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The Napoles list must not be a hit list

Dean Tony La Viña

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This furor cannot, it must not, serve the purposes of a witch hunt

What could have been a moment of clarity – and even a potential moment of redemption – in the saga of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scandal, is starting to look like either a demonstration of the unreliability of verbal testimony alone, or a very dangerous 3-card trick.

Where alleged PDAF scam mastermind and chief accused Janet Lim Napoles promised the state a list of government officials she had involved in her bogus NGO scheme, apparently we now have 4: one shown to President Noynoy Aquino before he personally accepted Napoles’ surrender; an unsigned list given to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima as part of her offer to turn state’s witness; one apparently given by her camp to Senator Panfilo Lacson, which promises the Senate’s “collapse”; and also one offered by jueteng whistleblower Sandra Cam, which is claimed to be based on the Napoles list.

Confused? Well, you are in good company as President Aquino himself has noted inconsistencies in the two lists he would have access to – the surrender and state’s witness list. What he said for two is equally applicable to 4: “one cannot escape the suspicion that instead of trying to clarify matters, (some people) are trying to cloud the whole issue.”

We should keep this caveat in mind, considering that these lists have the potential to wreck (whether deserved or undeserved) lives, careers, and most of all the running of government.

Explaining the discrepancies

In an ideal world, there would be a perfectly rational explanation for the discrepancies between the surrender and state’s witness lists, that Napoles’ recollection of her PDAF scam network has changed – hopefully improved – leading to the second list.

Also ideally (although contradictory), the only list that should matter to the courts of law and public opinion is the list Napoles signed – the surrender list – on the assumption that she could not swear, upon her life and liberty, to the veracity or accuracy of the second list. Equally ideal, there should be rational correspondence between these two lists, and the Lacson and Cam lists, that would allow for analytic comparison and vetting.

Yet it is not an ideal world, and the speculation over the existence of these 4 versions of the “Napoles” list is proving dangerous. So much promise was foisted on this list to finally reveal the true extent of the PDAF corruption, the guilty parties that could be punished either by the courts, legal and public opinion, or the polls.

The truth revealed in this confusion of lists, however, is that it is no slam-dunk, smoking-gun evidence. We cannot build a legal case, let alone the restoration of the integrity of Philippine government, on any of the alleged Napoles lists, none of which can stand on its own.

Her allegations about who worked with her, who received the kickbacks, would have to be corroborated by other witnesses, or by hard evidence. One should also consider how, in her Senate testimony, Napoles proved to be an unwilling, “cannot-recall” witness – which would probably not help her case, or her list(s), should she be summoned to the Senate once more.

My colleague, Christian Laluna, who helped research and write this article, pointed that there is a 5th list in existence – one that may prove to be the most credible, as Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago argued: the proverbial “little black book” of whistleblower Benhur Luy.

It’s not a singular list, but a copy of 20,103 computer files compiled while he was still in Napoles’ employ as finance officer. As Santiago accurately describes them, they are “commercial lists,” actual evidence of the conduct of Napoles’ scheme – hence, the appropriateness of the “little black book” moniker – and not merely testimony from one person’s recollection.

These files were entrusted to the Philippine Daily Inquirer in mid-2013 by Luy’s own parents. And these files also form part of the offer of evidence in the current plunder cases filed in court, as it can be evidence for related and additional cases as well.

While the Napoles list(s) promised, the Luy files actually identify some of the government officials who have received Napoles money, and for which specific purposes. Lawmakers are listed by codename, introducing “Sexy, Tanda, and Pogi” into public lexicon.

Obviously, the Luy list can be used to vet any of the alleged Napoles lists. Yet even if all the Napoles lists failed their respective tests of credibility, the present and future cases for plunder and corruption – as well as our strategies for rooting out pork-based corruption from government – can still proceed from what we’ve learned from Luy.

They can also still proceed from all the other evidence offered by other whistleblowers, together with information dug up by investigators and journalists, analyses and solutions offered by academics and researchers, and efforts of activists and our allies in government.

Prior to the subpoena issued yesterday by Senator TG Guingona, who by the way has once again shown remarkable political leadership on this matter, I have supported the position of Secretary De Lima not to disclose the list before she is done vetting it. I continue to believe that was the right thing for her to do. However, I must ask the question why such assessment is taking so long. This is particularly disturbing if President Aquino, as he claims, gave her the surrender list months ago.

Everyone is not corrupt

Yet the peril from having 4 lists tossed about in the public arena remains, and it is something that can endanger the very reform we seek in government. Any of these lists – and the Luy list, for that matter – implicates a swath of officials in all branches of government, so much so that I do fear a numbing effect from the scope of the scandal.

Lacson spoke of “national security” issues when he said that the disclosure of his copy of the list, or any of the lists, could cause a catastrophic loss of trust in government. My take, however, is that the public may, in utter disillusionment, take a “when everyone is corrupt, no one is corrupt” attitude. This vilifies everyone fairly or unfairly implicated by Napoles in the scheme, but loses all hope of reforming government.

This is highly unfair to both the general body of government officials and the crusade to reform government. What the sordid pork barrel affair should remind us is that corruption is systemic, its roots deep in the structures of government, from the 3 great branches down to petty office politics.

Even officials with otherwise impeccable reputations might be implicated in the mess only because they happen to head the office that handled pork transactions. Determining actual liability will require great discretion in the parsing of the evidence (innocent until proven guilty, after all), a rational activity that is not best served by overriding passion or innuendos whispered from the wings.

Here I must make mention of reports that Budget Secretary Butch Abad is on the list. To reiterate what I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I have known Secretary Abad professionally for 35 years, and can vouch for his integrity as a public official. Contrary to what some believe, I am actually not personally close to Secretary Abad or to his wife Batanes Representative Henedina Abad (founding Dean of the Ateneo School of Government which I now head).

But since I was a student in the Ateneo de Manila, my wife and I have always admired them for their commitment to social justice and good governance. The Abads have always been role models for us, including how they have raised a family of excellent public servants.

We cannot know for sure until the Napoles list (any of them) is publicly disclosed, but if it were to really implicate Abad as an official who mentored Napoles on how to manipulate the PDAF for her own ends, that, to me, would cast grave doubt on the veracity of the list and Napoles’ testimony.

But again, this is because I know Secretary Abad, and can gladly vouch for him if his integrity is questioned – which is what those reports of Abad’s inclusion seem to try to generate: questions and doubt.

Yet this is what the Napoles list threatens to do, in the context of our furor against pork barrel politics: it can cast so much public doubt on the integrity of officials on the list, that it can affect the work they do.

Senators Loren Legarda and Santiago come to mind, for example. Both head Senate committees of major importance to the country, the former on the environment (which mush deal with the serious challenge of climate change) and the latter on foreign affairs (the new military agreement with the United States is on the table). Both have denied strongly their inclusion and I am inclined to believe them.

I must also say the same for Senator Koko Pimentel whom I am sure would have stayed away from this kind of dealings. I know this, observing the man for more than 30 years – first as a family friend, later as an Ateneo de Manila math* student, then as my UP Law classmate, and later as a fellow lawyer, and more lately as a politician.

Imagine if every lawmaker or executive official implicated by Napoles’ state witness offer had to spend so much time defending themselves from public attacks, especially from political opponents, and long before a competent court of law begins assessing Napoles’ testimony. That’s time that could have been spent on legislation or executive action, public service.

Long before a rational analysis of the evidence of guilt and liability, or lack of it, can be made in a properly refereed (and accountable) legal setting, the Napoles list could trigger a heated battle to salvage public images and political or public careers in the highly un-refereed court of public opinion.

It is a battle that will distract from the work of government, and there is still much work to do: the Bangsamoro, mining reform, post-Yolanda recovery and climate change adaptation and mitigation, and the economy all being just the tip of the iceberg.

Moving forward, regardless of the Napoles lists

Make no mistake, however: society needs to have a public discussion about uprooting corruption from government. Last year’s furor over pork barrel served its purpose in mobilizing public opinion, best seen in the effect of pulling pork from the Philippine budget (and making sure that no amount of creativity will reinsert it).

Yet this furor cannot, it must not serve the purposes of a witch-hunt, turning the Napoles list into a hit list. And it is precisely the confusion sown by the existence of 4 seemingly competing versions of the list that makes such a context dangerous. We might be tempted to shoot at shadows, risking collateral damage to governance itself.

I do support calls for the disclosure of all the lists, but stressing that such must be accomplished only in the interest of clarity, resolution, and accountability, not to feed a free-for-all conflict among the implicated, and their political opponents.

Certainly Secretary De Lima will have to disclose either the state’s witness list offered by Napoles (but it would have to be signed) or the surrender list, but preferably both. Perhaps, in the interest of clarity, the Lacson and Cam lists would also be disclosed simultaneously as well.

Yet we must treat them as what they are, not what they seemingly promise to be, and certainly not what they threaten to be.

They, or at least the most credible of the lists, are merely the testimony of one Janet Lim-Napoles, offered in exchange for turning state witness, and which, while coming from the alleged mastermind of the biggest corruption scandal to grace Philippine politics, must nonetheless pass the rigors of vetting and tests of veracity if they are to stand scrutiny in court.

Justice demands no less than a respect for the law and for facts. Any less, and we turn the crusade to reform Philippine politics into a kangaroo court in a free-for-all political brawl. It will reduce us, all 100 million of us, to mere spectators of such a court, outsmarted by a lady and perhaps her masters.

Will we really allow that to happen? –

Follow Dean Tony La Viña on Facebook and on Twitter via @tonylavs.

*Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece said Senator Koko Pimentel was formerly a Physics student. The author has corrected this.

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