Napoles as state’s witness

The correct term is “state’s witness,” says Dr. Sylvia Ventura, my professor in English at the University of the Philippines. To turn “state’s witness” is for a suspect, an accused, or a convicted person to give testimony against his or her accomplices or associates in a crime in exchange for immunity from prosecution, or reduced penalty, or pardon. In the United States, this legal maneuver was effectively used in the trial of leaders of organized crime syndicates, where potential witnesses were often too scared to testify.

Lawyers tell us that this option is usually not offered to those who appear to be the guiltiest among those implicated in the same criminal offense. Many are thus outraged over the thought that the government may be cutting a deal with Janet Lim-Napoles, the alleged mastermind of the massive illegal diversion of pork barrel funds to private pockets.

What seems to have induced this suspicion is the manner in which Napoles’ surrender and subsequent detention were managed by the Office of the President. From being classified as a fugitive with a P10-million bounty on her head, Napoles quickly metamorphosed into a VIP who was permitted to surrender to no less than the President at his official residence.

I myself did not put any malice to P-Noy’s decision to personally accept Napoles’ surrender and escort her to jail. It was a judgment call on his part, and I can understand why he did it.  I view it in the context of reliable information that Napoles, out of a genuine fear for her life, had been desperately looking for a trustworthy public figure who could arrange for her safe surrender. I can imagine why anyone, other than the President, would be reluctant to play this role. As the Inquirer editorial put it the other day, Napoles is “radioactive”—if you are not a police officer or a bounty hunter or an assassin on assignment, you would be well advised to distance yourself from her.

As it turned out, even P-Noy was unable to fully insulate himself from the radioactive fallout resulting from Napoles’ surrender at Malacanang. This, to me, signifies an interesting shift in the public’s relationship to the President. The implicit trust previously conferred on him as a crusading leader against corruption is giving way to a more guarded and exacting attitude toward his government. I am almost certain that this change in public perception resulted from his speaking too soon about the positive uses of the Priority Development Assistance Fund.

Today, not a few people are wondering if Napoles, who will be transferred from the Makati City Jail to a more secure detention facility under the PNP Special Action Force in Sta. Rosa, Laguna, is being groomed to become a state’s witness. I don’t mind if she becomes one. It all depends on what she is prepared to confess. The government has shown good will by securing her against those who might be thinking of silencing her. It is now up to her to reciprocate this by abandoning her previous stance of flatly denying everything, and instead offer a detailed account of what she knows—even if it means implicating almost the whole of Philippine officialdom.

I think it would be cathartic, and ultimately healing, for the nation to listen to her confession on how she connived with public officials in various branches of government to steal billions in taxpayers’ money over a period of at least 10 years. I assume that she will claim there was someone above her from whom she took orders, someone who wielded a lot of influence and made it easy for the legislators to entrust their pork barrel to her. I think that is not an implausible scenario.

At the end of her unrehearsed appearance at the Inquirer editorial offices a few weeks ago, she took me and fellow columnist Winnie Monsod aside, insisting she was not the mastermind and intimating that the real brains had already hurriedly fled the country. When we asked who this person was, Napoles whispered something to Winnie, but not to me. To this day I’m still wondering who this big fish might be, if there was any.

There may or may not be a real mastermind, but, until the evidence is all in, can we really say Napoles is the most guilty? Certainly, compared to the members of her staff who have turned whistle-blowers, she seems to be the guiltiest. But, whether or not there was a mastermind above Napoles, the fact that the pork barrel funds in question could not have been released without the consent and knowledge of senators and congressmen must give us pause about allocating guilt so quickly.

There was betrayal of public trust here. It was not to Napoles, a private individual, that we gave this trust. It was to our public officials that we did—the lawmakers who cornered lump sum allocations and the heads of agencies who were supposed to oversee the implementation and auditing of PDAF-funded projects. Is the fixer guiltier than the trustees of the funds who stole the money or willfully looked the other way while others did?

I’d prefer to see corrupt senators and congressmen locked up in jail than the clever “porksmiths” of conversion whose services they knowingly engaged. If the latter offer to spill the beans on their principals, why shouldn’t we listen?

Some commentators think that the specter of the 2016 elections looms over this scandal. I sincerely hope it does. It is time our voters realized what kind of scoundrels they keep returning to public office. This is surely a turning point in our nation’s life, and a test of political will for P-Noy. So long as our citizens continue to be vigilant, there is every reason to hope that public governance will get better in the coming years.

* * *