At what price?
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 14, 2014 - 12:00am

Senators accused of involvement in the pork barrel scam are fighting back in an unsurprising way: they are trying to puncture the credibility of prosecution witnesses.

Socialite Ruby Tuason and director-on-leave Dennis Cunanan of the Technology Resource Center claim to have personal knowledge of the direct involvement of Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla (and circumstantially, Juan Ponce Enrile) in the scam.

So naturally, Tuason and Cunanan are in the crosshairs of the senators. The defense tack, as we saw at the Senate the other day, is to show that Tuason and Cunanan lied about their personal wealth, much of which is supposed to be ill-gotten.

A second tack is to show that the administration’s anti-corruption campaign is selective, with only opposition personalities targeted in the prosecution of cases involving the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). The subtext is that many others did it; why pick on only a few?

The first tack is legal; the second is aimed at winning points in the court of public opinion, which is crucial as the 2016 general elections approach.

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The legal tack may be damaging for the witnesses, but should it exonerate the accused? Or should the “provisional” state witnesses join the accused in the charge sheet instead?

People familiar with the snail’s pace of Philippine justice have no patience to wait for the courts to unearth the whole truth and establish guilt, beyond reasonable doubt, in the PDAF scam. It could take three decades before final judgment is rendered on these cases.

So people as usual jumped to conclusions about the PDAF scandal as soon as it erupted. Never mind unreliable, bickering witnesses; the Commission on Audit (COA), despite some glaring mistakes, has presented documents that should send several senators and congressmen to prison. Their punishment should include forfeiture of a substantial chunk if not all of their assets.

The revenue police, now going hammer and tongs against doctors, should look into the assets and tax declarations of lawmakers with the same zeal.

Turning state witness should also not spare Tuason and Cunanan from asset scrutiny. Senator Jinggoy must be familiar with the assets of Tuason, who worked for his father at Malacañang and was a member of his mother Loi Ejercito’s MARE (Masa and Riwasa ni Erap, or Masses are the Riches of Erap).

The close ties can strengthen Tuason’s testimony, but can also give credence to Senator Jinggoy’s disclosure about her assets and alleged kickbacks not only from the PDAF but also from Malampaya funds.

Tuason may have to return much more than the P40 million she promised prosecutors. Her home in exclusive Dasmariñas Village alone should be worth more, by Senator Estrada’s reckoning.

Now we’re told that the Anti-Money Laundering Council is looking into 89 bank accounts under Tuason’s name, apart from joint accounts with a son and her late brother. Estrada estimates that Tuason received as much as P242 million in kickbacks from the Malampaya fund, and says she has accumulated numerous real estate properties in the Philippines and the United States.

If she’s allowed to turn state witness, prosecutors should avoid striking a deal worse than the one approved by the Office of the Ombudsman with former military comptroller Carlos Garcia. The two-star Army general was allowed to turn over only P135.43 million of his estimated P303 million in ill-gotten wealth and plead guilty to the lesser offense of direct bribery and facilitating money laundering. In exchange, the plunder charges against him, his wife Clarita and their three sons would be dropped.

The lead prosecutor who worked out the plea bargain, Wendell Barreras-Sulit, was sacked. This is a cautionary tale for prosecutors now considering the testimonies of Tuason and Cunanan to pin down opposition senators.

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Lying about personal benefits they reaped from the PDAF and Malampaya fund scams does not necessarily mean the potential witnesses are also lying about the involvement of senators.

Direct involvement in a scam can strengthen the testimony of a potential state witness. But the witness will have to come clean on personal benefits he or she enjoyed from involvement in the misuse of public money. Those funds belong to the people and must be properly accounted for and returned.

If the amount of dirty money is enormous and a person gets to keep the bulk of it in return for his or her testimony, it is rewarding crime.

*   *   *

This can be a dilemma for an administration that is trying to directly pin down certain senators in the PDAF scam.

Estrada, Revilla and Enrile aren’t alone in suspecting that the pork barrel scam prosecution is selectively targeting opposition politicians. And the use of compromised, lying witnesses – including one who is accused of lying even about his academic achievements – can reinforce this perception.

Lawyers say the COA documents and whistle-blower Benhur Luy’s testimony should be enough to nail senators for graft-related offenses, although there are debates on whether the evidence is enough to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt for the serious crime of plunder.

For this heavier offense, the government seems to believe it needs the testimonies of individuals like Tuason and Cunanan.

In the light of Estrada’s accusations against the two potential witnesses, the question is what price the government is willing to pay for their testimonies.

Prosecutors must carefully weigh whether the end will justify the means.


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