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Janet Napoles and the unraveling of the pork barrel scandal


To the international press, the biggest news story to come out of the Philippines this year was super typhoon Haiyan, or Yolanda in these parts. The strongest storm to hit land ever recorded, Yolanda killed more than 6,000 people and laid waste to vast tracts of land in several islands of the central Philippines.
 
But to many Filipinos, the pork barrel issue arguably eclipsed all the other big news events this year, not only for its national impact but also for its consequences. What started as a family dispute over money has unexpectedly overturned a system of political patronage that persisted for decades, with an awakened citizenry actively scrutinizing public funds while making sure that the culprits get punished.
 
How did the story unravel from start to unfinished business? Here’s a rundown.
 
The tipping point: Benhur Luy’s detention
 
NBI agents escorted pork barrel scam whistleblowers Benhur Luy (in bulletproof vest) and Merlina Suñas in Manila on October 3, 2013. Luy and Suñas, along with two other whistleblowers, filed plunder raps against 22 individuals at the Office of the Ombudsman for alleged misuse of the P900-M Malampaya Fund. Danny Pata
 
In a candid and sometimes comic testimony at the Senate, the whistleblower detailed how his cousins Janet Lim-Napoles and Reynaldo Lim kept him in a room for three months after suspecting him of double-dealing. Agents from the National Bureau of Investigation rescued Luy in March and filed serious illegal detention charges against the Lim siblings, a case that exposed the tenuous relations between the NBI and the Department of Justice. Although widely reported, the “kidnapping” story would not gain public significance until it was linked to a newspaper’s explosive revelation several months later.
 
 
The exposé: Philippine Daily Inquirer’s exclusive story
 
In July, the country’s largest newspaper ran a series of special reports detailing allegations about a multibillion pork barrel scam involving Napoles and several lawmakers. The reports were based largely on revelations from Luy, who had become a whistleblower along with other former employees of Napoles after the falling-out over their apparently anomalous deals. Napoles denied the stories, and claimed that her family’s fortune came from legitimate business enterprises.
 
 
The evidence: COA’s special audit report
 
The following month, the Commission on Audit provided official proof of what had earlier seemed like an unverified news story, when it released a voluminous report about ghost projects and dubious NGOs during the administration of then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Many of the groups linked to Napoles were shown to have cornered multimillion projects from various government agencies.
 
The special audit report also exposed conflict of interest among many lawmakers regarding the use of their Priority Development Assistance Fund, commonly known as pork barrel because of their use as political largesse to ensure votes during elections. Senators are entitled to P200 million each in PDAF every year, while members of the House of Representatives can get P70 million each. The COA report sparked public outrage that would lead to an unprecedented protest action later.
 
 
The circus: Jeane’s photos and the surrender of Janet Napoles

With a lot of public attention focused on Janet Napoles, it did not help when photos of her daughter Jeane Napoles wearing expensive outfits and glamming it up with Hollywood celebrities got shared widely on the internet. Many taxpayers fumed at the possibility that their hard-earned salaries were funding the lavish lifestyle of the Napoles family, and the clamor to penalize her grew by the day.
 
 
The end game came for Janet Napoles when an arrest warrant was issued against her and her brother for the serious illegal detention of Luy. After a futile police search, she surrendered to President Aquino in Malacañang and was placed in a secluded detention facility in Laguna, with media hordes following her every move.
 
After her surrender to President Aquino, Janet Lim-Napoles was first brought to the Philippine National Police headquarters in Camp Crame before she was transferred to Fort Sto. Domingo in Laguna. GMA News
 
The uprising: Million People March
 
They were mostly from the middle class, and their numbers didn’t exactly reach a million, but the multitude that flocked to Luneta for a protest picnic during a holiday in August was still the largest expression of public discontent since Aquino was elected in 2010 on the strength of his anti-corruption platform. 
 
Leaderless and careful not to voice out anti-PNoy sentiments, most of the protesters focused on the demand to remove the pork barrel in the wake of the COA report and the alleged P10-billion scam orchestrated by Napoles. Seen as a huge source of corruption, the pork barrel issue united a wide cross-section of society, fueled intensely by endless sharing of information on social media.
 
The accused: Plunder charges vs. 3 senators
 
Benhur Luy said Napoles’ staff had dubbed them Tanda, Sexy, and Pogi—aliases that had the gallery snickering during the Senate hearing on the pork barrel scam. But it was no laughing matter when plunder charges were filed against Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, and Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. at the Ombudsman in September for allegedly pocketing hundreds of millions worth of kickbacks from their PDAF allocations that went to Napoles NGOs.
 
Janet Napoles was named as the mastermind in the alleged scam, which also implicated five former House members and more than 30 other government officials and employees. Among those facing charges of malversation of public funds was former Enrile chief of staff Gigi Reyes, whose emotional letter became one more sub-plot in an already convoluted narrative full of spicy intrigues.
 
 
The rebound: What’s DAP?
 
Defending himself, Senator Estrada turned the tables on the Aquino administration when he revealed that senators who voted to convict then-Chief Justice Renato Corona in his impeachment trial last year were given additional PDAF allocations. Budget Sec. Butch Abad said the releases were part of the Disbursement Allocation Program, designed to fast-track government spending and spur economic growth. He asserted that the funds had nothing to do with the Corona trial, but despite the denial, Estrada’s ploy managed to cast doubt on the Aquino government’s integrity.
 
 
The decision: SC declares pork unconstitutional
 
Acting on several petitions, the Supreme Court in November declared the PDAF unconstitutional, a resounding victory for anti-pork barrel advocates. This was bad news for members of the bicameral Congress, but they had company in their misery: the high court also struck down the discretionary portion of the Malampaya funds, the palace-controlled government share from the natural gas project in Palawan.
 
 
The fallout: Pork-less budget in 2014
 
For Congress, at least, but not for the executive branch, which retains lump-sum appropriations at the disposal of the President. Local government units from the provincial down to the barangay level also have discretionary funds that, although modest in scale, still guarantee voter loyalty for small-town politicians who provide “financial assistance” to constituents. And in the third branch, questions have been raised about the Judiciary Development Fund, which the Supreme Court maintains is not part of the pork barrel system.
 
 
What to expect in 2014
 
From the legislative branch, the action has shifted to the judiciary, where various courts are busy working on complaints related to the pork barrel scandal.
 
At the Office of the Ombudsman, prosecution teams are poring over documents and looking for evidence that will pin down the guilty ones in the alleged scam. 
 
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is expected to resume its hearings on the petitions against the DAP on January 28.
 
As for Napoles, the tightly guarded Fort Sto. Domingo in Sta. Rosa, Laguna serves as her temporary quarters while awaiting trial for the Luy illegal detention case. Despite a much-awaited appearance at the Senate, she has remained tight-lipped about the pork barrel scandal, and the public may only get to hear her side once the Ombudsman makes a decision on the charges against her. —KG, GMA News
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