Expect Justice Long Delayed in Philippine Pork Barrel Case

The massive “pork barrel” scandal in the Philippines has outraged the public, implicated powerful politicians and led to televised senate hearings that have revealed a tide of evidence that would seem ironclad.

But given the pace of justice in the country’s notoriously slow courts it seems likely that none of the lawmakers accused of lining their pockets in the scandal will ever see a day in jail.

The case must eventually go before the Sandiganbayan, a special anti-graft court that tries public officials. There are now 3,000 cases pending before the six-justice court, some of them decades old. Twenty-eight years after strongman Ferdinand Marcos was deposed by a popular uprising, the Sandiganbayan is still chewing over aspects of his dictatorship, finally awarding a Marcos jewelry collection to the government on January 13.

The Philippines has nothing akin to Indonesia’s streamlined anti-corruption court, which moves very quickly and in recent years has handed down a steady parade of verdicts against numerous government officials and lawmakers for corruption.

It usually takes more than seven years for the court to decide a case, according to Senate President Franklin Drilon, who last Friday introduced legislation to introduce changes to speed up the court’s action. As long ago as 2007, the government put in place a case flow management procedure in the regular trial courts, but that has done little to speed up what are some of Asia’s most notoriously slow justices.

At least three senators face potential charges, including Juan Ponce Enrile, one of the country’s longest serving politicians and the senate president until he was dethroned last year by forces aligned with President Benigno S. Aquino III. Enrile, for instance, turned 90 on his last birthday. Unless he is uniquely long-lived, he won’t see the inside of a jail cell.

It took the Sandiganbayan, which translates roughly into English as “People’s Advocate,” six years to try former President (and now Manila city mayor)Joseph Estrada for plunder, after which he was sentenced to house arrest and eventually pardoned by his successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. There were only eight respondents in that case. The current scandal has 38 accused, leading legal analysts to estimate the case could take 10 to 15 years to adjudicate.

The Sandiganbayan is not the only Filipino court that is bogged down. The most notorious is the case filed against 104 members of a private army who murdered 58 people on Nov. 23, 2009 in what has become known as the Maguindanao Massacre. Among them were 35 members of the media. Four and a half years on, the shortest estimate is that the case could take 16 to 20 years to reach a verdict. Prosecution lawyer Harry Roque has computed that it would last more than 100 years.

Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano urged the Philippine Supreme Court to designate a special criminal court to handle daily hearings into the scandal, a break with the Filipino practice of hearing cases perhaps once a week or once a month, a major factor in the long delays. At the moment, the cases filed remain pending at the Office of the Ombudsman

While not a court, the case, now unfolding in a Blue Ribbon Commission of the Philippine Senate, pulsates with a vast and juicy list of allegations and involves not only an astonishing cast of political characters but astonishingly venal behavior. As much as P10 billion (US$223.2 l million) originally intended for local development projects may have been stolen.

According to a report by the Philippines Commission on Audit, 35 lawmakers, including Enrile, Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr., and Jingoy Estrada, released P1.7 billion to bogus non-government organizations that recycled the money back to them, minus commissions. Another audit report released last month showed that 22 other lawmakers, including Senators Gregorio Honasan and Lito Lapid, channeled P100 million to bogus NGOs.

The scandal surfaced in July last year when an aide to the reputed bag lady who organized the thievery, Janet Lim Napoles, fled to police, claiming she had kidnapped him to shut him up about the scandal. It is arguably the biggest scandal in recent Philippine history, certainly bigger than the one that drove former President Joseph Estrada from office in 2001 and rivaling the excesses of the Marcos years, political observers say.

The scam involves Priority Development Assistance Funds, known derisorily as the Pork Barrel. Until the program was abruptly cancelled last year, each of the country's 24 senators and 289 Congressmen received P200 million and 70 million annually, respectively, ostensibly to fund relatively small infrastructure and other development projects. In fact, much of the funds, when they didn't simply disappear into the lawmakers' pockets, critics say, were used to create a vast system of political patronage that welded district officials and others to individual lawmakers.

Napoles allegedly used her political connections to establish a stable of fake NGOs that accepted money from lawmakers in exchange for undertaking projects that did not exist. Napoles allegedly got a 30 percent cut and funneled the rest back to the lawmakers in cash. According to a remarkable study by the Philippines's official Commission on Audit, over just three years from 2009 to 2012, Napoles' NGOs funded at least six senators and 26 congressmen to the tune of P10 billion, much of it delivered in cash in shopping bags, supermarket bags and designer valises. Others, seeing how successful Napoles was, set up their own network to steal money, including funds channeled through the Forestry Department.

The latest character to surface in what is by now a long-running national drama, is a woman named Ruby Tuason, who skipped the country last year for the United States when the scandal began to blow up but returned in December to offer to be a state’s witness.

Tuason testified before the Senate panel – on live TV ‑ to say she had served as a conduit to deliver kickbacks personally from Napoles to Enrile and Jinggoy Estrada, Joseph Estrada’s son and a possible vice presidential running mate with current Vice President Jejomar Binay in 2016 presidential elections. Tuason said she had handed the money directly to Estrada and indirectly to Senator Juan Ponce Enrile through his then-chief of staff Jessica “Gigi” Reyes.

Reyes has become a major sideshow in the scandal. On Monday, Enrile’s wife of 57 years, Cristina, confirmed in a television interview the longstanding rumors that Reyes was her husband’s mistress for many years. She said she had left the family home because of the affair but still said that “Johnny,” as he is known, had no part in stealing pork barrel funds. Enrile has denied having an affair with Reyes, who fled the country when the pork barrel scandal became public.

Dennis Cunanan, former Technology Resource Center deputy director general, who is also a state witness, claimed in an affidavit that Estrada and Revilla endorsed the channeling of their pork barrel funds to the fake NGOs of Napoles.

The testimonies of the new witnesses have made government officials optimistic that the evidence will actually result in guilty verdicts. But those verdicts are likely to be delivered a long time from now.