Justice delayed may be justice denied, but in these two instances, the country will gladly take it.
The Sandiganbayan last week convicted businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles, former Cagayan de Oro representative Constantino Jaraula, and several former government employees of several counts of graft and malversation, for funneling some P28 million in lawmakers’ pork barrel into ghost projects and bogus nongovernment organizations. Yes, that’s the infamous pork-barrel scam that shook the nation some years ago but whose glacial grind through the judicial process has all but ensured that the monumental racket is hardly remembered today.
Napoles, the alleged mastermind of the P10-billion scam, was also found guilty of plunder in 2018 in a case where her co-accused Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. was acquitted. The other high-profile respondents in this case filed in 2014, former senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Jinggoy Estrada, are out on bail and awaiting the court’s decision.
Also last week, the anti-graft court ordered the forfeiture of P102 million worth of properties amassed by retired Lt. Gen. Jacinto Ligot after declaring them as “unlawfully acquired.” Ligot and four other family members were ordered to hand over condominium units, houses in California, paid-up shares, deposits, investments, a vehicle, and several other real estate assets after they failed to dispute evidence that the assets, acquired between 2001 and 2004, were disproportionate to the general’s lawful income in the same period. The case, filed in 2005, was the offshoot of a lifestyle investigation of retired military officials launched by the Office of the Ombudsman.
The guilty rulings in the two cases are rare and thus welcome—sporadic victories in the seemingly mismatched battle against government corruption. That both cases were filed under previous administrations also says a lot about how long and circuitous the road to justice is, and how government zeal has limped along and even been hijacked for political ends in recent years.
Recall how, on May 5, 2017, following a manifestation by Solicitor General Jose Calida, the Court of Appeals acquitted Napoles of the charge of serious illegal detention filed by her former aide and cousin, Benhur Luy. Shortly after, on May 10, 2017, then Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II announced that his department would reopen the probe into the pork barrel scam, with the possibility of Napoles becoming a state witness. The plan was widely condemned. Said then Senate President Koko Pimentel, a leader of President Duterte’s ruling PDP party: “Do some people in the [Department of Justice] really believe that … Napoles is qualified to be a state witness in the PDAF scam which she herself invented, organized and perpetuated?”
The plan, according to critics, was to have Napoles name opposition lawmakers as among those involved in the multibillion-peso chicanery. Napoles did eventually implicate opposition senators Franklin Drilon, Leila de Lima, and Antonio Trillanes IV in the scam, but nothing came of the belated allegations.
For all the President’s fulminations against corruption and allegedly corrupt people in government, no public official in the league of Enrile, Revilla, or Estrada has been brought to court under his administration. (At one point, the President came out with a list of House members supposedly linked to corruption, but with the caveat that “there is no hard evidence” against them.) The number of cases filed and processed by the Office of the Ombudsman has, in fact, seen a steep decline after retired Supreme Court Justice and Duterte appointee Samuel Martires took over the post from retired Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales. In 2018, his first year in office, Martires filed 739 cases, a stark dip from the 2,513 cases filed in 2017. The number further dropped to 198 in 2019. When the pandemic hit in 2020, the filings dived to a 13-year low, because Martires had asked the Sandiganbayan to cancel the hearings, saying he wanted to give the anti-graft court a chance to catch up on its caseload.
In a congressional hearing on the budget of the Ombudsman, party list Rep. Carlos Zarate pointed out that the plunging numbers could indicate that prosecutors are “less eager” to pursue charges. That perception of unseriousness in battling corruption has translated to a further drop in the country’s ranking in Transparency International’s latest (2020) Corruption Perception Index (CPI). With a score of 34 out of the top score of 100, the Philippines ranked 115th of 180 countries when it comes to corruption, a dip from its 113th ranking in 2019. That is the country’s lowest rank recorded since 2012. A low score, according to the CPI, also shows a government’s less-than-transparent response to the pandemic, which “contributes to a continuing crisis of democracy.”
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.