Time now to hear the Ombudsman

The belief that events are being willfully manipulated by clever individuals to shape the way the public experiences them tends to flourish during times of confusion.  The form it usually takes is the conspiracy theory. One such moment is the crisis spawned by revelations of the widespread fraud that has attended the disbursement of the Priority Development Assistance Fund, better known as the lawmakers’ pork barrel.  But, I am convinced that everyone has been reacting to the crisis; no one has been in any position to plot or control its course.

To begin with, I think the legal system itself was blindsided by the eruption of this controversy.  It has been a year now since the news about the PDAF scam first broke out, and, until now, no legislator has been arrested.  The longer it takes to file the cases in court, the more room there is for speculation that someone is orchestrating the proceedings for purposes other than to serve the ends of justice.

One can appreciate the amount of work and care needed to build a case against individuals who are among the nation’s most powerful politicians.  But the government investigators and prosecutors were not starting empty-handed.   Valuable leads have been supplied by the whistle-blowers and by the Inquirer’s own research and sustained reporting on this controversy.  Summoned by the Senate blue ribbon committee to appear at its hearings, the head of the Commission on Audit has submitted the results of the COA special audit of PDAF funds for 2007-2009.   The findings from this special audit are fully documented.  Despite the political grandstanding that has marked the Senate investigation, the blue ribbon committee hearings have generated useful testimonies and piles of documents that can, at the very least, point investigators in the right direction.

Right now, all eyes are on the Office of the Ombudsman.  This is the principal agency of government explicitly mandated by the Constitution to investigate—on its own or upon the filing of a complaint—all cases involving breach of public trust.  We can understand that the Ombudsman must be allowed to perform her work quietly.  But, in high-profile cases of this nature, there is great urgency not only to produce results but also to furnish the public periodic updates on the progress of the investigation and the cases.

Without the Ombudsman giving voice to the legal system, politics and the mass media are bound to dominate the stage.   More important, time is running out fast on the Ombudsman. The courts cannot hold Janet Lim Napoles indefinitely.

Napoles has been held in a high-security prison facility for almost a year now on the basis of the charge of serious illegal detention filed by Benhur Luy.  She has previously petitioned to be released on bail, claiming the evidence against her was weak, but this has been denied.  I have no sympathies for Napoles, but I cannot help noting how the law is dragging its feet here.  If she were not under investigation for being the alleged mastermind of the pork barrel scam, would it be reasonable to keep her in prison?  But, if her involvement in the scam is the real reason for detaining her, then it behooves the Ombudsman to file the plunder case against her—soon.  The evidence for the plunder case is surely much stronger than the one for illegal detention.

In the news the other day is a disturbing report that Napoles, through her lawyer, is seeking reconciliation with Benhur Luy, her relative and erstwhile employee.  She has allegedly sent feelers asking him to withdraw the illegal-detention case against her.  Benhur reportedly snubbed her overture.  But, what if he agreed?  Would the plunder case then be hurriedly filed to justify keeping Napoles in detention?  I think that doing so would undermine the necessary fiction of Lady Justice being blindfolded.  It is this resort to subterfuge that gives to conspiracy theories the plausibility they don’t deserve.

The most persistent of the conspiracy theories in the current discussion of the pork barrel controversy is the one that says the whole investigation is nothing but a well-orchestrated witch hunt aimed at collectively demolishing key political figures who may be contesting the 2016 presidential election.

This theory could have been dismissed out of hand had the investigation been more prompt, more thorough, and methodical.  The COA and the budget department could have preempted suspicions of political partisanship if they had launched their own simultaneous internal investigations of the complicity of their personnel.  The Office of the President could have authorized its own investigation of the implementing agencies that had been used as major conduits for the release of PDAF money.  Most of these funds in question were, after all, disbursed under the previous administration.

None of these happened.  And it wasn’t because the Aquino administration was trying to protect its own people.  Maybe it was defending the traditional political system when it tried to justify the PDAF.  Clearly, the administration did not see the PDAF as synonymous to corruption.  Indeed, it was caught flat-footed by the Million People March last year.

The scandal, as we now know, broke out purely by accident.  The first hint of the Napoles racket was contained in the statement Benhur Luy gave to the National Bureau of Investigation after he was rescued from illegal detention.  No one had paid any attention to Luy’s story of why he was detained by his former employer and why he continued to fear for his life—until the Inquirer picked it up.  No one could have orchestrated all the events that have unfolded since then.