By Beting Laygo Dolor, Contributing Editor
The mastermind behind the multi-billion peso pork barrel scam was finally convicted by the Sandiganbayan last week of three counts of graft, three counts of malversation, and illegal detention of the whistleblower.
Janet Lim Napoles has been detained in Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City since she was arrested in 2015 and was not allowed to post bail because the amounts involved qualify as plunder.
Napoles was accused of creating fake non-government organizations, which received funding from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF or popularly, pork barrel) allocations of a number of lawmakers. She is said to have collected as much as PHP10 billion (US$200 million) during the scam.
Convicted along with Napoles was former Cagayan de Oro Rep. Constantino Jaraula and three others, who were found to have pocketed PHP19.2 million (US$384,000) from the lawmaker’s pork barrel allocation.
Three senators – Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, and Bong Revilla – were accused of releasing funds to Napoles’s NGOs, then receiving kickbacks from her amounting to tens of millions of pesos. Although they were initially detained, all three lawmakers have been set free and cleared of charges due to lack of evidence.
And while former Senate President Enrile has been cleared, his former chief-of-staff, Gigi Reyes is still detained. Last month, she filed a petition for habeas corpus citing due process and her right to a speedy trial.
Napoles’s lawyers said over the weekend that they would file charges against three justices of the anti-graft court for “haphazardly” convicting her of graft and malversation.
For their alleged “gross ignorance of the law, manifest partiality, amid extreme bias,” Sandiganbayan Justices Geraldine Faith Econg, Reynaldo dela Cruz, and Edgardo Caldona were sued by Napoles’s lawyer, Rony Garay.
Garay said the accused justices were inclined “to convict her without looking at the evidence.”
The defense lawyer added that Napoles had been convicted of direct bribery, a crime that she was not accused of in the charge sheet.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said that while the conviction of Napoles was a welcome development, it cannot be considered a victory as graft and corruption in government continues unabated.
“In fact, it has gotten worse,” he said.
Lacson is the only lawmaker to refuse to avail of his pork barrel allocations, as he considers it a primary source of graft and corruption in government.
He has been calling for its abolition for close to two decades but lawmakers from the House and the Senate have ignored his calls.
Lawmakers reason that pork barrel allocations are necessary to fund their pet projects and to extend assistance to their constituencies. Most pork barrel is used to fund public works projects such as roads and bridges, gyms, and basketball courts, as well as scholarships for poor students.
In the case of Napoles, she was found to have created scores of NGOs ostensibly engaged in agricultural projects. Under audit, however, it was discovered that one of her NGOs had even funded an agricultural project within Metro Manila, which has no agricultural land to speak of.
The whistleblower behind her scheme was her own nephew, Benhur Luy.
Luy was forcibly detained in the condominium unit used as the headquarters for Napoles’s operations but was freed by the National Bureau of Investigation. Prior to that, Luy had been kept in seclusion in a house inside an exclusive village used by Catholic priests as a retreat.
The sentence for each count of graft is between six to 18 years. Napoles and Jaraula are expected to appeal their conviction, alongside their co-accused Maria Rosalinda Lacsamana, Belina Concepcion, and Mylene Encarnacion.
The court ordered Napoles and her co-accused to return PHP28.8 million (US$576,000) to the government and pay a similar amount in fines for malversation of public funds. Three others who were acquitted of the graft charges were likewise ordered to return the same amount to the government.