The almost-perfect crime
The pork barrel scam would have been a perfect crime were it not for a misstep by a high school graduate, Janet Lim-Napoles, whose head was turned to hubris by her previous stunning “success” in “business.” The scam, spanning years, cost our people tens of billions of pesos.
It all started unraveling when Napoles suspected her trusted assistant and accountant, Benhur Luy, of stealing from the billions of pesos she had amassed by milking the congressional pork barrel, the Priority Development Assistance Fund. She also suspected Luy of planning to run a similar scam on his own to rival her exceedingly lucrative racket. She managed to confine him in a house in Makati City that she intended for the use of Catholic priests.
Fearing for his life, Luy contacted the National Bureau of Investigation through his mother. The NBI rescued him from the house where he was allegedly detained against his will. He then told the NBI agents a mind-blowing story of the looting of government funds through fake nongovernment organizations registered by Napoles with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
They had plundered the PDAF with the eager connivance of legislators and executive officials in various departments, principally the Department of Agriculture and related agencies. The estimated loot was at least P10 billion, which was shared with the legislators to whom the funds were released by the Department of Budget and Management.
That pilfered sum was fantastic enough, but it turned out that the Napoles NGOs had also allegedly plundered the Malampaya Fund and the Disbursement Acceleration Program funds. Final accounting by the Commission on Audit of just how much of taxpayer money was actually plundered has yet to be completed. If other PDAF and DAP moneys were also channeled to more fake NGOs, aside from those formed by Napoles, the amount could be staggering, totaling hundreds of billions of pesos.
The media, particularly the Inquirer, exposed the massive scam based on documents obtained from and leaked by official sources. The Department of Justice headed by the indomitable Secretary Leila de Lima promptly recommended plunder charges against those allegedly involved. One of the accused, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, then came out with a privilege speech accusing President Aquino of bribing senators to impeach Corona through the release of hundreds of millions of pesos from the DAP. It was an attempt to drag down his presumed accusers in the mire of corruption.
Media reports said that based on Luy’s digital files, part of the DAP funds amounting to around P400 million were channeled through Napoles’ NGOs. The funds were listed as having been spent for “livelihood” projects like seminars for flower arrangement, baking, hairdressing, candle-making and handicraft-making—hardly conducive to stimulating the economy, which was the DAP’s supposed aim.
The PDAF and DAP exposés enraged the public. An estimated half a million citizens, many from the middle class, gathered at Rizal Park last August to express their outrage and demand that those responsible be held accountable. Several party-list lawmakers and civil society groups filed petitions in the Supreme Court to declare the PDAF and DAP unconstitutional.
Shaken by the strong public outrage, which brought to mind the street power against Presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada, the Supreme Court declared the PDAF unconstitutional, reversing three of its previous decisions. Recently, the DAP followed into the ashcan of unconstitutionality officially declared by the high court. But this time, the stamp of unconstitutionality was selective.
Artemio Panganiban, a former chief justice, wrote in his column in the Inquirer last July 6 that the high court “did not declare the DAP unconstitutional, only the ‘acts and practices under it,’ unlike the PDAF.” Thus, the grotesque scandals have at least resulted in a positive outcome that will benefit the people through more responsible budgeting and prudent spending of public funds.
Members of all three branches of government—the legislature, the executive and the judiciary—have been complaisant, even participative, in a practice started by the dictator Marcos when he considered the public treasury his private bank.
Marcos habitually used funds from the budget to bribe delegates to the 1972 constitutional convention and the interim national assembly to do his bidding. Having the sole power to appoint members of the Supreme Court, he was sure that his wishes would be routinely approved by it.
This practice undermined the system of checks and balances so fundamental in a working democracy. That it lasted for so long after the dictatorship was toppled is a major tragedy of our times. How could four succeeding administrations, supposedly elected on the foundation of democratic idealism and honest governance, continue to pursue the road to corruption?
What if Luy and his coemployees in JLM Corp. had not blown the whistle? What if Napoles had not mistrusted and mistreated her employees, and had given them a fair share of her illegal income?
The possibilities are too unsettling to contemplate. A few legislators did not partake of the PDAF and the DAP funds, but they kept silent about the massive looting of public money, perhaps in deference to their colleagues, or perhaps because they were not certain of the funds’ unconstitutionality or illegality.
The scam was a grand conspiracy of private individuals and public officials, which was broken up only by an unexpected confluence of events that moved the masses once more to take to the street in rightful indignation. This again shows that continued vigilance is the price of good government.
Manuel F. Almario (email@example.com) is a veteran journalist and spokesman of the Movement for Truth in History, Rizal’s MOTH.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.