MANILA, Philippines - It was over lunch several years ago in a crowded restaurant when they last met, but it was to discuss a real estate transaction and not kickbacks from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).
This was how Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile recalled his last meeting with Ruby Tuason, whom he called a “casual acquaintance,” as he denied involvement in the pork barrel scam.
Enrile broke his silence yesterday, three days after Tuason emerged from hiding on Friday and claimed she delivered pork barrel kickbacks to Sen. Jinggoy Estrada and to the Senate minority leader through his then chief of staff Jessica “Gigi” Reyes.
“The only time that I met her was in Mamou, a very crowded restaurant, and it was not to discuss the PDAF or to receive a bribe, but I was discussing with her a prospective property transaction. That was about it. In fact, I was the one who arranged that lunch,” Enrile said.
He said the meeting was sometime in late 2006 or early 2007 in one of the branches of the restaurant. “I do not receive pork barrel funds. Kickbacks? I don’t know because I do not live with Mrs. Reyes, I do not live in her house,” Enrile said.
He stressed he had never authorized Reyes to make dealings on his behalf involving his PDAF.
Tuason, in an affidavit submitted to the Office of the Ombudsman last Friday, said she had delivered millions of pesos in cash to the senators representing kickbacks from projects supervised by businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles.
In his meeting with Tuason, Enrile recalled that Reyes was with him because he had poor eyesight and problems with hearing.
He said that as far as he could recall, he first met Tuason a long time ago when she was still single and known as Ruby Chan.
Enrile said he would again see Tuason in Malacañang when Joseph Estrada was president. She was then social secretary of Estrada.
Enrile said he would sometimes bump into Tuason in the elevator at the Senate when he was Senate President in 2004.
“I used to see her in the elevator. Of course, knowing her, I knew her as Ruby Chan, I was greeting her. Later on I found out that she was acting as a broker or buyer of property for someone and that’s it,” Enrile said.
He also claimed not having seen or heard from Reyes since she left the country last year.
Enrile stressed he was not worried about the possibility of Reyes also offering herself as state witness in the pork barrel scam.
“What will she say? I have faith in her honesty and integrity because she has been working for me for almost 25 years and there has never been any occasion that she violated that degree of rectitude expected from a public servant,” Enrile said, expressing his belief that Reyes had never received pork kickbacks from Napoles.
“If they have any evidence against me or if I did something wrong, then I will take full responsibility for it,” Enrile said.
Enrile also scoffed at Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s calling Tuason’s statement “slam dunk evidence” against him and Jinggoy.
“We’ll see. I have been in law practice for a long, long time. Nothing is sure. It depends upon the truth, human truth. You address that to the mind of a jury or a judge and the standard of proof they will use is much higher in criminal law than in civil cases,” Enrile said.
Just like Estrada, Enrile said he would not be attending the Senate Blue Ribbon committee hearing on the PDAF scam on Thursday when Tuason is expected to testify.
CCTV proof sought
After denying receiving bags of money from Tuason, Sen. Estrada asked the Senate security yesterday to release video recordings of her entering the Senate premises and delivering money to him.
“For me, just to clear the coast because I am not guilty. She did not deliver any money to me in my residence, most specifically in the Senate, especially in the basement parking,” he said.
“I have nothing to hide. You are free to show the CCTV showing Mrs. Tuason (delivering the money). We are being tried by publicity here. I have nothing to hide,” he stressed.
Senate President Franklin Drilon granted Estrada’s request but acknowledged it might take some time to deliver because there were no specific dates mentioned on Tuason’s visits.
Estrada also sees no reason to attend the resumption of the Senate Blue Ribbon hearing on Thursday.
“If she lies, do you expect me to cite her in contempt? Of course not. She has immunity. She will deny. I will deny of course. It’s a losing proposition for me,” Estrada pointed out.
Blue Ribbon chairman Sen. Teofisto Guingona III said he would ask Tuason to provide the exact dates of her visits to the Senate.
For De Lima, it was befuddling to hear Vice President Jejomar Binay over the weekend belittling Tuason’s coming out in the open and calling her statement a “dud.”
“I respect his opinion. But what saddens me is that instead of encouraging us to further strengthen evidence and to pursue what we are doing now, it seems that they are belittling or even scoffing at our evidence. Why is it like that?” she said.
“Shouldn’t we all be interested in these cases? Should we just pray and hope that these cases will prosper? We need support and encouragement. So we’re hoping they won’t be like that – practically scoffing at our evidence,” she added.
Yesterday, however, Binay downplayed Tuason’s offering herself as state witness. Before making her state witness, Tuason should be established as the least guilty in a case. He also said the prosecution may get help from a state witness if the evidence on hand is weak.
He said Tuason’s offer to return the money that she had unlawfully received would not extinguish her criminal liability.
“They said the money will be returned. That is something new. I was not aware that it is allowed,” Binay said.
His spokesman Joey Salgado emphasized that the vice president was fully supportive of the administration’s reform agenda but would want it carried out in accordance with law.
“As a lawyer, he wishes to emphasize that only the courts can decide who can qualify as a state witness in criminal cases. There is a process that must be observed,” he said.
“The statement of the vice president is intended as a reminder to the DOJ that there are legal processes to be followed and this administration is committed to the rule of law,” Salgado said.
He said De Lima should be reminded that those charged are considered innocent until or unless proven guilty.
“That some personalities involved in the PDAF controversy are his political allies is incidental. This constitutional right extends to all, allies and foes alike. This is what the vice president fought for as a human rights lawyer – along with countless others – during martial law. This is the vice president’s personal crusade,” Salgado said.
“He (Binay) is fully behind their efforts to bring to justice those responsible for violating our laws. He is confident that our prosecutors will always adhere to the rule of law,” Salgado said.
“The vice president knows that our government prosecutors have their work cut out for them. They must erase any doubts that Ruby Tuason is qualified to be state witness,” he added.
Levito Baligod, the lawyer of pork barrel scam whistle-blowers led by Benhur Luy, challenged Tuason to stand by her statement until the end.
“We don’t want to encourage those implicated in the cases to surface and tell things not really needed in the successful prosecution of the case just so they could escape prosecution,” he said.
Tuason is a paid witness in the pork barrel scam and a “Clarissa Ocampo-in-the-making,” Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada said yesterday, referring to his former trusted aide and comparing her to the government’s star witness during his plunder trial.
In a telephone interview with The STAR, Estrada said Tuason was paid to link his senator-son Jinggoy to the pork barrel scam, just as Ocampo had reportedly received money for her testimony against him in 2001.
The former president also called on De Lima to refrain from commenting on the issue and just let the justice system take its course.
Estrada was found guilty of plunder in 2007 and sentenced to life imprisonment by the Sandiganbayan Special Division. He was eventually pardonedby then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
“They did it to me. But they were not able to prove anything. Do you think if I am guilty, (the late former President) Cory Aquino and the Church will apologize to me?”
Estrada said the court even turned down his lawyers’ request for a foreign expert to verify if his signature matched that of Jose Velarde.
“Even the opening of the second envelope was opposed by the prosecution in my impeachment trial. But when it was finally opened, it turned out that there is nothing in it. But I was already projected and declared as guilty while my trial has yet to begin,” Estrada said.
Estrada also said the accusation that he had pocketed millions of funds from the Erap Muslim Youth Foundation was not proven in court.
“What was proven was that I have nothing to do with the foundation. The millions of funds were intact and were used for the scholarships of Muslim youth. They are now doing to Jinggoy what they did to me,” Estrada said.
Tuason, who was declared as a provisional state witness, is also facing plunder and malversation charges for allegedly acting as Jinggoy’s and Enrile’s conduit with pork barrel scam mastermind Napoles.
Estrada also called De Lima “publicity hungry” for making it appear that Jinggoy is guilty of plunder even if the charges are still being fine-tuned.
“She should shut up and wait for the legal process work in the proper forum. De Lima has been engaged in trial by publicity. Any accused is considered innocent until proven guilty, and yet she is projecting Jinggoy as already guilty even as the trial has not reached the court yet,” Estrada said.
Estrada said he is confident his son can effectively defend himself.
“This is pure trial by publicity like what happened to me. It has been a vicious cycle. Any man is presumed innocent until proven guilty. She should wait for the trial to push through. She should stop projecting my son as already guilty,” he said, referring to De Lima. With Edu Punay, Jose Rodel Clapano, Christina Mendez