Blunders in plunder case
MANILA, Philippines—Expressing surprise at Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez’s recommendation to file plunder charges in the Sandiganbayan against Jose Barredo along with the alleged key players in the P728-million fertilizer fund scam, former Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr. said Barredo, who was a witness in the Senate inquiry, was not among those recommended to be prosecuted for the fund diversion.
“I’m surprised that he’s one of those recommended to be charged. He was one of our many witnesses, and he came forward voluntarily,” he said.
Barredo testified as a witness at the Senate agriculture committee’s inquiry into the alleged diversion of the fertilizer fund to the presidential campaign of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2004.
“He’s a credible witness. I’m sure he will try to help in the impeachment trial or in the trial of the fertilizer fund scam to come out with the truth,” said Magasaysay, who chaired the agriculture committee that inquired into the scam in 2005 and 2006.
Magsaysay came to the defense of Barredo as a group of witnesses to large-scale irregularities during the Arroyo administration cried foul after one of its members, Barredo, was included in the plunder case to be filed by the Office of the Ombudsman.
Sandra Cam, president of the Whistle-blowers Association of the Philippines, said the charge only worsened the situation of Barredo, who was purportedly included in the government’s witness protection program only about five months ago—or roughly six years after he first testified on the fund scandal.
Cam claimed Barredo was still without any bodyguard and would move in and out of his safe house in a tricycle available in the neighborhood.
Cam said Barredo would not be able to defend himself in the plunder case without free legal assistance. She also said Barredo was able to buy medicines for his heart ailment only because of “letters of guarantee” from Senators Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada and Alan Peter Cayetano.
Merely a runner
Barredo on Monday came out to protest the Ombudsman’s recommendation to file plunder charges against him along with former Agriculture Secretary Luis “Cito” Lorenzo, former Agriculture Undersecretary Jocelyn “Joc-joc” Bolante and several others over the scam.
Magsaysay said Barredo should cooperate with both the prosecution panels in the trial of the case in the Sandiganbayan and in Gutierrez’s impeachment trial in the Senate.
“Tell the truth. Tell what you know,” he said, indicating that taking the witness stand in the Sandiganbayan and the Senate, and becoming forthright was the best way for Barredo to fight the charges.
Also recommended to be charged with plunder was a dead man, Gumersindo Lasam, who was ambushed on April 14, 2009, as reported in the Inquirer.
Barredo insisted that he was merely a “runner” in the fund scam and earned P10,000 monthly for his services. He admitted distributing “commissions” to government officials in Roxas City, Bulacan, Aklan, Guimaras, and other areas as part of the questionable fertilizer purchases.
The Ombudsman’s recommendation for plunder charges came in the middle of the senators’ preparations for the convening of the Senate as an impeachment court on May 9 to try Gutierrez.
The Senate will try Gutierrez on the charge of betrayal of public trust stemming from her alleged inaction on big corruption cases, topped by the fertilizer fund scam.
Barredo, who surfaced to testify on the scam despite threats to his life, turned out to be a credible witness because his testimony was “corroborated and validated,” Magsaysay said.
His testimony basically revolved around the diversion of the fund to political allies of then President Arroyo in the run-up to the May 2004 presidential elections.
Barredo and business partner Marites Aytona approached members of the House of Representatives, governors and mayors to inform them of the availability of the agriculture fund for the purchase of fertilizer, dangling a 30-percent commission that he delivered.
In Magsaysay’s view, the challenge now facing the prosecution panels would be to sift through Barredo’s testimony and see if this would help them prosecute the case in court, and in the impeachment trial of Gutierrez.
“He can be a witness if the prosecution wants him to. They can expect him to be forthright,” he said.
Cam expressed dismay over President Benigno Aquino III’s supposed failure to provide support to whistle-blowers despite his highly publicized campaign against corruption.
She reminded the Aquino administration that her group’s testimonies were crucial in the government’s campaign to go after corrupt officials during the nine-year administration of Arroyo, now a representative of Pampanga.
“We risked our lives (in coming out in the open) and this is what we get? The President should look into the condition of whistle-blowers,” she told the Inquirer in a phone interview.
Review Barredo case
At a press conference, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said Barredo’s inclusion in the case information would be “looked into.”
De Lima acknowledged having sparse information about Barredo but said she would have it checked if he had failed to coordinate or formally applied as a state witness, “or if it was denied or ignored.”
“He’s the whistle-blower in the hopes of getting immunity and if he gets frustrated, then that discourages other whistle-blowers,” she said.
She said that if Barredo was found to be neglected, then it would be an “additional reason to push for the enactment of the Whistle-blower Protection Act.”
“It’s regretful if they are left alone after sharing what they know as whistle-blowers,” De Lima said.
Lorenzo as state witness
Lorenzo and Bolante may turn state witnesses depending on what they would be willing to reveal about the fund scam, the justice secretary said.
She said considering someone to be a state witness required a tedious process of evaluation based on his or her testimony.
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