Asset freeze for senators
Edu Punay (The Philippine Star) - September 18, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - After being slapped with plunder charges for their alleged anomalous use of their pork barrel allocations, three senators and their co-accused may be denied access to their wealth as a petition with the Court of Appeals (CA) is being readied for the freezing of their assets.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has started coordinating with the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) in securing a CA freeze order on the bank accounts of Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla Jr. and 35 others charged with plunder and malversation of public funds before the Office of the Ombudsman last Monday.

Plunder is a non-bailable offense. Among those charged was businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, widely considered to have orchestrated the pork barrel scam in collusion with lawmakers and other public officials.

The CA had earlier ordered a freeze on Napoles’ assets, which include some 50 residential units and 28 luxury vehicles.

De Lima said the AMLC is coordinating with the NBI for the petition to be filed by the  it will be coordinated with the NBI,” De Lima said.

A CA asset freeze order is also expected to cover Masbate Gov. Rizalina Seachon Lanete and former Association of Philippine Electric Cooperatives (APEC) party-list Rep. Edgar Valdez, who are both facing plunder; and former Benguet Rep. Samuel Dangwa, former Agusan del Sur Rep. Rodolfo Plaza, and former Cagayan de Oro City Rep. Constantino Jaraula, who have been charged with malversation of public funds.

The DOJ chief explained that the government cannot just freeze the accounts of the respondents without going through court processes. But she stressed the ombudsman may compel the AMLC to produce all the necessary documents relevant to the anti-graft agency’s preliminary investigation into the complaints.

“Because she’s an independent constitutional body, the ombudsman has plenary powers to do that. It has coercive powers,” De Lima said.

Based on the NBI’s evidence, Sen. Revilla allegedly pocketed over P224.5 million in kickbacks from Napoles.

Estrada supposedly amassed P183.79 million, while Enrile – the Senate minority leader – got P172.8 million, according to the actual complaint released by the DOJ yesterday.

Lanete and Valdez, on the other hand, received P56 million from Napoles.

The NBI alleged that the legislators had conspired with Napoles as well as with officials of implementing agencies in misappropriating and misusing their pork barrel, officially called Priority Development Assistance Fund or PDAF.

De Lima also said the NBI is under orders to refrain from making comments on the merits of the case “in deference to the Office of the Ombudsman which is set to undertake an independent evaluation of the cases referred to it for preliminary investigation, and as NBI focuses on the next cases to be filed.” The DOJ has jurisdiction over the NBI.

While it has to go over a truckload of documentary evidence, the Office of the Ombudsman said it does not intend to set a deadline for finishing its appraisal of the complaints filed by the DOJ.

“The period of evaluation would depend on the complexity of the case,” Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales said in a statement.

She personally received the voluminous documents submitted by the DOJ and the NBI to her office last Monday.

“Details about the results of the proceedings shall be released once a final resolution is issued, at which time a copy of the resolution may be secured,” she said.

Speedy trial

Estrada, meanwhile, said he decried their “being pictured as the worst thieves” and called for a fair and speedy trial.

“We were not confronted yet with the testimonies of the whistle-blowers, the documents that they have in possession. But still we’re in the headlines everyday as if we are really at fault,” Estrada said. “As far as I am concerned, I am innocent.”

On the day the cases against them were filed, Estrada attended the session and vowed to continue doing so as long as he is allowed by law. He said he owes it to the 18 million Filipinos who voted for him.

He said he hopes the charges against them are resolved sooner than Morales is expecting. Morales earlier said it might take about a year before they could elevate the case to the Sandiganbayan.

Estrada did not deliver his scheduled privilege speech yesterday, saying doing so might implicate some of his colleagues. He did not elaborate.

He admitted that his family had been gravely affected by the controversy.

Former congressman Dangwa said the implementing agencies should be blamed for PDAF misuse and not the lawmakers.

“The duty to ascertain the legitimacy of the NGOs before funds are released to them rests not upon the legislators, but upon the implementing agency,” he said.

Sen. Francis Escudero, for his part, said senators should continue with their investigation into the pork barrel scam even if criminal charges had already been filed against some of their colleagues.

He also said Napoles herself should be summoned to face the Senate Blue Ribbon committee, which is investigating the matter. Napoles is detained at Fort Sto. Domingo in Sta. Rosa, Laguna for a serious illegal detention case filed by her relative and former employee turned whistle-blower Benhur Luy.

“The Senate remains to be the only venue where the citizens can very much acquaint themselves with the goings-on of this case from the witnesses and key players themselves. This has become equally important to the people because they have now become more vigilant to demand to know where and how the government utilize the taxes they pay,” Escudero said.

“The uncovering of the Napoles-NGO modus operandi does not close the issue, but of course this is where we take off. Rather, it opened a whole wide door about other NGOs, 82 as reported in the Commission on Audit report,” Escudero said.

He said he and his colleagues would like to learn more about the activities of other NGOs not linked to Napoles.

“There are only eight Napoles-related NGOs. We’d like to find out how the remaining 74 operate. It follows the same operation and pattern as the Napoles group and the amount involved is more staggering than what is being looked at now,” he added.

Luy had already testified before the Blue Ribbon committee. Luy, in his Senate appearance, explained in detail how the pork barrel of legislators had ended up in NGOs and in the pockets of some legislators.

Napoles at the Senate

As the widely acknowledged brains behind the pork barrel scam, Napoles should be invited to testify at the Senate hearing, according to Escudero.

But he said it’s the courts which can ultimately decide if she can appear before the Senate panel.

“The court has jurisdiction over her. Whether it grants our request or not is totally up to the court. But let it not be said that the Senate did not pursue it,” he said.

Escudero said he also wants the manager of the Magdalena branch of Metrobank to provide information about the alleged one-time withdrawal by Napoles of P75 million.

“A withdrawal this huge is a cause for red flag from the bank to the AMLC. The withdrawal may have been reported to the AMLC as an automatic procedure. But what we’d like to know is if this withdrawal was reported by the bank under the ‘know your client rule’ of the BSP,” Escudero said.

“Under the rule, the bank manager must know Napoles personally and what she does for a living. The sources of the big amounts she withdraws must be known to the manager,” he said.

“The fund from the treasury goes to an NGO account and then moved to Napoles’. There is an illegal and dubious pattern already that should have raised the red flag,” he added.

The COA, for its part, said it is conducting annual “agency-specific” audits on transactions involving PDAF under the Aquino administration.

COA Chairman Grace Pulido-Tan made the clarification in response to concerns raised by some quarters over the absence of a special audit on pork-funded projects under the current administration.

“We are actually now looking at the PDAF on a per agency basis,” she told The STAR yesterday.

A special COA audit report covering 2007 to 2009 showed the extent of PDAF misuse by lawmakers and their private sector cohorts.

“Even before that special report came out, we had so many agency reports on PDAF matters,” Tan said, referring to previous annual audit reports on the ZNAC Rubber Estate Corp. (ZREC) and the National Agribusiness Corp. (NABCOR).

The special audit report by COA was part of the documentary evidence used by the NBI to justify its filing of plunder and malversation charges against three senators, some former lawmakers, and dozens of private individuals. With Marvin Sy, Jess Diaz, Michael Punonbayan, Artemio Dumlao

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