MANILA, Philippines - With his credibility in question due to what senators said were inconsistencies in his testimony last Thursday, Technology Resource Center (TRC) outgoing head Dennis Cunanan may lose his bid to be state witness in the pork barrel cases.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima yesterday said Cunanan’s persistent denial during Thursday’s Senate hearing that he received P960,000 in kickbacks from pork barrel-funded projects could adversely affect his status as “provisional” state witness.
In the same hearing conducted by the Senate Blue Ribbon committee, Benhur Luy – the main whistle-blower in the pork barrel scam – insisted Cunanan had received kickbacks, but admitted not having seen the actual payoff.
“His (Cunanan’s) status in the WPP (witness protection program) will definitely be affected because of Benhur’s statement about (kickbacks)… Because of the development yesterday (Thursday) in the hearing, it’s also time for us to consider (his credibility),” De Lima told reporters in an ambush interview yesterday.
She said conflicting statements of Luy and Cunanan have “complicated” the situation. But she stressed the Department of Justice (DOJ) is standing by the credibility of Luy.
“He remains to be a very credible witness. Benhur has not given us reason or indication to doubt his credibility; his credibility and the credibility of his story about the whole PDAF scam,” she said. PDAF or the Priority Development Assistance Fund is the official term for the congressional pork barrel.
The DOJ chief said Cunanan would be asked to “rectify” his statement.
“We are actually giving him a chance to explain or rectify himself on that matter. Will he continue to profess such innocence when it comes to the issue of whether or not he received kickbacks? Let’s just see what his answer will be so that we can act accordingly,” she said.
When asked if the credibility of Cunanan as a witness is beyond repair, De Lima replied: “It’s up to you to interpret what I said, but it’s unfair for me to say something categorical at this point.”
De Lima recalled that Cunanan, while being interviewed for WPP coverage, had consistently denied pocketing kickbacks from the PDAF scam allegedly masterminded by businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles.
She said Sen. Grace Poe could be correct in her suspicion that Cunanan was afraid to make the admission because he was about to take a position in an international organization.
“That is a probable reason. But we ask him to tell the truth on this matter because we still believe he is telling the truth when it comes to what he knows about the scam,” the DOJ chief said.
No immunity yet
At the Senate, Blue Ribbon committee chairman Sen. Teofisto Guingona III said Cunanan’s application for legislative immunity needs further study, since such privilege “is under the rules or law of the witness protection program and subject to the approval of the Senate president.”
Aside from allegations that he had received PDAF kickbacks, Cunanan’s checkered educational background had also cast doubt on his credibility.
Luy on Thursday also debunked Cunanan’s claims that he had never met Napoles. Luy said Cunanan went to the JLN Corp.’s office in Ortigas to receive supposed kickback contained in a brown bag.
It was Evelyn de Leon, also one of Napoles’ employees, who handed the bag to Cunanan. Luy said that while he did not actually see Cunanan receive the money, he saw the TRC official leaving the office carrying the bag supposedly containing the P960,000.
At the start of the hearing last Thursday, Cunanan asked the committee to grant him legislative immunity. If given immunity his testimony cannot be used against him in courts. He will also be protected from libel and perjury charges, Senate lawyers said.
Cunanan admitted during the hearing that he is facing two plunder complaints in relation to the pork barrel controversy. A third plunder complaint was reportedly dismissed.
Under Republic Act No. 6981 or “The Witness Protection, Security and Benefit Act,” a witness granted legislative immunity can enjoy the benefits under the WPP law.
Guingona declined to say what he felt about Cunanan’s Senate testimony, saying he’d “rather leave it to the Department of Justice to thresh out all the inconsistencies that were pointed out by the other senators.”
Guingona also said he does not see any reason to again summon Napoles to the Senate.
“Until we know that she is willing to talk for certain, we won’t call her, because we will just get more of the same,” he said. “So until there is a positive declaration from Secretary De Lima, or from the ombudsman, then that is the only time.”
For Malacañang, inconsistencies in Luy’s and Cunanan’s statements during last Thursday’s hearing were irrelevant since it’s the courts which would ultimately evaluate and decide on their testimony.
“In the first place, they don’t have to be completely in agreement – the testimony of the two,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said in Filipino.
Valte pointed out that their having different versions of the story simply means “witness A will be testifying to another aspect of the case while witness B will be testifying on another completely different aspect of the same case.”
She said the DOJ, the Office of the Ombudsman and the Sandiganbayan are in the best position to determine who between the two is credible.
“That being said, the final arbiter is the court which will hear the case once it is filed by the Office of the Ombudsman,” Valte, a lawyer by profession, told a news briefing.
She also emphasized that investigators have gathered “documentary evidence” – aside from testimonies – to build a strong case against those involved in the pork barrel scam.
“The document trail has been properly laid out,” she said.
Commission on Audit (COA) Chairman Ma. Gracia Pulido-Tan, for her part, clarified that they were taking implementing agencies to task not for kickbacks but for collecting commissions or management fees.
She was reacting to Cunanan’s assertion that implementing agencies should not be blamed for the pork barrel fund scam.
In an interview with reporters after the launching of the audit institution’s new website yesterday, she said the special audit on PDAF releases of senators and congressmen from 2007 to 2009 did not accuse conduit agencies of pocketing kickbacks.
“You can go back to our report again and I can confidently say that we have no finding at all that they were receiving kickbacks,” Tan explained.
“Our finding, insofar as the COA is concerned, why did they collect commission? They didn’t do anything in terms of monitoring the projects because as it turned out, the monitoring – per all the documents that we found – was (done by) the offices of the concerned legislators,” she said.
“What we found out is that there was very little effort if at all on the part of the implementing agencies to really do monitoring,” she said.
She stressed that under the law, agencies like the TRC are allowed to find their own sources of revenue, but that it is not that authority that is in question but the collection of management fee.
She said implementing agencies have been reduced to being conduits of funds.
Despite questions on his credibility, Cunanan is a credible witness as far as his knowledge of lawmakers’ participation in the PDAF scam is concerned, but as a state witness, he needs to do more to prove his worth, Sen. Francis Escudero said yesterday.
Escudero said that Cunanan was able to provide the DOJ with information disproving the claims of Senators Ramon Revilla Jr., Juan Ponce Enrile and Jinggoy Estrada that they had no hand in choosing which NGOs to implement their PDAF-funded projects.
The three senators, along with more than 30 others, are respondents in the plunder and malversation complaint in connection with the pork barrel scam. Cunanan is also a respondent in the complaint.
He also testified that the senators were the ones who handpicked the NGOs of Napoles to implement their projects.
“But the truth is that this could already be proven through the documents. They were all the same, including the typographical errors,” Escudero said.
The documents include letters sent by the three senators to the TRC, informing the agency of their choice of NGOs.
He said Luy’s allegation that Cunanan himself had received kickbacks would have impact on the latter’s credibility.
“In my personal opinion, this will affect the testimony of Dennis Cunanan but not the testimony of Benhur Luy because the testimony of Benhur Luy has been consistent and stable,” Escudero said.
He scored the DOJ for failing to anticipate inconsistencies in the testimonies of the two. “Why didn’t the DOJ see this? So I asked Secretary De Lima, why did you charge him? Actually, I already knew the answer and it was because Benhur said that he received (commissions),” Escudero said in Filipino.
Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III also called on the DOJ to resolve the problem as soon as possible.
“So isn’t it a funny situation where there are two witnesses who are both truthful and yet one alleging that one thing happened and the other ‘truthful’ witness denying that same thing entirely. Let the secretary of justice sort this out,” he said.
For Estrada, the development showed the case against them is crumbling.
Estrada said Cunanan was lying through his teeth when the TRC official claimed being pressured by the senator over the phone into facilitating the approval of projects.
“They are starting to crumble. They can’t agree among themselves,” Estrada said.
Revilla, through his lawyer Joel Bodegon, also accused Cunanan of lying. – With Christina Mendez, Marvin Sy, Michael Punongbayan, Delon Porcalla