That was a fantastic thing that happened last Thursday. It was eye-opening, enlightening, educational, entertaining, riveting, funny, hilarious, tragic, horrifying, mind-boggling, mind-freezing, pulse-pounding, roistering, rousing, stress-inducing, fury-inciting, street-driving, storm-brewing rolled into one. That of course was Benhur Luy’s appearance at the Senate.
Luy himself was the star of the show in more ways than one. Nothing like seeing and hearing him in person, he’s a formidable testimony to the magic-realist character of the country. Sporting a hairdo like Antonio Sanchez, the mayor of Calauan, Laguna, who terrorized the place and raped a UP Los Baños student, and murdered her and her boyfriend, but who surrounded himself with pictures and icons of Mama Mary, Luy was a mass of incongruities.
The bearer of bad tidings, brought in by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to explain the intricate workings of the pork scam, even wearing a bullet-proof vest to drive home the deadly purpose, or deathly seriousness, of his presence there, he looked like he had been invited to a party. He looked relaxed, spoke easily and often lightheartedly, often giggling at his own testimony as though titillated by the absurd gravity or grave absurdity of some of his details. The image of tons of cash being carted in elevators and dumped into Janet Lim-Napoles’ bed and bathtub because they wouldn’t fit into a safe—she needed the wads of money to dump in turn on the laps of her favorite senators and congressmen, or their chiefs of staff—is just the sort of thing to launch a thousand giggles. And text jokes.
Just as well, though a mere wisp of a man, however he carried the weighty Jewish name of Benhur—his parents must have loved the Charlton Heston movie—and though he looked more like a messenger, which he often was, than the chief factotum of the apparent brains of a multibillion-peso operation, he was no pushover. He showed an intelligence and expertise that would have put many of the members of the congressional ways and means committee to shame. He knew the byzantine ways and he knew the effective means. He so knew the ins and outs of the operation, or indeed the ins and outs of the Senate and House of Representatives, he never needed any notes from an iPad or laptop to answer the questions fielded to him.
He answered without hesitation and with impressive clarity, confining his testimony only to things that he knew. Repeatedly asked about whether Napoles consulted with other senators or congressmen, with government officials retired or active, he said he didn’t know, as far as he knew Napoles ran the operation by herself. Asked whether there were other syndicates that operated that way, giving the same percentage of kickback or more, he said again he didn’t know, as far as he knew they were the only ones operating that way.
Those questions of course were perfectly valid and inviting. As several senators pointed out, probably taking their cue from Miriam Defensor-Santiago, it taxed the mind to imagine that Napoles had the ingenuity or influence on Congress to act alone. And as Ralph Recto proposed, surely a profitable venture has a way of making competitors sprout like mushrooms overnight. And to say that Napoles’ venture was profitable was to conjure again the bundles of cash stashed in her bathtub. Like drugs, surely a syndicate like that couldn’t exist in isolation for a long time?
Those are tempting things to speculate on, but Luy refused to speculate on them. He stuck to what he knew, and by doing so became credible in the extreme. And what a story he told.
Until he appeared at the Senate, the PDAF scam was largely an abstraction, something we knew was there but never quite grasped in its full shape and form. Suddenly, courtesy of Luy who explained it spectacularly simply and clearly, there it was in all its ghostly solidity, there it was in all its ghastly reality.
He would tell how Napoles would offer a menu of services for the legislators to plunk their pork for a kickback often of half the amount. How the senators and congressmen would often not wait to be approached but would themselves seek her out tell her where they wanted the money put. How Napoles would give the legislators half their kickback as soon as they submitted their proposals to the Department of Budget and Management. How the DBM would not look too closely at the submissions, but would approve them routinely, which was when Napoles would give the other half of the kickback. How 10 percent would go to the implementing agencies. How 40 percent would go to Napoles after she got the bogus NGOs and not very bogus mayors and other local officials to sign receipts for nonexistent supplies and services or had their signatures forged.
How the taxpayers, whose money it was, got nothing.
You looked at the extent and depth of the rape and pillage, you looked at the extent of reach of the scam, involving as it did the legislative and executive, the public and private sectors—how in God’s name, as several senators asked, could a bank possibly release P75 million in one blow without raising an eyebrow?—and you realize you are looking at an underworld. An underworld that coexists with the more visible underworld of crime—of drugs, of smuggling, of bank-robbing, of carjacking, of murder and mayhem. Except that this was more invisible, more submerged. Except that this was enfolded in the robes of respectability, this underworld was supposed to be the over-world, a realm like Olympus where dwelled the gods who governed our lives, who decreed our fates.
They were just gangsters too after all.
Let there be light, we cried out. Luy heard and came to the Senate.
And there was light.