By: Our Correspondent

Although the Filipino Ombudsman last week preferred charges against three of the country’s most powerful lawmakers, Juan Ponce Enrile, Ramon “Bong” Revilla and Jinggoy Ejercito Estrada, they may never see inside a jail cell, given the country’s culture of impunity and the limited resources of the prosecutors.

The three each face one count of plunder and multiple counts of corruption for their alleged part in a long-running scandal so vast that it almost beggars the imagination. A half dozen “lists” of those involved have made it into the press, naming almost all of the Senate and about a third of the House of Representatives as enmeshed in the affair, dubbed the Pork Barrel Scandal, which involves the outright theft of as much as PHP10 billion (US$227.5 million).

According to one list referred to by Panfilo Lacson, an ally of President Benigno S. Aquino III, 21 of the 25 incumbent senators, 90 of the 292 congressmen and two cabinet members were implicated in the scam and a second one involving funds from energy royalties on projects off the coast of the southern island of Palawan between 2000 and 2010.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer, showing amazingly aggressive reporting from the beginning of the affair in mid-2013, somehow managed to obtain disk drives from the computers of Janet Lim Napoles, a bagwoman at the center of the case, and Benhur Luy, her nephew, who blew the whistle on the scam in the first place. Lacson earlier revealed that the Napoles family had given him a draft of an unsigned affidavit, which reportedly listed over 100 names including at least 10 other former and incumbent senators.

Unfortunately, the case appears to be veering towards Filipino theater despite a year of public outrage. Enrile, Revilla and Estrada are the first to be formally charged. The three pointed out that of lawmakers named so far, all are opposition members and none is an Aquino ally, making it questionable, they say, whether political favoritism is playing a role.

Plunder is supposedly a non-bailable offense. But whether the three are actually incarcerated, even in a case this big, is problematical. Enrile, who is 90 years of age, told reporters last week that he had packed his bags and was ready to go to jail. In the meantime, his lawyers were submitting a 51-page brief requesting bail because of his age and alleged poor health.

Revilla and Estrada said they were also ready to do time, then delivered farewell speeches in the Senate. Revilla, like Estrada assumed to be a candidate for higher office – even with the charges he faces – finished off his Senate career with a five-minute video to dimmed chamber lights of him singing Salamat Kaibigan, or “Thank you friends,” which has been running on YouTube ever since.

Over the weekend, a Malacañang spokesperson said the three can choose where they will be detained, so long as permission is granted by the court. That probably means soft jail time in some form of house arrest. When Jinggoy Estrada’s father Joseph “Erap” Estrada was charged as President with plunder – like father, like son – he spent most of his pretrial time in a luxury hospital overlooking a golf course.

The cases were filed on June 11 in the Sandiganbayan, a special court designed to handle matters involving government officials that came into being after the ouster of former strongman Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. But unlike, say, the Anti-Corruption Court in Indonesia, a no-nonsense judiciary which briskly puts a large volume of politicians in real jails, the Sandiganbayan has been overloaded and bogged down for decades. One study found that it takes seven years to adjudicate a case.

The scandal revolves around what was known as the 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 in their districts outside the scope of national projects. It has since become universally known as the Pork Barrel.

Each senator was to receive P200 million (US$4.52 million at current exchange rates), and each congressman P70 million per year. But Lim Napoles, the enterprising wife of a former Filipino Marine major who was part of a group of anti-government rebel soldiers during Cory Aquino’s term, allegedly established a syndicate of fake non-government organizations through which lawmakers could channel their pork barrel funds.

The money could then find its way back into their personal accounts – with a certain amount ending up in Napoles’ handbag. She has since been singing to law enforcement officers in excruciating detail about who got the money and where it went, and how none of it was her fault.

Napoles is said to have established as many as 20 such NGOs under her JLN Group, funneling money from dozens of lawmakers, both senators and congressmen. But Napoles wasn’t alone. According to a devastating report by the government’s Commission on Audit released last July, the equivalent of US$141 million was disbursed to questionable aid groups and ghost projects that were identified by lawmakers as beneficiaries just between 2009 and 2012. According to some source, some lawmakers were reaped as much as PHP500 million

Between 2010 and 2012, according to The Philippine Daily Inquirer, yet another 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.

The three lawmakers who have been charged “will be able to retain the best defense attorneys in the country, and they are master manipulators of the laws that they helped create,” according to a June 15 subscription-only report by Pacific Strategies & Assessments, a Manila-based country risk firm. “More importantly, they have deep political connections that can potentially influence the outcome of the cases against them.”

Arrayed against them, the ombudsman’s office is now headed by one of three powerful women appointed by President Benigno S. Aquino III. She is Conchita Carpio Morales, a former associate justice of the Philippine Supreme Court who was appointed on July 26, 2011. She succeeded Merceditas Gutierrez, who was impeached in March 2011 because she allegedly refused to prosecute corruption cases related to administration officials of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who appointed her to the position. Arroyo is now under detention for plunder as well.

While the Ombudsman’s office theoretically fills the same role as Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK, the office has never been truly independent. The job is filled by politicians and, as Gutierrez can testify, can be impeached by politicians. Morales, however, was well thought of in her position on the country’s top court and some of Aquino’s other appointments, including Maria Gracia Pulido Tan, the head of the commission on audit, and Justice Secretary Leila M. De Lima are very highly thought of.

But unlike the KPK in Indonesia, which since 2003 has investigated and prosecuted 86 bribery and graft cases in the anti-corruption court and secured a 100 percent conviction rate, going after increasingly bigger fish, only a handful of mayors and lower level officials, with one high-profile exception – Erap Estrada – have been charged and convicted by the ombudsman since the creation of the position. Estrada spent most of his jail time in his capacious house under house arrest, or hospitals for a variety of ailments, until Arroyo pardoned him in 2007.

According to a report by the Michelsen Institute, a research organization funded by European governments, the ombudsman’s office is hampered by a lack of strong investigative powers. It must rely on law enforcement agencies, some of them corrupt as well, to gather evidence. Cases also were often not adequately researched before they were brought to trial, the study found.

So Conchita Morales is up against well-funded, canny suspects, with expensive, well connected lawyers, with a staff that is not considered to be up to snuff, in a country where impunity is the rule, and taking on a case so big that it defies imagination. Wish her luck.