The controversy over the alleged diversion of P10 billion in congressional pork barrel funds to a group of dummy NGOs headed by businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles took a dramatic turn on Wednesday with the issuance of warrants for her and her brother’s arrest on charges of serious illegal detention of Benhur Luy, the key whistle-blower in the corruption scandal. The offense is nonbailable.
The arrest orders acquired an overtone of urgency, as the National Bureau of Investigation agents who were to serve the warrants issued by the Makati Regional Trial Court returned empty-handed: Napoles could not be found in her condominium unit at Pacific Plaza Tower in Taguig City. There were hints that she might have taken flight out of the country.
On July 15, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima issued an “alert lookout bulletin” to the Bureau of Immigration ordering its officers to monitor Napoles’ and her brother Reynald Lim’s international travels. De Lima told reporters that she issued the order due to the “gravity” of the allegations against the siblings and “the Napoleses’ financial capacity” under investigation by the NBI, Department of Justice, Bureau of Internal Revenue, Office of the Ombudsman, and Commission on Audit. The importance of Napoles’ presence was underscored by the instruction of De Lima to immigration officers to be “discreet” in their surveillance so as not to “jeopardize” the NBI’s inquiry into Napoles’ alleged involvement in the pork barrel diversion.
The arrest warrants were issued on the basis of the complaint of the parents of Luy, a former employee of Napoles. The complaint alleged that Napoles and her brother detained Luy for three months starting last Dec. 20 until an NBI task force rescued him from an apartment owned by Napoles at Pacific Tower Plaza on March 22. After his rescue, Luy submitted an affidavit to the NBI saying that he had been working for Napoles’ JLN Corp. and that she had set up a clutch of dummy NGOs into which funds from the pork barrel of five senators and 23 congressmen were funneled by JLN for ghost projects.
In the issuance of the arrest warrants, the puzzle is why the government is now moving to detain Napoles in the midst of the still inconclusive investigations led by the DOJ. This shift in priorities has in effect diverted the agency’s task of making a case from the affidavits submitted by six disgruntled JLN employees who squealed on the fund transfers supposedly made with the complicity of certain lawmakers. Will the detention of Napoles and her brother, or their flight, strengthen or weaken the criminal case that the government is trying to build against Napoles? This is an important question being asked in some public circles.
The government has gone out of its way to reverse gears in proceeding to charge Napoles with serious illegal detention. State prosecutors filed the detention case on Aug. 13 after Prosecutor General Claro Arellano reversed the dismissal of the original case by Assistant State Prosecutor General Juan Pedro Navera. The review of the case was conducted by Senior Deputy State Prosecutor Theodore Villanueva, who found probable cause to indict Napoles and her brother.
On March 23, the NBI recommended to the DOJ that the siblings be prosecuted for serious illegal detention, or violation of Article 267 of the Revised Penal Code. Arellano has told the Inquirer that when Luy blew the whistle on the operations of JLN, there was a motive for Napoles to send Luy on a “spiritual retreat” and restrain him there. According to Luy in his affidavit, prior to his detention Napoles discovered his plan to break away from her group. He also said Napoles had confronted him about what she suspected were his transactions with the Department of Agriculture.
Luy said he was then brought to Bahay ni San Jose in Makati, where he was prohibited from using any means of communication. He said he was able to see his family only twice during his detention.
In a counteraffidavit, Napoles denied all of Luy’s allegations. She also claimed that JLN was in the business of trading goods such as marine supplies and equipment and construction material, and that she had never had deals with government agencies.
The arrest warrants have shifted the focus to a peripheral issue—the alleged illegal detention of Luy. The core issue is the corruption associated with the transfer of pork barrel funds to spurious NGOs that are being investigated for being alleged conduits of public funds intended for public works and improvement projects—funds that, according to the affidavits, found their way into the bank accounts of Napoles and her group.
The warrants now appear to be a smokescreen, arousing public suspicion that the ground is being laid for the cover-up of the involvement of government officials, both in the legislative and executive branches, who are the gatekeepers of the funds.
The muzzling of information flow on this scandal is taking place as Napoles is becoming more voluble in various public forums to present her side of the controversy. Her disappearance is a matter of tremendous public concern. It has fueled such questions as: Where is she now? Has she fled the country? Is she still alive? Dead people tell no tales.