Over a Barrel

Janet Lim-Napoles' mugshot (Source: Philippine National Police)

Janet Lim-Napoles is the most famous prisoner in the Philippines today. Reporters scramble for every bit of news about her, from her slightest anxiety attacks to her food rations in the highly secured, CCTV-equipped, two-bedroom bungalow in a police camp south of Manila.

Just months ago, she wallowed in a lavish lifestyle, owning high-end SUVs and several houses in gated Makati villages, plus properties in California. She moved in high political circles and presided over a multibillion peso enterprise. But, it turned out, as more than ten whistleblowers have revealed, her business was siphoning off taxpayers’ money to her accounts and those of her partner-senators and congressmen. 

Called the pork barrel queen, she gamed the system very well. She did it by forming several shell non-government organizations that received millions of pesos in legislators’ pork barrel funds. These NGOs were supposed to provide seedlings, among other things, to farmers and help them improve their productivity. She and her team forged signatures of farmer-recipients and kept the money.

Expectations are high that in Aquino’s last three years in office the guilty will be convicted, no matter the rank, and justice will be served.

Napoles was able to do this in connivance with officials from the government agencies that were supposed to implement these projects and, of course, the senators and congressmen. The senators identified by an extensive government audit report and by the whistleblowers as having been part of this fraud include former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, movie actors Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr., and former coup leader Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan. 

Public anger, which is palpable, won’t let the issue die down. For the first time in Aquino’s term, thousands joined a social media-driven protest. While it was against the pork barrel, the march wanted Aquino to correct the wrongs.

President Benigno Aquino III (Source: worldbank.org)

Great expectation

The biggest question now in the minds of many Filipinos is: Will the powerful legislators who lined their pockets with billions of pesos in public funds go to jail? Will they see their comeuppance?

This is the biggest test of Benigno Aquino III’s presidency. He won overwhelmingly on an anti-corruption platform. Under his watch, Chief Justice Renato Corona was impeached for not declaring his true wealth and a former president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was charged with plunder. 

To some, the scenario of locking up senators behind bars seems unimaginable in the Philippines, where top corrupt officials get off the hook. A past president, Joseph Estrada, was convicted of plunder, served his prison sentence in his estate outside Metro Manila, but was pardoned and is now Manila mayor. Another former president, Arroyo, also charged with plunder, is not behind bars but in a government hospital.

But expectations are high that in Aquino’s last three years in office the guilty will be convicted, no matter the rank, and justice will be served. Otherwise, Aquino’s legacy of fighting corruption will be greatly diminished and history will not judge him kindly.  

“All the good that we’ve done, all our achievements will be forgotten,” a ranking government official told Positively Filipino, “if there will be no convictions.”

Janet Lim-Napoles (third from left), accompanied by her lawyer, Atty. Lorna Kapunan (fourth from left), surrenders to Malacañang officials (Photo by: Rodolfo Manabat/Malacañang Photo Bureau/NPPA Images)

To abolish or not

Apart from attaining justice, the President needs to overhaul the pork barrel system or completely do away with it. After all, it has been terribly abused in the past decade, and many say it has encouraged patronage politics. 

Under tremendous public pressure called the “million-people march,” President Aquino, a few days before the protest, abolished the Priority Development Assistance Fund or PDAF, a euphemism for pork barrel. But he kept it in another form, with strict controls and rigorous checks that begin next year. 

However, reeling from intense criticism, Congress decided that the current P25-billion PDAF be given directly to the government agencies in charge of education, health, disaster and emergencies, and employment training. In the past, the menu of choices for pork-barrel projects was so vast that it allowed the likes of Napoles to concoct scams. 

“Congressmen will no longer be able to identify or choose projects,” party-list Rep. Walden Bello said, “which means PDAF even for 2014 is abolished.”

The sentiment in the Senate is the same; a majority of the senators want the pork deleted from the national budget.

Multi-sectoral groups join the Million People March against pork barrel (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Freedom of Information needed

This horrendous scandal has also underlined the importance of the Freedom of Information bill pending in Congress. The lack of transparency in government has enabled this megafraud to take place for many years. Aquino allies are pushing for this legislation although, so far, Aquino has been lukewarm to it.

Already, pundits are saying that the primordial issue in the presidential elections in 2016 will be the plunder of people’s money. Those tainted by the pork barrel scam will have no place in the race—and this is the beginning of the end of their political life. 

President Aquino’s endorsement of candidates will be a strong factor for victory, like in the May 2013 senatorial elections, but only if there is a happy ending to this sordid tale. 


Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites Dañguilan Vitug is one of the Philippines' most accomplished and respected investigative journalists, winning awards and public recognition for her books and reportage on Philippine justice, security, and political affairs. She is the author of the bestselling books, Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court, and its sequel, Hour Before Dawn: The Fall and Uncertain Rise of the Philippine Supreme Court.