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MANILA, Philippines – For Senator Jinggoy Estrada, what others call the worst corruption scandal in recent Philippine history is nothing but a gambit to derail the opposition’s chances in 2016.
This is how the embattled senator laid out his defense as he submitted his counter-affidavit on the multi-billion pork barrel scam before the Office of the Ombudsman on Thursday, January 9.
In a statement Thursday, Estrada summed up his response, again denying that he received millions in taxpayers money from alleged scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles. The senator said he did not acquire ill-gotten wealth from his pork barrel or Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). (VISIT: Pork Tales: A story of corruption)
“I believe that these are nothing more than a high-level political ploy to undermine the opposition of which I am part in light of the coming 2016 national elections,” Estrada said.
In a plunder complaint filed before the Ombudsman last September, former Napoles aides and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) accused Estrada of receiving P183,793,750 in kickbacks, the second highest commissions a lawmaker allegedly received. Senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr supposedly got the highest kickbacks.
Estrada, Revilla, and Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile face a plunder complaint for allegedly siphoning off their PDAF to Napoles’ fake non-governmental organizations in exchange for kickbacks. (VISIT: Pork Tales: Cast of Characters)
Estrada is a member of the opposition United Nationalist Alliance founded by Vice President Jejomar Binay and his father, former President now Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, and his co-accused Enrile. Senator Estrada is reported to be eyeing the vice presidency in 2016 while Binay has declared his presidential bid.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Commission on Audit (COA) Chairperson Grace Pulido Tan though repeatedly denied that their investigation was politically motivated, saying administration allies have also been implicated.
“Sen Estrada lamented that the charges leveled against him are not supported by hard facts and evidence, but merely by bare allegations of secondhand information, hearsay, malicious suspicion and speculations,” his office said.
Estrada also said that the whistleblowers had admitted having no personal knowledge of the supposed transaction between him and Napoles.
“Witnesses for the complainant confessed under oath in one of the Senate inquiries of their extensive falsification of documents and forgery of signatures,” he said.
It was the same argument Enrile raised in his own counter-affidavit. The senators were referring to the statement of principal whistleblower Benhur Luy during a Senate hearing in September 2013. Luy said then that he and other former Napoles employees would forge signatures of lawmakers upon the orders of Napoles, who supposedly got authorization from the legislators.
Luy and other former Napoles aides have said that Estrada got kickbacks from his resigned appointments secretary Pauline Labayen and Ruby Tuason, who either fetched the cash from Napoles’ office or received cash deliveries in their homes. Napoles’ former finance officer, Luy recorded the release of the alleged kickbacks.
Luy even testified that he visited the Senate office of a senator he dubbed “Sexy,” a supposed reference to Estrada. Luy said Napoles’ staff used the codename to refer to a senator who was fat but had lost weight. Other ex-Napoles aides also said they saw Napoles meeting with Estrada during her parties.
Estrada has been photographed in parties with Napoles but said she was just an acquaintance he met through his wife.
‘COA, agencies should have stopped us’
In his counter-affidavit, Estrada reiterated his stand that the COA and the implementing agencies are to blame for any misuse of the PDAF.
“Had there been any objections or problem with respect to the endorsements made for the NGOs, I should have received word from the implementing agency or the COA which conducts post-audits of the projects. I received none,” Estrada said.
Estrada pointed to the COA statement in its special audit report where it said that it is the implementing agency’s responsibility “to look into the feasibility of the project proposals and the qualifications of the NGOs proposed to be involved in the projects.”
Estrada insisted that he had no hand in implementation, and that his participation was limited to identifying projects.
He called his role in the process “recommendatory at best,” saying his endorsement was based on “a limited list of duly and previously accredited NGOs…with the choice of NGO still left to the implementing agency.”
“These endorsements merely reflected the choice of intended project beneficiaries and was based on the willingness of the NGO to undertake the chosen project, and subject to compliance with existing accounting and auditing rules and regulations,” Estrada said.
Yet in a budget hearing in November, Tan pointed out to him that all persons found to be involved in the disbursement of the fund bear responsibility. Tan said then that his staff signed memoranda of agreement vouching for the legitimacy of the NGOs he recommended.
Tan said, “So it’s not merely an endorsement from your end recommending the NGO to be a partner but also a positive act by contract. That, to us, is indication of your participation in the disbursement of the money given to the NGO.”
The COA chief added, “I think it was your representative [who signed the MOA] but you had a letter designating your staff.”
‘No cause to charge staff but...’
Estrada also defended Labayen, saying “there is no probable cause to hold her for plunder.” Labayen was among the 38 charged for plunder in the first batch of cases over the scam. She has since resigned and reportedly went into hiding.
Yet Estrada implied that he should not be held responsible for any lapses of his staff.
“At no time did I instruct or persuade any of my staff to commit and participate in any illegal act, specifically in any irregular and unlawful transaction involving my PDAF allocation, nor did I order or influence them to receive any commission, kickbacks, or rebates from Napoles, Benhur Luy, and their associates,” Estrada said.
This is not the first time the senator dragged politics into the corruption issue.
In a privilege speech in September, he blasted the Aquino administration, the COA, and Aquino allies. Instead of responding to the charges against him, he declared, “Selective justice is injustice.”
While he is facing investigation over the pork barrel scam, Estrada is also under fire for allocating his P100 million out of his 2014 PDAF to Manila, where his father is mayor. – Rappler.com