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09:43 PM July 14th, 2013

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July 14th, 2013 09:43 PM

The disclosures from the Inquirer’s ongoing series of special reports on a P10-billion pork barrel scam have been both shocking and familiar. A sordid tale of special access and large-scale government corruption, the scandal had already been hinted at during the last years of the Arroyo presidency. What is new is the apparent scale and efficiency of the alleged scam, and the possibility that the scamming extended into the Aquino years.

Businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles stands accused, by six former employees, including a trusted cousin, of masterminding a massive fraud—diverting government funds, mainly from the Priority Development Assistance Fund or the so-called “pork barrel” of senators and congressmen, to multiple ghost projects or ghost organizations. The diversion allowed both Napoles’ company, called JLN after her initials, and the legislators or their staff involved in the fraud to share the government funds between themselves. The ghost projects or ghost organizations were created for one express purpose: to allow the pork barrel funds to be released, straight into the pockets of cooperative legislators and staff, and also into Napoles’ bathtub.

“These bags [of money] were piled in the master bedroom and in the bathtub of her bathroom,” Benhur Luy, the cousin of Napoles who used to serve as her personal assistant, told the Inquirer.

To be sure, no single detail, no matter how vivid, can serve as incontrovertible proof; the revelations of Luy and the other five whistle-blowers all need to be independently verified. Also, Luy admitted that he was abducted on Napoles’ orders because he wanted to go into the same line of business for himself; in other words, he thought well of the scam until his cousin turned on him. Not least, Napoles has categorically denied any involvement in any scam. The National Bureau of Investigation did well to conduct an inquiry into Luy’s allegations, but keeping matters discreet.

On the other hand, Luy and the other whistle-blowers are fighting against moneyed and powerful people; their signed testimonies include many self-incriminating details; they face the prospect of legal and other forms of retaliation. In other words, they did not file a complaint against Napoles for their health.

This gives their affidavits a credibility that is difficult to impugn. Their testimonies paint a disconcerting picture, of a well-oiled machinery designed specifically for corruption.

Two points to reflect on:

The alleged scam, as described in the affidavits, is very much like a rediscounting operation: JLN buys a legislator’s “pork barrel” allocation at a discount, paying a commission to the senator or the congressman or the staff person involved in exchange for turning government paper into cash.

Every year, a congressman is entitled to as much as P70 million in PDAF allocations; a senator, to P200 million. Under current rules, a legislator cannot release his pork barrel funds directly to a beneficiary; he can only identify projects and nominate beneficiaries following a strict “priority list.”

Enter JLN. According to Luy and the others, Napoles’ company worked with legislators or their staff to identify suitable uses of the funds, filled out the necessary paperwork, forged signatures of government officials, fabricated identities to receive the government funds and even manufactured receipts.

“JLN offered to lawmakers commissions equivalent to 40 to 60 percent of the amount of PDAF in exchange for the right to determine the implementing agency and fund beneficiary,” Luy said.

This brings us to the second point for reflection.

Previous practice limited corruption to maybe 10 or 20 percent, perhaps more, of the government outlay. An official may earn an illegal commission in the millions for approving a public works project—but the road or bridge or canal would be built.

The long-running pork barrel scam Napoles stands accused of takes corruption to the extreme: All of the government outlay for a specific initiative would go to JLN and the legislator or his staff. Because the intended beneficiary is a ghost project or a ghost organization, nothing would get built; no one would be served.

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