Aquino exec served as Napoles’ lawyer
Local Water Utilities Administration (LWUA) Chairman Rene Villa served as lawyer of detained businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles for four years, making him the highest-profile government executive and Liberal Party (LP) official with direct professional links to the alleged pork barrel scam queen.
“I am a lawyer and she was my client. I had to earn a living because I was out of government then. I gave her advice on purely private, financial matters, nothing on government or political matters. Mine was a limited engagement which, if I recall correctly, started in 2006. I quit when I rejoined government just as I did with my other clients,” Villa said.
The 49-year-old Napoles is facing plunder charges in connection with an alleged P10-billion scam that funneled allocations from the congressional Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) into ghost projects of dubious nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and massive kickbacks over the past decade.
As secretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), Villa on July 8, 2005, joined the so-called “Hyatt 10” group of Cabinet men and government executives who left their posts in protest over allegations then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo stole the 2004 elections following the “Hello Garci” scandal.
Aside from Villa, the other Hyatt 10 members who were granted lofty posts in the Aquino administration were Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon “Dinky” Soliman, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima and Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles.
Villa said he had nothing to do with Napoles’ alleged foray into the DAR where her NGOs were able to get P200 million in agrarian reform funds in 2007 and P900 million in Malampaya funds in 2009 that were now the subject of graft and plunder cases with the Ombudsman.
“I didn’t even know she was dealing with DAR,” Villa said.
The 50-year-old Villa was appointed LWUA chair in September 2011 to replace former Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay, who was sacked for alleged misuse of the agency’s funds. Pichay is a staunch defender and business partner of Napoles.
“The professional engagement involved a coal project in Kalimantan, which involved initially a French national who was already in the coal business in China and wanted a partner to enter the Philippine market using coal from Indonesia,” Villa said.
“In the process, we became friends as she would invite me to some of her parties and the Masses she held for special occasions in her office to mark important events in her life,” he said.
Masses were said during the first Wednesday of each month in the Napoles office at Discovery Center in Ortigas, according to whistle-blowers.
“I would frequent her office because I had an office in an adjacent building,” said Villa who admitted to have been a constant “food” companion of Napoles when he was in Ortigas.
Villa insisted that he did not introduce Napoles to Senate President Franklin Drilon or his peers in the Liberal Party.
“I think she knew her way around. I was a political pariah then when I quit the government,” said Villa, a political protégé of Drilon in Iloilo province.
Drilon said that while he saw Villa in a few Napoles events, the Senate President maintained that he got to know Napoles not through Villa but through his wife who was invited by Napoles in her social functions at Heritage Park, the upscale cemetery at Bonifacio Global City, where her mother was interred in a mausoleum.
“I would like to stress that I had absolutely not signed any of my PDAF to Napoles or any of her alleged NGOs. That is on record and there is no evidence contrary to that,” said Drilon, whose photograph with Napoles has turned viral on the Internet.
Gatekeeper of pork releases
“My endorsement as chair of the finance committee of a senator’s nomination of a project funded by PDAF is ministerial and provided under the special provisions of the General Appropriations Act. I only endorse the senators’ request to the DBM (Department of Budget and Management), not to the implementing agency, much less to any NGO. Documents will show that the designation of the NGO by the legislator which will implement the project is done at the level of the implementing agency,” Drilon said.
The Senate finance committee serves as the gatekeeper of pork releases of its members.
While the initial reports on the pork barrel scam focused on transactions made by Napoles NGOs in the previous administration, the subsequent testimony and documents from the whistle-blowers showed that the racket persisted and flourished under the current administration.
Napoles is scheduled to appear before the Senate blue ribbon committee on Nov. 7 after Drilon, who had waffled on summoning her, finally relented amid indignation among the senators.
Villa, who was part of the group that helped Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio form his law partnership dubbed “The Firm,” said that he ran a fairly successful legal enterprise before he entered the government.
“I was her lawyer for business transactions, mostly international ones because that is my expertise. She has lawyers other than myself for criminal and labor cases. She ran a highly compartmentalized business,” Villa said.
In a phone interview, Villa said that he did not know the roots of Napoles’ fortune and that she was already liquid when they got acquainted six years ago.
“She was very entrepreneurial with lots of business ideas. I knew she was rich because she wanted to enter into businesses that cost a fortune, like coal mining, carbon credits banking and hospital ships,” Villa said.
Aborted coal partnership
In an interview with the Inquirer, Napoles was adamant that her fortune came from a coal business in Indonesia but she did not name the company nor her partners.
Villa said that he had advised Napoles in her aborted coal partnership deal in Kalimantan with a group of retired generals led by Hermogenes Esperon, the former chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and a foreigner who he only remembered as a “Jewish businessman with a French passport.”
The lawyer said that he was “eased out” of the discussions because the other partners wanted to keep the profits from the shipments of high-grade coal to the Philippines to a limited group.
Villa said he found out later that the coal partnership did not push through because Napoles declined to give $7.5 million demanded by her partners. He said he did not ask Napoles if she had any other past
investments in coal.
Villa said that Napoles had planned to go into trading of carbon credits, which monetized the cost of polluting the air, among industrial firms with a foreign businessman who he remembered as an “American with an Eastern European family name.” This deal did not pan out because Napoles found it too exotic, Villa said.
He said he found “brilliant” Napoles’ idea to provide hospital ships as a solution to the lack of medical facilities and high cost of healthcare in the country.
“She really had an entrepreneurial mind and she has lots of business ideas,” Villa said.
But just like the coal and carbon credits, the hospital ship business also did not materialize apparently because Napoles did not want to part with her money with too much risk at stake.
Villa said he was also unaware if Napoles had contributed to the campaign funds of the Liberal Party.
“She does these things herself, I’m not that high (in the party). They just reserve a seat for me in the LP meetings as a person of national stature,” said Villa, who ran under the Liberal Party for representative in the third district of Iloilo in 2010 but lost.
Villa said he did not have any idea about the extent of Napoles’ empire.
“When I came on board, her business was already in place. As far as I am concerned I was just making a living. She was just a client and she was not obliged to disclose to me her other businesses,” Villa said.
“We didn’t talk politics. I guess she thinks in terms of individuals and not institutions. She is very good in personal or individual PR skills,” he said.
“What good will I do her? I was a political pariah after I quit government with the Hyatt 10. When you are in that position with lots of money and in that rarefied atmosphere, it is good to have links,” Villa said.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.