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11:06 PM August 30th, 2013

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August 30th, 2013 11:06 PM

Malacañang has only itself to blame for the massive flap it found itself in after fugitive businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles was allowed to surrender to President Benigno Aquino himself—right inside the Palace. What were the President’s men thinking? That it would burnish Mr. Aquino’s crime-fighting and corruption-busting credentials to have the country’s most wanted person surrender to him only hours after he announced a P10-million bounty on her head? That it would signal the Palace’s determination to ferret out the truth behind the festering pork barrel scandal, even at the cost of cheapening the Office of the President?

The wonder was that no one in the President’s inner circle apparently thought through the implications of having Napoles received by the highest official of the land. All they had to do was look around them; every single politician that has had more than a passing acquaintance with the woman has deemed it fit to pretend not to know her. Sen. Bong Revilla, despite photographic evidence to the contrary and his own acknowledgment that one of his sons is a business partner of Napoles’ son, has maintained that Napoles is merely an acquaintance. Ditto with Sen. Jinggoy Estrada.

So radioactive is the “pork barrel queen” at this time that even Pasig Rep. Roman Romulo, who got Napoles as a principal sponsor for his splashy wedding to Shalani Soledad last year, insists that he knew her only “socially.” It may well be so, but that explanation flies in the face of the Filipino tradition of tapping close family elders and social patrons to serve as ninongs or ninangs in so public a ceremony as one’s wedding, especially like the star-studded one that Romulo and Soledad had. In any case, Napoles’ presence in the constellation of politics, show biz and society that converged on the Romulo-Soledad nuptials only showed the deep connections she had established with these rarefied realms. Until the pork barrel controversy made her into a pariah, she was the consummate insider, a full-fledged member of the ruling elite.

How, then, did the Palace intend to spin the jarring sight of Napoles evading the usual indignities that common suspects have to go through, to be accorded instead a private audience with the President? Worse, not only was she received cordially in the sanctum sanctorum of the nation’s seat of power, the President also deemed it necessary for him to accompany Napoles to her temporary detention cell in Camp Crame. All this time, nobody in the presidential retinue ever paused to say that the optics looked bad from any angle? That the government was vulnerable to being accused of favoritism, of giving this woman preferential treatment, and that the extraordinary accommodations she’s being accorded might, at the very least, give rise to speculation that the administration has secretly worked out some kind of deal with her to manage the expected fallout from her upcoming explosive testimony?

Which is exactly what has happened. Malacañang’s exceedingly thoughtless, clumsy handling of Napoles’ surrender has only spawned wild second-guessing and conjecture, and who could blame the public if its default position is disbelief, if not outright cynicism? Interior Secretary Mar Roxas and presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda have tried all manner of verbal contortions to explain away the charge of special treatment for Napoles; the facts, however, speak otherwise. On her first night in Crame, Napoles was held in an airconditioned room that had to pass inspection by the President himself. Now that she’s been transferred to the Makati City Jail, she’s kept away from other inmates in another airconditioned cell. And while all her cellphones have been taken away from her, Napoles’ family has been allowed to bring her an airbed, to make her incarceration more comfortable.

The Aquino administration has only one way of redeeming itself from this fiasco, and that is to ensure that the ensuing investigation of the pork barrel scam is thorough and transparent, and results in airtight cases against everyone involved, including those allied with the administration. All this bending over backwards for Napoles must better be worth it in terms of the value of her testimony. But for the whole truth to come out, the government cannot be left on its own devices. The public must remain on vigilant watch, even as the creaky justice system finally starts to grind.

The chief goal is, still, to force the system to scrap the pork barrel, not merely to see Napoles in jail.

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