HOLY SPIRIT-LED? A crucifix sits atop the shelf hanging over the office table of lawyer Stephen David, lead counsel for Janet Lim Napoles. All photos by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler
MANILA, Philippines – There is a foot-long crucifix catching the attention of visitors to the David Cui-David Buenaventura and Ang Law Office, whose lawyers handle the plunder and graft cases of Janet Lim Napoles, the alleged pork barrel scam mastermind.
It is an odd group with lead counsel Stephen David occasionally quoting scripture during chance interviews.
But it is no secret that even their client is a staunch religious woman – regularly hearing Mass, paying for the school fees of would-be priests, and donating big sums to the Catholic Church.
David even claims Napoles prays the rosary 2,000 times a day. He said a group of priests was among those who urged him to take on Napoles as client.
In a casual group conversation with reporters after her bail hearing, Napoles extended her palm and showed her rosary to the group.
She was holding on to the rosary during the hearing while occasionally reading through a prayer book.
"Bigay ito ni Pope (This was given by the Pope)," she said of the rosary. Napoles was referring to Pope John Paul II.
While strongly religious, Napoles allegedly defrauded the government of millions of pesos meant for development and livelihood projects supposed to benefit poor rural communities in the province.
She has been indicted for plunder and 42 counts of graft – the most number of graft cases among all accused over the scam – before the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan.
Napoles has been painted as the evil "Madame" who used even her own employees and relatives as dummies and signatories in documents related to her illegal transactions with government. This way, the scam could not be easily traced back to her.
A friendlier Napoles
A year since her surrender to no less than President Benigno Aquino III, Napoles has changed in terms of her relations with the press.
Napoles is still largely seen as the mastermind behind an elaborate scheme diverting massive amounts from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) of lawmakers to fictitious projects of non-governmental organizations she controlled.
Given the gravity of her offense, it would naturally be hard for her to make light of things. But she does so occasionally nowadays. For instance, while in court, she's friendlier and warmer toward the media. She smiles at reporters who catch her eye even while proceedings are ongoing. She even responds to questions from select reporters, including questions about her rosary.
She is also particularly chatty with her escorts from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) in Taguig City, where she is currently detained.
She's learning the art of flattery – a tactic often used by her counsel David with reporters at the anti-graft court.
"Ang gaganda niyo naman. Usap tayo mamaya (You're all so pretty. Let's talk later)," Napoles once told another group of reporters. The conversation never happened, although her weekly appearances during her bail hearing have made her more comfortable speaking with the media.
Lanee Cui-David, wife of Stephen David, and also one of Napoles' lawyers, denied coaching their client in personal relations. She said that is how Napoles has always been – "simple, jolly, and kind."
Before November 2013 when the team took on Napoles as their client, Cui-David would have had second thoughts. The image of Napoles was formed only by media reports that portrayed her as the woman who had people at her beck and call.
BRAINS. Lawyer Lanee Cui-David is seen by her co-partners in the law firm as the brains behind their strategy in Janet Lim Napoles' plunder and graft cases
A crying son broke a mother's heart
It was Napoles' son who broke the heart of Cui-David and eventually made her agree with her husband to represent Napoles in court.
Over the course of the year, there has been loose talk that Napoles was merely used to shift focus from many other private dealers in the misuse of PDAF who transacted with more lawmakers, including those allied with the administration.
Napoles is said to control only 8 of the 82 NGOs that received PDAF and which had been tagged by the Commission on Audit (COA) as irregular.
CHALLENGE, GROWTH. Lawyer Dennis Buenaventura says the Napoles cases provide him an opportunity for growth
Holy Spirit as lead counsel
David, David-Cui, and Buenaventura form a formidable team; their support for each other is evident.
David performs well inside a court room, eliciting laughter even from the justices themselves with his theatrical manner of questioning.
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