Do people still remember Janet Lim Napoles, the businesswoman who is alleged to have masterminded the P10-billion pork barrel scam exposed in 2013 by whistleblower Benhur Luy?
The scam surfaced anew last week when state witness and former Napoles staffer Marina Sula reportedly recanted her testimony against former senator Bong Revilla, and said that while Napoles had “utilized” Revilla’s Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), she (Sula) had no personal knowledge on whether the senator received the kickbacks from the scam mastermind. The state witness also told the Sandiganbayan hearing last Thursday that it was Luy who had forged Revilla’s signature on endorsement letters for the release of the senator’s PDAF.
Explaining her turnabout, Sula said she had been coached by a prosecutor from the Office of the Ombudsman in her 2016 testimony, so it would be consistent with that of Luy.
Sula’s testimony, crowed the Revilla camp, was proof that he was innocent all along and that his signature had been a forgery. The testimony had just put an exclamation point on the case, Revilla lawyer Estelito Mendoza gloated.
For people monitoring the case, such a possibility rankles—and not just because of the amounts and personalities involved, but also because the scam had robbed small farmers of funds that would otherwise have gone to much needed agriculture projects.
To recall: For at least 10 years before the scam was exposed in 2013, Napoles had set up a network of bogus foundations and nongovernment organizations to which she and her staff funneled billions of pesos from the PDAF (or pork barrel) of several complicit lawmakers. The funds were made to appear like they were used for agri-oriented projects, which turned out to be nonexistent, with huge commissions given to participating lawmakers.
The scheme unraveled when National Bureau of Investigation agents rescued in March 2013 Napoles aide and relative Luy, whom she had detained for allegedly setting up a similar business for himself.
With an arrest warrant and a P10-million bounty on her head, Napoles surrendered to then President Benigno Aquino III on Aug. 28, 2013. In April 2015, she was convicted in the Luy illegal detention case and sentenced to 40 years in prison by the Makati Regional Trial Court.
In June 2014, the Ombudsman indicted former senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, Ramon Revilla Jr. and other government officials in the Sandiganbayan for plunder and graft in connection with the pork barrel scam.
Would Sula’s testimony now exonerate Revilla?
Not so, said Deputy Special Prosecutor Manuel Soriano, who denied the coaching by the prosecutor in Sula’s 2016 testimony. Sula’s latest testimony might have been meant to protect herself in other pending cases where she was not covered by the Witness Protection Program, explained Soriano.
Despite the backtracking, Soriano said the prosecution still has a strong case against Revilla, as Sula had previously testified that the senator’s former staff member, Richard Cambe, had transacted on his behalf and signed the Memorandum of Agreement himself. Why would a trusted staffer do something without the senator’s blessing? Soriano asked. And didn’t Sula also acknowledge that Luy had recorded all the kickbacks Revilla had received?
What is actually more distressing at this point is the glacial pace at which the case proceeds. It’s been five years, and Napoles has yet to face the more serious plunder and graft charges for the PDAF scam. That’s enough time for politics to influence the memory of witnesses and tamper with their testimonies. Surprising—and suspicious—turnarounds such as Sula’s illustrate only too well how, out of the public eye, cases can grow horns and wings, and government prosecutors can suffer loss of memory, as well as actual loss of evidence and witnesses.
In the meantime, the public grows ever more cynical of the capability of the justice system to enact accountability on the influential and powerful, seeing how high-profile cases eventually flounder on the shoals of new political calculations and realignments. Is the Revilla case about to go the same way?
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