In 2013, when this paper began running a sensational exposé about the alleged misuse of legislators’ pork barrel funds running into the billions of pesos, the Filipino public was introduced to the businesswoman allegedly behind the complex scheme: Janet Lim Napoles.
According to Benhur Luy, a cousin and previous employee of hers who turned whistle-blower after they had a falling out, Napoles ran a virtual syndicate that involved laundering the then Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) of senators and representatives by coursing the money through bogus nongovernment agencies. The millions of pesos in annual funds intended to benefit the legislators’ constituents never reached their intended recipients. The funds ended up as kickbacks and grease money to a staggering number of people up and down the bureaucracy who were in on the illegal racket, from lowly government staff who facilitated the transactions right up to powerful members of Congress—at least 23 representatives and five senators, per Luy’s affidavit submitted to the National Bureau of Investigation.
Subsequent reports would uncover Napoles’ extensive property holdings and other indications of vast wealth here and abroad, including an P80-million luxury unit in California under the name of her daughter Jean, whose jet-setting, extravagant lifestyle was on display in her Instagram account. When asked about the source of her wealth, Napoles said it came from their family’s mining business in Indonesia. She offered no proof of this business venture, and nothing more was heard of it through all the investigations that would follow.
As more revelations emerged about the scam and Napoles was eventually arrested on various charges—for illegal detention and kidnapping filed against her by Luy, then for plunder and other cases of corruption lodged against her and 38 others in the Office of the Ombudsman—the woman who had earlier strenuously denied any wrongdoing changed her story. She submitted an affidavit to the Department of Justice that named names, implicating 20 senators and some 100 representatives whose PDAF she funneled through her bogus NGOs. In her version of events submitted to a Senate inquiry into the matter, she also pointed a finger at then Budget Secretary Butch Abad as her alleged “mentor,” the one who supposedly taught her how to set up hollow foundations to receive the pork barrel funds on paper. Abad denied the accusation, saying he had never dealt with Napoles.
Through all these, Napoles didn’t think she was doing anything illegal. Her scheme was “legitimate and righteous,” she said in her Senate statement. Also, “I am only a simple person who wanted to earn for my family… Had I known that giving commissions is illegal, I would not have done such thing.” Her commissions to legislators participating in the scam went as high as 40-50 percent, by her own admission; Luy said it was up to 60 percent. In the 10 years that the pork barrel scam was in operation, nearly a billion pesos a year was estimated lost, or a gargantuan P10 billion in taxpayer money.
Still, “I did not benefit from the transactions alone,” Napoles protested in her Senate statement. “In fact, I have formed foundations to help others and do charity works”—as though donating to the Church and ministering to elderly priests, as she reportedly did, would somehow justify the corruption.
It’s worth recalling all these damning details about Janet Lim Napoles now that the government appears to have embarked on a strange project to make her a state witness—a development that can be possible only if she is the least guilty party in the PDAF scam. From all indications, she is not.
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales has put her foot down on the outrageous idea, but with the likes of Vitaliano Aguirre at the helm of the Department of Justice, you never know. It seems anything is possible in these perilous times.
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