By Daniel Llanto | FilAm Star Correspondent
At least two top officials of the Duterte administration flatly denied speculations on a secret deal with alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles following her Court of Appeals acquittal from illegal detention charges.
But another key administration official said they are considering turning Napoles into a state witness in the separate Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scam that called for her continuous incarceration.
The Court of Appeals 12th Division acquitted Napoles last May 8 of the serious illegal detention case filed by whistleblower Benhur Luy, citing reasonable doubt. The decision ordered that Napoles “be immediately released from detention, unless she is confined for any lawful cause.”
This reverses an earlier ruling made by the Makati Regional Trial Court before the Duterte administration in April 2015, convicting Napoles of the same charges. Napoles hails from Basilan in Mindanao and President Duterte is known to have a soft spot for those who are from Mindanao, thus raising speculations on a secret deal.
The administration supposedly wants Napoles to testify on more alleged wrongdoings attributed to Sen. Leila de Lima, who was justice secretary when the prosecution of Napoles started.
But presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said, “Government is clear: there is no policy shift on how we deal with Napoles. Neither is there an agreement between the Duterte administration and Napoles.”
Chief presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo echoed Abella: “The Duterte administration has never, will never and can never enter into sweetheart deals. It’s very strict on the observance of the rule of law and following the constitutional due process.”
Abella said the acquittal would not have a direct impact on Napoles’ pork barrel cases. “President Duterte has repeatedly asserted the independence of the three branches of government. He has vowed not to interfere with the decisions of the judiciary or legislature and assures the people that he will respect and not influence the results of their decision,” he added.
But Justice Sec. Vitaliano Aguirre II said they are considering turning Napoles into a government witness in the review of the PDAF scam. Aguirre said he has been discussing with former Manila councilor Greco Belgica the possibility of communicating with Napoles to determine if she would be willing to cooperate in the review of the PDAF cases.
“Our partner here in the build-up of the case is Greco Belgica since he is the one who made a study on this matter,” said Aguirre. Belgica was among those who filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to declare the PDAF or pork barrel unconstitutional. In 2013, the SC found PDAF to be unconstitutional.
The DOJ secretary believes that Napoles could be a credible government witness if she would be able to substantiate her testimonies with evidence. Aguirre also said that he respects the decision of the CA to acquit Napoles of the crime of serious illegal detention.
It was Solicitor Gen. Joe Calida who petitioned the appellate court to acquit Napoles of the serious illegal detention of her second cousin, pork barrel scam whistleblower Benhur Luy. That actually started speculations that the Duterte administration struck a deal with Napoles, who accused several politicians of diverting congressional funds to non-existent projects and groups.
The Office of the Solicitor General believed the lower court erred in convicting Napoles, noting that Luy was allowed to meet with his family three times.
The camp of Napoles is seeing the possibility of her acquittal on the plunder cases related to the pork barrel scam. Dennis Buenaventura, one of Napoles’ lawyers, said the CA decision dismissing the illegal detention case against her is a big boost to their contention that the testimony of pork scam primary state witness Benhur Luy must not be given any credence by the anti-graft court.