Unless necessity invents another excuse, the controversial businesswoman at the center of the pork barrel scandal will appear at the Senate today (Thursday), not as a visiting privileged guest but as adverse witness in a blue ribbon committee inquiry. Janet Lim-Napoles, the alleged mastermind or principal operator behind the P10-billion pork barrel scam, likely won’t confront any of the first three senators implicated in the controversy during the hearing; nevertheless, the possibility of legal or emotional fireworks in a packed Senate hall remains potent indeed.
The good news is, the Senate has shown that it can handle spectacle. Out of dozens of memorable examples, let us cite only one: the blue ribbon committee hearings of 2000, when Gov. Chavit Singson stunned the nation by turning against the president at the time, his former friend Joseph Estrada. Despite the unmistakable circus-like atmosphere that enveloped the Senate like cheap perfume, the committee still managed to ferret out crucial truths about the centralization, right in Malacañang, of the illegal numbers game “jueteng.”
The bad news is, the Senate—regardless of what it does—is guaranteed to have a spectacle on its hands today. And even if Napoles consistently maintains her innocence, and she is of course presumed innocent unless proven guilty, her mere presence, perhaps in front of some of those very senators she may have socialized or even done business with, will attract massive public attention.
Given certain realities, perhaps the only real drama in today’s hearing would come in the beginning, when Napoles arrives, is shown her seat possibly opposite that of her accusers, takes her oath, and then, for the first but not the last time, invokes her right against self-incrimination.
If we were to base our expectations solely on Napoles’ visit to the Inquirer last August, where she came across as both determined and unprepared, feisty and vulnerable, voluble and reticent, the businesswoman might take the committee hearing by storm. (And in that case the Senate may want to publish the transcript of the hearing on its website.) But now she is in detention, facing the prospect not only of jail time for serious illegal detention but outright plunder. She may prove economical with her answers.
As the Senate’s own history has shown, however, some of the most consequential answers may be provoked by unexpected questions. Again, to cite just one example: The revelation (during his impeachment trial) that Estrada had opened a bank account under the false name of Jose Velarde came from a mere “clarificatory question,” directed at banking executive Clarissa Ocampo.
So a senator asking Napoles pointblank whether she used fictitious projects or fake organizations to siphon off Priority Development Assistance Fund allocations may get categorical denials; a more indirect kind of questioning may prompt Napoles to divulge important information as yet unknown or unrevealed.
What is at stake here?
On the personal level: Every citizen is granted the right to his or her day in court. Whether Napoles acknowledges it or not, this appearance before the Senate is an exercise of that guaranteed right, understood in its broadest sense. Of course the Senate is not a court (except during an impeachment trial), but appearing before it is an unequalled opportunity to be heard, to clear one’s name. She should seize the chance to disprove the accusations against her—if she can.
Here’s a specific example. She said her lucrative, legitimate businesses explain her wealth, but in her visit to the Inquirer she declined to even name the coal business in Indonesia. Surely the Senate hearing is the proper venue to disclose that kind of information.
On the social level: We all need to piece together the true narrative that explains the scam; we need to understand exactly how corruption of such massive scale is made possible. One major piece of the puzzle involves Napoles’ business as conducted through her own nongovernment organizations. Senators at the hearing can use the occasion to have her explain in full, for the first time, what it is exactly that JLN Corp. does.
If she’s hiding something, it will be difficult to keep everything straight. That won’t be a problem, however, if she decides to tell all.