that night.
Tuason said she, along with Napoles and her husband, Jimmy, went to a bar in Greenhills, which Estrada owned.
“Since there was traffic along Wilson Street, I just gave him the money from the window of my car. He was in another car,” she said.
Wearing a blue printed blazer, pearl earrings and a necklace, the 68-year-old former social secretary of Estrada’s father, former President and now Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, admitted that she left the country out of fear when reports on the misuse of the congressional Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) broke out in July 2013.
“I realized something [while I was in hiding]. I thought they were my friends. But I guess they are not,” Tuason said during her direct examination by State Prosecutor Hazel Valdez at the continuation of Estrada’s bail hearing.
“I started to choose between friendship and telling the truth. I chose (to tell) the truth,” she said.
Tuason appeared calm as she narrated the extent of her involvement in the purported diversion of Estrada’s PDAF to Napoles-owned nongovernment organizations (NGOs).
According to Tuason, Estrada’s first transaction with Napoles was a P37.5-million project that went to one of her fake foundations sometime in 2004.
As “advance payment” for the project, she said, she received P1 million in cash from Napoles that she immediately delivered to Estrada’s home in Greenhills.
She said she again received P4.2 million from Napoles as the second tranche of Estrada’s commission for the project.
Quizzed by Associate Justice Ma. Theresa Dolores Estoesta, she said the money was contained in a Harrods bag similar to a small duffel bag.
“They have their own bags. The bigger the amount, the bigger the bags,” she said.
However, Tuason said the senator called her a few days later to tell her that he decided to call off the deal with Napoles.
She said she picked up the total amount of P5.7 million from the Estrada family’s house on Polk Street, Greenhills, and returned the money to Napoles.
Tuason surmised that Estrada earned at least P19 million from his PDAF, which he made available to Napoles’ foundations in 2008.
Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Estrada played down Tuason’s testimony. “She’s very amusing, amusing in the sense that she can invent stories. She can invent lies,” Estrada said.
“Remember what she told the (Senate) blue ribbon committee why she testified against me? She said, ‘Because I fear for my life. I’d rather die than go to jail.’ That means she just wants to save herself. She wants to save her skin at my expense,” he added.
Tuason, who returned P40 million to the government to avoid indictment in the PDAF scam, was accused of pocketing at least P242 million from the anomalous transactions funded by the P900 million in government royalties from the Malampaya gas project off Palawan province.
In her testimony, Tuason said Estrada phoned her twice while she was in the United States. “He was very upset with the (Aquino) administration. I asked him for help. But he said, ‘How can I help you? We’re in the same boat,’” she recalled.
She said the senator’s mother, former Sen. Loi Estrada, also called her once. She said she also sought Loi’s assistance regarding her predicament.
“I asked her (Loi) if she could help me because I didn’t know what to do. But she said, ‘How can he help you when [he’s also having problems]?’” she said.
It was then that she realized that they were “distancing themselves from me.”
According to Tuason, she first met Napoles in 2004 when her late husband, sportsman Butch Tuason, brought Napoles to their residence, which her husband offered to sell to Napoles.
During their conversation, she said, Napoles told her that she was a contractor of government projects and that she wanted to meet the senator.
Tuason’s testimony was interrupted several times as lawyers of Estrada and Napoles raised their objections almost in chorus.
At one point, Sabino Acut Jr., one of Estrada’s counsels, asked the court to prohibit Tuason from narrating her answers and to strike out some of her replies for being “unresponsive” to Valdez’s questions.
Acut also objected to some of Tuason’s answers that, he said, were mere speculations, particularly on matters that she said were just mentioned to her by other individuals.
To which Valdez curtly replied, “The defense counsel is speculating that the witness is speculating…. We object to the defense [panel’s] objections.”
After her first meeting with Napoles, Tuason said she immediately went to Estrada and told him that Napoles was interested in meeting him. She also told him that Napoles offered commissions for every project that would be financed by his PDAF.
She said the senator initially declined to meet Napoles, but she was eventually able to introduce them to each other during the wake of the late actor Rudy Fernandez, Estrada’s close friend, in June 2008.
Explaining the elaborate scheme that Napoles supposedly had drawn up to siphon off billions of pesos in fund intended for marginalized farmers, Tuason seemed to contradict the earlier testimonies of other whistle-blowers.
For one, she claimed that the payment of the commissions for Estrada was made in three tranches. She said she only received her share when the last payment was made by Napoles.
However, primary whistle-blower Benhur Luy and the other witnesses have testified that the first tranche of the “rebates” or kickbacks was given to legislators upon the listing of projects.
Luy et al. said the rest of the legislator’s loot was given after the issuance of the special allotment release order from the Department of Budget and Management.
Replying to Valdez’s question, Tuason said Estrada called her sometime in 2008 after he met Napoles at the wake of Fernandez.
This time, she said, the senator wanted to provide his pork barrel to Napoles’ NGOs. She said she facilitated two transactions between Napoles and Estrada that year.
She, however, said she could not remember how much Estrada received from Napoles during the first, second and third deliveries of his kickbacks.
“But I can tell you more or less the total commissions he received,” she said. “My mind was topsy-turvy at that time.”
Acut vehemently opposed Tuason’s answer, saying, “How could she remember the sum when she could not remember the addends?”
But Associate Justice Alexander Gesmundo rejected Acut’s objection, saying the court would allow her answer as part of the preliminary questioning of the prosecution.
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