Pork barrel patsy?
Largely unremarked is last week’s rejection by the Sandiganbayan of lawyer Gigi Reyes’ petition for temporary liberty. It suggests that the woman who in her heyday was known as “the 25th senator” will languish in detention for an indefinite period—unless, backed by her hotshot attorney Estelito Mendoza, she is able to convince the Supreme Court to grant her plea for a writ of habeas corpus and a “speedy, fair and public trial.”
Reyes, former chief of staff of former Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile, has been held at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City since July 2014, when she was ordered arrested by the antigraft court for supposedly facilitating the release of her principal’s Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to dubious non-government organizations in exchange for kickbacks. She is in a prominent company of prisoners that include the pork barrel queen herself, Janet Lim Napoles, and another lawyer, Richard Cambe, ex-chief of staff of Sen. Ramon Revilla Jr., except for one major difference: The two others have been convicted of the crime of plunder as Revilla’s corespondents; she is yet a suspect.
The P10-billion pork barrel scam was—is—a high-water mark in corruption. But it is apparently no longer top of mind among Filipinos in the throes of fear and frustration over the COVID-19 pandemic and the administration’s continuing inability to mount a clear and reasonable response, let alone present a coherent vaccination program. The crime that once captured national attention has lost the sharp edge of urgency and bids fair to go the way of other monumental crimes against the people (the Marcos cases, for example) that seem to have fallen by the wayside. Time, ideally of the essence, has been robbed of its essence.
Of the three then sitting senators indicted—Enrile, Revilla, and Jinggoy Estrada—only Revilla has seen a definitive, though questionable, outcome. He was acquitted of plunder by the Sandiganbayan’s special first division in December 2018: pronounced not guilty of receiving P224.5 million in kickbacks, yet ordered to return P124.5 million to the national treasury. Unthinkably, he was voted back into the Senate in 2019 despite being charged with 16 other counts of graft for which he is out on bail and—let no one forget—despite not having returned the money. That’s how it goes in these parts: Even convicted child rapists, or unrepentant progeny of the deposed dictator, make it to the legislature.
And there’s often a patsy in the picture. Also indicted in the pork barrel scam are a number of the senators’ chief aides and staff members. Revilla’s ex-chief of staff Cambe—who, according to principal whistleblower Benhur Luy, arranged for and collected his boss’ “commissions” along with his own from Napoles’ JLN Corp. office—is now doing time at the national penitentiary.
Estrada himself has also been out on bail since September 2017 because, per the Sandiganbayan’s special fifth division, he did not appear to be “the main plunderer.” He is charged with receiving P183.7 million in kickbacks from the release of his pork barrel to Napoles NGOs, which, according to witnesses, were collected from the JLN Corp. office by his then-deputy chief of staff Pauline Labayen. Last heard from, Labayen had flown the coop and was living life incognito in the United States. Last reported, the prosecution had rested its case in Estrada’s case and the defense was to start its presentation of evidence.
Enrile, who, like Estrada, failed to make the grade in his run for reelection to the Senate, is accused of receiving kickbacks to the tune of P172.8 million from projects funded by his PDAF. Per the deposition of the socialite Ruby Tuason, now a state witness, she received the money from Napoles and coursed it through Reyes. Enrile, who was put on hospital arrest after his surrender in 2014, was granted bail by the Supreme Court in 2015 on humanitarian grounds—described by law experts as an unprecedented move. Furthermore, the high court has also granted his request for a “bill of particulars” requiring the prosecution to specify the evidence against him to the smallest detail. His trial is still up in the air.
Thus have the plunder cases been put firmly on the back burner of public attention.
Reyes has sought temporary liberty a number of times—the most recent petition to the antigraft court citing the danger posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to her health and well-being—all to no avail. To think she was once a major force, privy to and/or instrumental in critical developments in the Senate by dint of her association with her ex-boss. Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, since gone on to that Congress in the Sky, publicly urged Reyes to spill the beans and turn state witness. Maybe she should, or she’ll just be a patsy, fodder for schadenfreude.
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