MANILA,Philippines - The alleged mastermind in the multibillion-peso pork barrel scam for which some influential politicians might spend the rest of their life behind bars wants to turn state witness and has pinned down three senators linked to the anomaly, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima revealed yesterday.
In a press briefing, De Lima said she met with Janet Lim-Napoles Monday night at the Ospital ng Makati and took a “tell-all” sworn statement from the detained businesswoman.
De Lima said a tearful Napoles – her hands clutching a rosary – decided to reveal everything she knows about the scam to buttress the plunder case and other charges set to be filed before the Sandiganbayan against those named in the fund anomaly.
Napoles confirmed the involvement of Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile as well as Senators Ramon Revilla Jr. and Jinggoy Estrada, De Lima said.
The justice chief said she arrived at around 10 p.m. Monday at the hospital to receive Napoles’ sworn statement.
De Lima opted not to reveal the contents of the affidavit pending its verification. She would only say that Napoles gave “really a lot of details.”
De Lima declined to confirm talk that Napoles had tagged 19 more incumbent and former senators, including members of the ruling Liberal Party.
“It would be reckless and irresponsible on our part to share these details to the public without validating and assessing the veracity or truthfulness of her claims. We can always counter-check from documents,” she explained.
Still, she admitted there were “definitely more” lawmakers named by Napoles in her statement.
De Lima said it was agreed during the meeting with Napoles, who was assisted by lawyer Bruce Rivera, that the affidavit or details from it would not be disclosed pending verification by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).
She said investigators would again meet the detained businesswoman for clarificatory questioning and vowed to complete the verification process as soon as possible.
De Lima stressed that Napoles is not yet a state witness as the decision to make her one rests on the Office of the Ombudsman.
It was the Office of the Ombudsman which conducted the preliminary investigation into the pork barrel scam cases.
She explained that the DOJ would only assess Napoles’ qualification as state witness and would submit its recommendation to the anti-graft office for independent evaluation.
“Independently of whether or not she will qualify as state witness, the main objective here of the DOJ and executive department is the search for the truth in this whole issue. That’s our objective in securing Mrs. Napoles because she knows more information than Benhur Luy,” she pointed out.
The DOJ chief maintained that Napoles had agreed to turn state witness in the cases – including the one on the Malampaya Fund scam – for fear of her life.
She said the businesswoman was particularly scared about how the surgery to remove her ovarian cyst – scheduled last night – would turn out.
Napoles, according to De Lima, was also worried about her personal security.
“She (Napoles) realized that the more she remains silent, the more she is at risk. She cited instances of alleged security threats like receiving phone calls,” De Lima bared.
De Lima said it was Napoles who sought a meeting with her through lawyer Rivera. De Lima said she also laid down three conditions before agreeing to meet with the alleged pork barrel scam queen.
“First and foremost, I said I wanted her to tell all – no more, no less. I want all names irrespective of their political affiliations,” she said.
The DOJ chief said she also wanted Napoles not to talk to other people – especially those involved in the cases. She said the businesswoman admitted that attempts by some people to talk to her had left her “confused.”
De Lima said she also made it clear to the businesswoman that there is no guarantee that her application to turn state witness would be approved. She reiterated that the DOJ and ombudsman would evaluate Napoles’ qualification.
And should the ombudsman proceed with the filing of the cases against her before the Sandiganbayan, the DOJ chief acknowledged the possibility of the court rejecting her bid. But she stressed that in such case, Napoles’ testimony would remain useful for the prosecution.
De Lima admitted she had asked for President Aquino’s approval before meeting Napoles.
“I asked clearance from the President before I went to the Ospital ng Makati. I cannot do it on my own with this kind of sensitive issue. I had to get his clearance. He told me there’s nothing wrong if we listen to her and let’s see if it’s worth putting it in a statement,” she revealed.
De Lima said she personally believes Napoles’ cooperation would help the government in its search for truth and justice in the pork barrel scam.
“Gradually, we are completing the whole picture. What Mrs. Napoles offers will be very helpful to us, especially once validated from other sources,” she pointed out.
No request, at first
But Rivera, Napoles’ lawyer, emphasized that she had never requested to be taken in as state witness during her meeting with the justice secretary that lasted for some five hours.
“The meeting was just a conversation, and her statement was taken – that’s it. She talked to Secretary De Lima without that in mind (being a state witness). Maybe she is just afraid of her sickness. Maybe, I cannot surmise but she just wanted to talk to her,” Rivera told reporters yesterday.
He, however, admitted that Napoles executed an affidavit during her conversation with De Lima.
“There was an affidavit, as a lawyer I can’t divulge the content because I was the one who assisted her in executing the affidavit, so I can’t tell you until my principal tells me to do so,” he said.
Rivera also admitted to reporters that he had arranged the meeting between Napoles and De Lima.
“She (Napoles) was trying to reach De lima, matagal na (long time ago). But I don’t know the dates. I personally talked to Secretary De Lima and arranged meetings with her so we can talk and arranged for her to talk to Mrs. Napoles,” Rivera said.
Rivera also admitted that there were threats on Napoles.
“There are security threats, we confirm that. But at this point we don’t know where the threats are coming from. We just have to be careful. They were not just text or calls – in many ways. We can’t delve on the details because those are confidential,” he said.
Return loot first
A lawyer for the whistle-blowers, meanwhile, said the government should accept Napoles as state witness only if she returns the billions of pesos she had stolen from taxpayers.
Stephen Cascolan also cautioned De Lima not to trust Napoles too much.
“With all due respect to the SOJ (secretary of justice), I think the DOJ should proceed very carefully on this matter,” Cascolan said.
“First, veracity and accuracy of (Napoles’) sworn statement should be made in coordination with those who have personal knowledge – the existing witnesses. Second, DOJ should hurdle the problem of lack of credibility and her manifested ‘selective memory.’ Her testimony might be material but is her credibility reparable?” the lawyer told The STAR.
“Third, considering the risks involved in taking her in, should we not require her to return all stolen public funds first? Yes, we want convictions but we also want wealth recovery,” he said.
“Last, considering that DOJ cannot make (Napoles) a state witness or an excluded respondent, it would be prudent if the last say on the matter would be the ombudsman’s,” Cascolan added.
Cascolan’s clients – Marina Sula, Arlene Baltazar and Simonette Briones – had all worked for Napoles, and testified against her.
They are the second batch of whistle-blowers who followed the footsteps of main whistle-blower Benhur Luy.
Cascolan said it was difficult to speculate on why Napoles suddenly decided to jump ship months after denying knowledge of the scam during a Senate Blue Ribbon committee hearing.
“It’s difficult to speculate but it is actually the most practical option. Her back is against the wall, she is facing a non-bailable offense and the Filipino people’s wrath. Her family is also about to be included in the charges. Her ‘tell all’ could be her way of counting her losses and protecting her family,” Cascolan said.
For his part, Luy’s lawyer Raji Mendoza said he wants to talk to De Lima about the recent development, as he and his client were not informed of the DOJ’s move.
As principal witness, Luy detailed Napoles’ transactions with the lawmakers and with different government agencies. Luy had also divulged how government officials would use ghost projects to pocket the people’s money.
“Although we defer to the secretary of justice when it comes to the prosecution strategy, meron pa rin akong agam-agam (I still have doubts). We are not sure if it (Napoles as state witness) should be welcomed or not,” Mendoza told The STAR in a separate interview.
Mendoza said he does not want to make assumptions as to why Napoles now sings a different tune.
“I cannot make justifications yet because I don’t know what she has to offer. But we’d like to seek audience from the secretary of justice for guidance and direction,” Mendoza said.
Like Mendoza, Luy also had misgivings. “He asked me, why attorney, why do they need ma’am Janet?” Mendoza said quoting Luy.
Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr. of Dasmariñas City in Cavite, for his part, welcomed Napoles’ agreeing to tell all.
“Her story would be a bombshell, in fact the mother of all bombshells. She is the most important player in this unfortunate misuse of tens of billions in taxpayers’ money,” he said.
He said based on the testimonies of whistle-blower witnesses who are former employees of Napoles, “she dealt with and gave kickbacks to lawmakers who allocated their funds to foundations she supposedly organized for the purpose of handling pork barrel funds.”
“If her former employees handled the funds, it was allegedly upon her direction,” he said.
He added that Napoles’ statements would pin down lawmakers involved in the scam, some of whom continue to deny they were involved in the misuse of their funds.
Barzaga, who has not given any of his pork barrel fund allocation to any non-government organization, has urged COA chief Grace Pulido-Tan to prosecute auditors who are involved in or allowed irregularities in the use of lawmakers’ funds.
He said some auditors were obviously in cahoots with those behind the scam. (From Philstar.com)