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MANILA, Philippines – The year 2015 witnessed significant developments in the investigation and court trial of the pork barrel scandal case – the country’s biggest corruption issue in recent history.
The much-awaited third batch of charges against those implicated in the misuse of their Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel was finally filed in August.
Among those charged were presidential bet and Senator Gregorio Honasan (also the running mate of Vice President Jejomar Binay) and former Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) chief and current administration ally Joel Villanueva.
The filing of charges comes two years after the first two batches of charges were filed back in 2013, just months after the scam was exposed. It was a highly-anticipated filing, brought by the ever-changing deadline set by the Department of Justice (DOJ).
In a podcast interview, Levi Baligod – the former lawyer of star witness Benhur Luy in the serious illegal detention case filed against businesswoman Janet Napoles – said government’s slow action on the case mirrors the ambivalence of the President toward the PDAF investigation.
In defense, then Justice undersecretary Jose Justiniano – who had been deputized by the Ombudsman to act as special prosecutor in the PDAF cases – explained that it was the implicated lawmakers themselves who were to blame for the delay.
Despite the slow progress, one positive development for 2015 included the guilty verdict on Napoles in April on the illegal detention case involving Luy. A Makati Regional Trial Court sentenced Napoles – who surrendered to authorities in August 2013 – to reclusion perpetua or a jail term of up to 40 years.
The decision came just a month after Napoles’ daughter Jeane was reported to have returned to the country. Napoles earlier denied her daughter had returned home.
An investigative report showed Jeane photographed with family members in a children’s party on October 10, 2014. The party was a celebration of the birthday of her cousin Ellie, youngest daughter of Reynald “Jojo” Lim.
Back in the US, where Jeane reportedly lived a luxurious life, the US justice department moved in July to seize Napoles assets – including a unit at the ritzy Ritz-Carlton in Los Angeles estimated to be worth P80 million, a motel near Disneyland, and a Porsche Boxter purchased for the young Napoles.
In, out of detention
The early part of the year saw an improvement in the ongoing plunder cases with the imprisonment of two more individuals implicated in the case: Masbate Governor Rizalina Seachon-Lanete on February 18, and former Association of Philippine Electric Cooperatives (APEC) party-list representative Edgar Valdez on February 25.
They followed the detention of 3 senators – Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr, Jinggoy Estrada, and Juan Ponce Enrile, all arrested and imprisoned a year before.
But one of them – Enrile – managed to gain temporary liberty. The 91-year-old senator, who had been under hospital arrest for more than a year, was allowed in August by the Supreme Court to post bail. (READ: Enrile free for now)
The decision was controversial, with some pointing out the senator was granted bail even before the trial on the merits of the plunder case itself started. The Supreme Court, however, apparently considered two mitigating factors for its decision – Enrile’s old age and his voluntary surrender.
The vote in the High court was 8-4 in favor, with the ponente himself – Associate Justice Lucas Bersamin – reportedly changing his mind several times. (INSIDE TRACK: Behind the SC decision on Enrile’s bail)
In a podcast interview, Baligod said government “became wobbly in pursuing the cases against legislators…because of the approaching 2016 elections.”
We found out that out of the more than 100 legislators mentioned in the Commisison on Audit report that looked into the release of PDAF to questionable NGOs from 2007 to 2009, 86 are running for various positions in the 2016 elections.
At least 10 of them were identified in complaints submitted to the Office of the Ombudsman – including Honasan, senatorial candidate Villanueva, and the detained Seachon-Lanete who’s running for reelection in Masbate.
The complaints, however, were never an issue for their candidacies – except for Seachon-Lanete – since no formal charges had been filed against them.
When asked about scenarios regarding this long-running issue, Justiniano said conviction is unlikely under the present administration.
Given the slow movement of proceedings, the country may really have to wait for the next set of elected public officials to conclude this case. – Rappler.com
Editor’s Note: Months before the May 2016 elections, more names were identified in relation to the case and additional charges were filed. But a number of those who were earlier implicated and arrested were released from detention. In March, the Ombudsman directed the filing of cases against former representatives Rozzano Rufino Biazon (Muntinlupa City), Rodolfo Valencia (1st district of Oriental Mindoro), Marc Douglas Cagas IV (1st district of Davao del Sur), Arrel Olaño (1st district of Davao del Norte), Arthur Pingoy Jr (2nd district of South Cotabato) for their involvement in the PDAF scam.
The Sandiganbayan also ordered the arrest of former Bukidnon representative Candido Pancrudo Jr for conspiring with National Agribusiness Corporation (Nabcor) in the scam. The Sandiganbayan in April however granted bail to Lanete and Valdez. (READ: Court grants bail to Napoles, 2 ex-lawmakers)
Photo credits: Enrile: Ayee Macaraig/Rappler; Napoles: LeAnne Jazul/Rappler.