Congress has drawn a “no trespass” line on the sand in the inquiry into the alleged diversion of P10 billion of its pork barrel fund to organizations headed by businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles.
Napoles has been at the center of the inquiry conducted by the National Bureau of Investigation, the Office of the Ombudsman, and the Commission on Audit acting on affidavits of former employees of her umbrella organization, JLN Corp. The affidavits submitted to the NBI claim that the corporation acted as a conduit in extracting huge sums from the pork barrel intended for public works with the consent of certain senators and congressmen, with the money allegedly finding its way into Napoles’ bank accounts.
Since the purported racket broke into print, a torrent of insiders’ information unveiled by six whistle-blowers in their affidavits has deluged the media and made Napoles the lightning rod of public outrage over the matter.
In the flurry of these multiple investigations, in which the full weight of the state’s investigative apparatus has been brought to bear on the activities of the Napoles corporation, the other half of the story has barely made it to the surface.
Very little attention has been paid to the angle of the complicity of members of Congress in giving JLN Corp. access to their pork barrel fund—or the keys to unlock the vaults of taxpayers’ money intended for schools, health centers, roads, bridges, irrigation projects, fertilizers, and food production inputs—allegedly in exchange for kickbacks coming from the pilfered loot.
The sordid story that has crystallized from the frenzy of publicity generated by the disclosures in the affidavits and investigative reports in the media tells of a conspiracy or a collusion among the lawmakers, the creator, custodian and gatekeeper of the pork barrel patronage chest, to defraud the people. After all, the moneys could not have been siphoned off from the national treasury and into certain people’s pockets if some members of Congress had not provided access to their fund; there would have been no way for the syndicate to get past the safeguard mechanisms protecting pork barrel funds from abuse.
The collusion suggests a betrayal of the public by the legal custodian of the fund. Even if the evidence and affidavits in the hands of the NBI are sufficient to send Napoles and her accomplices to a fair public trial, members of Congress cannot escape accountability for this massive diversion of public funds committed in broad daylight.
As a result of the heavy publicity in the media on the investigations being conducted by the executive branch and independent constitutional bodies, demands are mounting in the public sector to refocus and expand the inquiries into the legislative branch, which has partnered with JLN Corp. in the alleged pillage of the public treasury.
The current investigations appear to be leading to a search for a diversionary scapegoat, with Napoles et al. as sacrificial beasts for public pillory, while the government treats the legislature as untouchable or as a sacred cow, maybe because of the separation of powers among the three branches, or more probably because expanding the inquiry into the congressional arena could possibly uncover the involvement of administration members in the supposed scam. It is a fact, not a conjecture, that five senators who gave access to their pork barrel funds—Ramon Revilla Jr., Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Gregorio Honasan—are not members of the administration’s ruling coalition led by the Liberal Party.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, whose department is spearheading the investigations with the NBI as the lead agency, last week poured cold water on a call for a Senate inquiry into the fund diversion. “Perhaps in due time, that proposal may be considered, but not at this point,” she told reporters. She said that the move would be “premature,” that the NBI was “yet in the evidence-gathering and verification stage,” and that it would “not be prudent for the probe to be open and public at this point.”
Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano also said a Senate or House investigation “might be problematic” because some of the lawmakers had been implicated in the supposed fund diversion.
Senator Francis Escudero has filed a resolution calling for an investigation of the alleged scam, saying that he wanted the probe to show that the Senate was capable of transparency and was not just an “old boys’ club.” But last Monday, the Senate decided to defer the proposed inquiry until after government agencies, including the NBI and the Bureau of Internal Revenue, complete their investigations. Sen. Teofisto Guingona III, chair of the Senate blue ribbon committee, made the announcement after a committee caucus. He said a “consensus” had been reached that the “image, reputation and integrity” of the Senate would be compromised if the senators insisted on a wider probe.
The real risk in a Senate inquiry into the matter lies in that, with Napoles’ back pressed to the wall by multiple investigations, she could spill the beans on her connections in Congress as well as in the Cabinet, bringing the whole roof crashing down on the ruling political establishment.