It has been almost six months since the first cases of plunder and graft involving lawmakers’ pork barrel were filed at the Office of the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman has to carefully evaluate these charges before endorsing them to the Sandiganbayan for trial or dismissing them outright for insufficiency of evidence. The one thing the Ombudsman cannot do is bury them among its files in the expectation that the public will soon forget about them. No, despite “Yolanda” and Vhong Navarro, the issue remains very much alive in the public consciousness.
The legal process is taking time not least because those charged include powerful individuals in our society who are still in government. Investigators must tread on a virtual minefield. The accused lawmakers will try to take these cases out of the judicial system by depicting them as politically motivated. They will threaten to drag everyone down with them to save their skins. This has been the tenor of the privilege speeches of Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla. Thus, the closer we get to 2016, the more difficult it will be to keep these cases strictly within the ambit of the law.
The Department of Justice and the Ombudsman, in whose hands now lies the nation’s hope of dealing a mortal blow to official corruption, must balance the duty to gather solid proof with the need to start the trial of the accused without the distraction of the next elections. This is where Ruby Chan-Tuason’s offer to turn state’s witness assumes crucial importance. Her emergence bolsters the DOJ’s cases and hastens the process.
Tuason is one of the key private individuals who have been implicated in the so-called Napoles pork barrel scam. In the affidavit she submitted as part of her bid to gain immunity from prosecution, she admitted that she acted as an “agent” for Janet Lim-Napoles and some lawmakers, earning a tiny percentage of the kickback for her services. She has also offered to return the money she received. Her testimony is critical to the plunder charges against Senators Estrada and Juan Ponce Enrile. But, more important, it shows us how it was possible for someone like Napoles, previously a small-time supplier of goods and services, to gain access to the inner offices of senators and befriend some of the most powerful politicians of the country.
Being no stranger to the corridors of power, Tuason became Napoles’ conduit to the highest echelons of government. She once served on the household staff of President Joseph Estrada in Malacañang, doing work that put her in touch with a broad array of important people. The surname she carries, that of her late husband Butch Tuason, first cousin to former first gentleman Mike Arroyo, has political cachet. Quite unlike the street-smart Napoles, who likes flaunting her powerful connections and possessions, Tuason is a picture of bourgeois discreetness. She is the last person you expect to give testimony against people she has served. That is what makes her a credible source. Her role as a witness for the prosecution has the same value as that of Enrile’s former chief of staff, lawyer Gigi Reyes—if the latter were to surface and become state’s witness.
Press reports say that Tuason, who fled to the United States when she was named by the whistle-blowers, had sent feelers signaling she wanted to come home and unburden herself. To the credit of the DOJ and the National Bureau of Investigation, government agents were promptly sent to the United States to contact her, get her to execute an affidavit, and eventually bring her home. Remarkably, all this was done without any fanfare or leaks. One would never have expected this of our justice system under previous administrations.
The details of how the Napoles pork barrel scam was conducted for 10 years without triggering any investigation are now falling into place like small pieces in a complex jigsaw puzzle. The picture has become clearer with the pieces supplied by Tuason. We can now see that the scam slowly evolved; it was not invented overnight by a shrewd underground entrepreneur who had mastered the political economy of corruption. Napoles learned by doing, relying on the simple insight that no one in Philippine officialdom—no matter how rich—could staunchly resist the delights of quick money.
Starting out as a supplier to the military, content with small margins made from delivering overpriced goods, she widened her network to include lawmakers who were constantly looking for contractors who could pay the highest kickback from pork-barrel-funded projects. In the beginning, the money was made mainly from delivering cheap and worthless goods.
But, with more and more “soft” projects being included in the pork barrel menu, it became possible to submit ghost projects complete with lists of fictitious beneficiaries, and altogether skip the pretense of supplying anything. Lawmakers saw this as an opportunity to demand bigger kickbacks, rationalizing their insatiable appetites as the outcome of the costly requirements of public office in a patronage-driven society. Napoles responded to this demand by setting up paper NGOs for every conceivable purpose and cultivating close partnerships with obscure government agencies she could use as channels. Her office became a documents factory and a virtual bank that often advanced the kickback to needy legislators.
Napoles was a fixer who made corruption nearly invisible, shielded from liability by her powerful clients. But greed and arrogance led her to take for granted the small people who assisted her. They are the whistle-blowers. Her story is a fable for our times.
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