Filipina Reformers Collect Powerful Scalps

The decision by a five-member special panel to prefer charges against three of the Philippines’ most prominent members of the 24-person Senate is almost unprecedented, and it leaves the Philippine political community in disarray. Indictments of as many as seven politicians are expected eventually, analysts in Manila say.

Although others have been indicted in the past including former Presidents Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Joseph Estrada, the top justice officials appointed by President Benigno S. Aquino III appear determined to bring the three to justice. They are Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada and Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. Under the terms of the indictment, they are supposed to be suspended from office and jailed.

While Estrada and Revilla are relatively marginal, the 90-year-old Enrile has been an enormously powerful figure for decades, with strings of influence into the military and other major parts of the country’s power structure.

What happens next is problematical. The case must be taken to the Sandiganbayan, a special anti-corruption court that is notoriously slow in taking action. Cases have languished in the court for years without disposition.

The three have been charged with plunder and graft in the P10 billion (US$222 million) “Pork Barrel” scandal, which erupted last July when it transpired that lawmakers were siphoning off community development funds with the help of a woman named Janet Lim Napoles, who set up phony NGOs and ghost companies to channel the funds back to the lawmakers after taking a healthy commission that allegedly allowed her to buy a reported 28 homes in the Philippines and the United States.

The National Bureau of Investigation, the country’s top crime-fighting agency, claims that Revilla received P224.5 million in kickbacks, Estrada, President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, the chamber's second-highest official, P183.8m, and Enrile, the Senate's Minority Floor Leader after being ousted as president last year, received at least P172.8m.

The fate of the three is now up to the country’s Ombudsman, Conchita Carpio Morales, who earlier this week decided there was probable cause to file charges. She is being asked to reconsider the decision, which she probably won’t.

Morales is one of a troika of apparently incorruptible middle-class women appointed by President Benigno S. Aquino and who appear grimly determined to clean out the Philippine political stables. The other two are Maria Grace Pulido-Tan, the auditor general whose office delivered a massive report detailing the dimensions of the scandal, and Justice Secretary Leila M. Delima, whose office would prosecute the case. All three were appointed by Aquino.

Together they have entered uncharted territory in a country where impunity for politicians is a way of life. Take, for instance, the case of Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, who was forced to flee the country in January of 2010 ahead of charges of masterminding the murder of two men linked to a political rival. The court of appeal withdrew the murder charge a year later and he returned to Manila – to be appointed by Aquino as czar of the reconstruction effort following Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda last year. Jinggoy’s father Joseph “Erap” Estrada was driven from office in 2001 for plundering the national treasury was elected Manila mayor and remains a potent force in Filipino politics.

Already, two of the three accused are beyond the current reach of Philippine law. Last October, the Department of Justice asked the Department of Foreign Affairs to cancel the passports of the three lawmakers. Somehow, it never got done. Consequently, Revilla is “in the Holy Land to seek divine intercession on his present predicament," according to his press officer, Amy Manzo. Estrada is in the US, supposedly to accompany his wife so she could seek medical help. Mrs Estrada appears not to be along on the trip, however. Enrile remains in the country.

Both Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla have been expected to seek higher office, with Estrada tipped to run as the running mate of Jejomar Binay, now the country’s vice president, in his 2016 bid for the presidency. Revilla sought to run in 2010 but decided not to. He was expected to try for the presidency in 2016. Enrile, having been ousted as president of the Senate last year, is the head of the opposition.

There may be more indictments. Up to seven lawmakers are expected to be indicted in the scandal, which last year galvanized the country in what was termed the biggest outpouring of public anger since former President Joseph Estrada was driven from power in 2011. Filipinos were glued to their television sets for weeks during the hearings into the affair. That in large measure is because it is an easy affair to understand. The affair caught fire with the public when Napoles’ then-22-year-old daughter Jeane appeared in Instagram pictures showing off two Porsches, a condo in the Ritz Carleton in Los Angeles, expensive watches and other luxury items as well as texting from the back of a chauffeur-driven limo. She enthused about shopping and hobnobbing with celebrities like Justin Bieber.

The scandal was given the name “Pork Barrel” because it revolves around the now-discontinued Priority Development Assistance Fund, established under another name in 1990 during the term of President Corazon Aquino, the current president's mother. Its ostensible purpose was to allow lawmakers to fund small-scale infrastructure or community projects outside the scope of national projects.

Each senator was to receive P200 million (US$4.52 million at current exchange rates) annually, and each congressman P70 million. Napoles, who remains incarcerated at Fort St. Domingo in Laguna south of Manila pending trial, is said to have established as many as 20 fake NGOs under her JLN Group, funneling money from and to at least five senators and 23 congressmen. But Napoles wasn't alone. According to the audit committee’s report, the equivalent of US$141 million was disbursed to questionable aid groups and ghost projects that were identified by lawmakers as beneficiaries between 2009 and 2012.

Napoles was hardly alone, according to the auditor's report. Between 2010 and 2012, according to The Philippine Daily Inquirer, some P500 million went to fake NGOs through the state-owned Philippine Forest Corp., the office of Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala and the National Agribusiness Corp, and ended up in the bank accounts of some of the country's most prominent lawmakers.

Aquino, who has built his reputation by taking on corruption, has vowed to prosecute those responsible although his performance in rehabilitating Ping Lacson leaves some doubt. However, the three women he appointed to the top justice positions remain the wild card. Theoretically, the prosecution is out of the president’s hands.