Enrile Charged with 'Plunder' by Philippine Government

The filing of corruption charges Monday against some of the Philippines' most prominent lawmakers is an extraordinary event in the country's history, involving some of its biggest and previously most untouchable political names.

Three senators, Juan Ponce Enrile, Jose "Jinggoy" Estrada and Ramon "Bong" Revilla Jr, were formally accused of "plunder" by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima.

The naming of Enrile, 89, the senate minority leader, stunned the public. He is arguably the most important power broker in the country over the last 50 years. An architect of Martial Law when he was the late President Ferdinand Marcos's defense secretary, he later helped lead the rebellion that ousted his former boss. He has been associated with renegade military officers and opaque business dealings, has never been charged with a crime and has been widely seen as too powerful to face a court of law.

Enrile was hospitalized with high blood pressure hours ahead of the charges being filed. He proclaimed his innocence in a statement, calling the investigation into the case "incomplete, hasty, and partial."

At least five sitting or former members of the House of Representatives were also charged with various crimes related to corruption in what de Lima said was the "initial batch" of formal cases to grow out of a massive and growing scandal related to the diversion of P10 billion of so-called pork barrel funds by lawmakers and their accomplices.

Details started to leak two months ago concerning the vast wealth that businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles had amassed including reportedly 28 houses and a US$2 million condominium in Los Angeles as well as cars, watches and an array of luxury items. The money came from pork barrel kickbacks.

Testimony in hearings said her staff dealt with so much cash on a daily basis that it filled her private vault and had to be stored in her bathtub.

The case appears to demonstrate President Benigno S. Aquino's determination to clean out the stables. Long characterized as a cautious reformer, Aquino has moved slowly to reform the government tendering process but his efforts over the three years he has been in office often seemed more aimed at putting his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in jail in what critics call a political vendetta.

The way the pork barrel scandal has unfolded, with the NBI and the Commission on Audit both working secretly on it for months, it is almost certain that the president's office was kept fully abreast of the affair and had ample time to prepare for the storm.

At least six senators have been named in an investigation by the Commission on Audit, along with a total of 26 congressmen and various officials and private citizens, leaving the electorate in a mounting fury over what is widely seen as outright theft of money meant to help the poor.

In all, the charges, formally filed by the National Bureau of Investigation, have implicated 38 people including lawmakers, staff members, government officials and officers of fake non-governmental organizations allegedly used to funnel kickbacks to lawmakers.

At the heart of the scandal is Napoles, 49, who allegedly created 10 fake NGOs through which lawmakers funneled funds from the Priority Development Assistance Fund, or PDAF.

Investigations have shown that Napoles recycled the funds back to lawmakers after taking a healthy cut that made her enormously wealthy. Earlier this month, she gave herself up personally to President Aquino after the scandal broke in the press, creating a furor that was followed quickly by the findings of the official government audit. She has been charged with unlawful detention of an aide who was attempting to pass information to the NBI, along with corruption cases.

Each of the country's 24 senators and 289 Congressmen annually receives P200 million and P70 million, respectively, from the PDAF ostensibly to fund relatively small infrastructure and other development projects. In fact, much of the money was simply stolen or used to create a vast system of political patronage that welded district officials and others to individual lawmakers.

Details of the charges can be found in the government's Official Gazette under the title, Executive Summary by the NBI on the PDAF Complaints Filed Against Janet Lim-Napoles, et al. Together they present a damning indictment of nearly an entire system gone wrong, in which the function of much of the Philippine Congress was to enrich its members by diverting crucial funds for development in a poverty-stricken and corrupt country to themselves.

The obvious question is whether any of the alleged lawbreakers will ever see the inside of a jail cell. The Philippines has a long record of impunity, in which major political and other figures have walked away from crimes including murder.

The pork barrel case depends on the determination of three women whom Aquino appointed to legal or regulatory offices -- Justice Secretary de Lima, a longtime Aquino ally; Conchita Campos Morales, who left the Supreme Court to become Ombudsman after Aquino pushed out Merceditas Garcia, appointed by Arroyo; and Maria Gracia M. Pulido-Tan, Chairperson of the Commission on Audit, who pronounced herself "sickened" by the conclusions in the report she had commissioned and has demanded prosecution.

The Ombudsman's office is slated to bring the case to court.

Filipinos have endured many massive scandals going back to the time when former President Ferdinand Marcos and his family looted the country of billions of dollars. That Enrile is caught up in this mess, accused of amassing P172.85 million (US$3.95 million) in kickbacks from Napoles, is an echo of the Marcos years. He is virtually the last politician left in power who was a major figure under Marcos. Testimony in hearings earlier this month described cash being delivered to Enrile's chief aide in shopping and supermarket bags.

Charged along with Enrile was Senator Ramon "Bong" Revilla Jr., 46, a well-known movie actor, who allegedly received P224.51 million. Revilla has been seen as a possible presidential candidate at some point in the future. Also charged was Senator Jose "Jinggoy" Estrada, the son of former President Joseph Estrada, who was driven from office in 2001 after allegedly plundering the treasury himself; Jinggoy is alleged to have amassed P183.79 million from the scheme.

The probe got underway with the rescue of an aide to Napoles, Benhur Luy, who for various reasons was attempting to contact the NBI as an informant. Napoles allegedly kidnapped him and held him at her residence in an effort to shut him up.

The NBI has gathered a vast store of evidence, including testimony and documentary evidence from as many as 12 whistleblowers and documents from government implementing agencies.

The scheme involved a lawmaker designating a Napoles' NGOs as the recipient of PDAF funds for the purposes of supposedly implementing projects.

In exchange for selecting the Napoles NGO, the lawmakers received 40-60 percent of the cash value of the project as kickbacks. The implementing agency issued checks to the Napoles NGOs which were deposited and the cash later withdrawn and delivered to Napoles. Kickbacks were then paid to the lawmakers using falsified documents to make it appear that a real project had been undertaken.

Napoles presumably put the rest of the money in one of her designer handbags.