PDAF scam: 5 questions on Dennis Cunanan

Ayee Macaraig

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Cunanan's denial of receiving kickbacks, the timing of his testimony, and his background are the top questions on the TRC chief at Thursday's Senate hearing

MANILA, Philippines – “Unbelievable and utterly incredible” is how Technology Resource Center (TRC) director general Dennis Cunanan described the defense of senators Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr and Jinggoy Estrada in the pork barrel scam. (Read Cunanan’s affidavit in full below.) 

The first government official to come forward about the scam minced no words in debunking the denials of the two senators in his affidavit, which he will elaborate on in a Senate hearing on Thursday, March 6. Watch it live on Rappler, here.

Presenting endorsement letters, project summaries and proposals, and memoranda of agreement, Cunanan argued that the lawmakers played an active role in dealing with non-governmental organizations of supposed mastermind Janet Lim Napoles, from endorsement right up to the liquidation of their projects.

Yet even before he takes his oath, the potential state witness in the biggest corruption scandal in Philippine history also faces questions on his own actions. Senators and observers raised concerns about Cunanan’s assertions, background, and the timing of his testimony.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said Cunanan is the subject of “the worst demolition job” compared to past witnesses. Yet, like in the testimony of self-confessed bagman Ruby Tuason, lawmakers said it is crucial to test his credibility and value.

Here are 5 questions on Dennis Cunanan:

1. Did he receive kickbacks in the scam?

A key question that arose ahead of Cunanan’s testimony is whether or not he received kickbacks. He denied this in media interviews and said in his affidavit, “I am not in any way involved in what now appears to be the anomalous PDAF funded projects.”

The statement directly contradicts the pronouncement of principal whistleblower Benhur Luy, who first exposed the multi-billion-peso scandal.

In his affidavit of September 12, 2013, Luy said he saw Cunanan and other heads of implementing agencies receive a 10% commission from Napoles, along with Antonio Ortiz, Cunanan’s boss at the then Technology and Livelihood Resource Center (TLRC). (READ: Navigating the PDAF scam affidavits)

Screenshot from Benhur Luy's Sept. 12, 2013 affidavit

Appointed by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Cunanan was deputy director general of TLRC from 2004 until he was promoted to director general in January 2010. President Benigno Aquino III re-appointed him in July 2010. He went on leave when the scam broke out last year. 

De Lima said that, assuming Cunanan benefited from the scam, this does not disqualify him as state witness. The justice secretary though has not spoken about the implications of Cunanan’s statement on the prosecution’s case given that it contradicts the affidavit of Luy, the star witness.

Incidentally, Luy dropped Levito Baligod as his counsel after the lawyer accepted Cunanan as his client. Luy and De Lima will join Cunanan in the Senate inquiry.

Senator Grace Poe wants to verify Cunanan’s statement through a lifestyle check. The TRC chief said he is open to scrutiny amid allegations he did not declare a house in an upscale Quezon City subdivision and other properties in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN).


2. Why did he verify signatures through calls?

Cunanan said he personally called the legislators’ officially listed landline numbers to verify their signatures in pork barrel documents. He called it a TRC practice born out of “prudence and extreme caution.”

The witness said he talked to Revilla and Estrada, and the then chief of staff of Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile, lawyer Jessica Lucila “Gigi” Reyes. He said the phone conversations and frequent visits of congressmen and conduits to the TRC “caused undue and unbearable pressure upon us.”

For Cunanan, the calls disproved the senators’ primary defense that their signatures were forged. The respondent-senators questioned his method of verification.

Estrada said: “How can I verify a document, a signature in a document which I haven’t seen? Over the phone? That’s not the proper course of action. He should have gone to my office or written me.”

Revilla had a similar line: “Kahit sino sigurong tao, p’wedeng magpanggap na Bong Revilla doon eh. Maski siya nagsabi ‘di niya ako nakilalang personal. By phone? It’s impossible.” (Any person can pretend to be Bong Revilla. He admits he doesn’t know me personally?)

Members of the blue ribbon committee could ask the TRC chief in the hearing if he has records to show that the phone calls happened. 

CUNANAN'S LAWYER. Formerly the lawyer of principal whistleblower Benhur Luy, Levito Baligod is now counsel for Cunanan. Rappler sources say a difference in strategy was a factor in their split.

3. What is the value of his testimony?

Cunanan devoted a lengthy part of his affidavit to responding to the counter-affidavits of Revilla, Estrada, and Enrile.

Cunanan presented documents showing that, contrary to the senators’ denials that they endorsed Napoles NGOs, they did exactly this, and even vouched for the legitimacy of the NGOs. This a point that Commission on Audit Chairperson Grace Tan raised in a debate with Estrada during budget hearings last year

Cunanan also supported the statement of other heads of implementing agencies in a previous hearing that the senators even signed the NGOs’ liquidation documents.

He had an interesting observation: “A comparison of the letters originating from Sen Revilla and Estrada shows that they are strikingly similar in format and language…. This clearly shows that the drafts of the said documents were apparently prepared by one and the same person and group of persons, thus supporting the theory that what happened with the PDAF-funded projects of Sen Revilla and Estrada was part of a grand conspiracy to plunder public funds.”

De Lima and senators Francis Escudero and Alan Peter Cayetano said Cunanan’s testimony is valuable as he is the first government official to testify and give a direct link to the two senators.

4. Does he have no responsibility for the scam?

Cunanan took great lengths to explain that he played a mere “perfunctory and ministerial” role in the approval of the pork barrel projects, saying Ortiz “systematically limited and restricted” his involvement.

He also said the TRC had “no choice” but to release the funds because the lawmakers “dictated and imposed” their projects on the agency.

Cunanan said he is not to blame that the TRC did not hold a public bidding or negotiated procurement as required by law because Ortiz told the management that this only applies to infrastructure projects, civil projects, and the procurement of supplies.

“Because of the fact that I did not know any better, not being a lawyer, I accepted the said explanation in good faith as did most of us at TRC. We had no reason to doubt the same at that time,” he said.

In a previous hearing, senators admonished heads of implementing agencies and said there was no excuse for the oversight that led to the loss of taxpayers’ money. 

5. Why did he become a witness only now?

Cunanan first spoke about the scam last year in a sworn statement submitted to the National Bureau of Investigation. Senators also pointed out that he was present in one of the first hearings of the committee.

Revilla and Estrada question the timing of the justice department’s decision to make him a “provisional state witness” months later.

Cunanan’s admission as witness also revived the incident where the Civil Service Commission found that he was appointed executive director of the Commission on Higher Education after allegedly passing himself off as a graduate of the University of the Philippines. He later resigned.

His lawyer though denied that Cunanan lied about his credentials.

Newsbreak reports on the incident in 2004 described Cunanan as “one of President Arroyo’s staunch campaign supporters” and a former staffer of then Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr.

With all the questions on Cunanan’s testimony, Senate blue ribbon committee chairman Teofisto “TG” Guingona III vowed to give him a chance to speak and prove his credibility.

“We will really scrutinize the testimony of Mister Cunanan.” – Rappler.com 

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