MANILA, Philippines - Two of the dozens criminally charged in connection with the pork barrel scam have fled the country and many more may have slipped out or have been trying to do so, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said yesterday.
Bureau of Immigration (BI) Commissioner Siegfred Mison confirmed that two of the 53 accused in the pork barrel scam had already left the country before the Sandiganbayan issued hold departure orders (HDO) against them.
In an interview with reporters, De Lima said former Technology Resource Center chief Antonio Ortiz and the alleged head of a bogus non-government organization Renato Ornopia had fled the country despite being subjects of government investigation into the controversial scam. Ornopia was an employee of JLN Co. and president of Kaupdan Para sa Mangunguma Foundation Inc.
“They left a few days before the filing of the complaint referral to the ombudsman and have not returned since then,” she revealed after checking with the BI.
“Based on our records, two of them are no longer here in the country. But we cannot say that they escaped, it was just that by the time their names were included in the HDO they were no longer in the country,” Mison said.
“We are still verifying the exact date that they left the country, it could either be earlier this year or maybe in year 2010,” he said.
“I do not know when they left but it was prior to the HDO issuance so there was no basis for us to stop them from leaving the country.”
He emphasized that the two accused did not commit any immigration violation.
De Lima, however, assured the public that the government would take all the necessary actions to bring the two accused back to the country.
“At this point, what we can do is to find out where they went so we can possibly resort to legal actions to compel them to return through mutual legal assistance treaty and extradition,” she explained.
Last April, the BI was able to stop the flight of one of the accused in the beating of TV host-actor Vhong Navarro even in the absence of an HDO.
Ferdinand Guerrero was about to board a flight to Hong Kong when accosted by authorities. De Lima explained then that flight of anyone being eyed for criminal prosecution – even without HDO yet – could constitute obstruction of justice.
De Lima also urged the other accused ordered arrested by the First Division of the Sandiganbayan to surrender instead of waiting for authorities to pick them up.
“It’s better to surrender instead of going through the inconvenience of being arrested and handcuffed,” she stressed.
“If they want to avoid that kind of scenario, the best course of action is to voluntarily surrender so the court could acquire jurisdiction over their persons,” she added.
She cited former Technology Resource Center chief Dennis Cunanan, who turned himself in instead of waiting for authorities to serve him warrant of arrest.
Cunanan, who was slapped with graft charges in connection with his alleged participation in the pork barrel scam, showed up at the Sandiganbayan yesterday to post bail.
De Lima revealed that Cunanan met with her before going to the Sandiganbayan to inform her of his plan to appeal the ombudsman’s rejection of his petition to turn state witness in the pork barrel scam.
Mison also announced that they are validating the whereabouts of 15 individuals charged, from 10 initially.
He explained that they have not yet begun to run the names of the 15 accused through their database to check their whereabouts, since they are still waiting for information from the Sandiganbayan.
“We are not sure that the names that were given by the Sandiganbayan are the same names in our database. So we cannot categorically say if they are in or out of the country,” he said.
The BI chief said that some of the accused have common names and that immigration authorities have already written the Sandiganbayan to formalize their request for the full names of the accused, including other information such as dates of birth, to avoid errors.
They have also made inquiries from all the three Sandiganbayan divisions handling the cases of Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla Jr., via phone calls.
They have also asked the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to check if these individuals were using their real names in their passports. He said that there might be a problem in the case of Estrada.
In the HDO, the Sandiganbayan is asking that “Jose Ejercito Estrada” be barred from leaving the country. In his passport, the senator listed his name as “Jinggoy Estrada.”
To fix the problem, the BI ordered immigration officers to be on the lookout for Sen. Jose Estrada who is also known as Jinggoy Estrada.
When asked if they are also closely monitoring the Mindanao region, just in case an accused would try to escape through the so-called southern backdoor, Mison said they have coordinated with the Philippine Coast Guard, Philippine National Police-Maritime Police (PNP-MP) and other border control agencies for the purpose.
As the trial of those allegedly involved in the PDAF scam nears, a Catholic priest yesterday called on the faithful to include them in their prayers, saying no human being is inherently evil.
“There is no person who is 100 percent evil, there is always that one percent of goodness, that’s why we have to accompany them in prayer,” Fr. Melvin Castro, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines-Episcopal Commission on Family and Life executive secretary, said.
Also charged with plunder was alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles.
The priest, however, stressed he was only stating a personal opinion and was not speaking for the CBCP.
CBCP president Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, for his part, clarified that the CBCP did not demand a public apology from those indicted in connection with the PDAF issue.
“As president of CBCP, I wish to inform the public that the CBCP has never demanded a public apology of those indicted in connection with the PDAF issue. It is for the judiciary to determine guilt or innocence on the basis of law and evidence,” he said.
“The CBCP prays that justice be our common goal and conversion our common endeavor. I ask the public not to confuse the personal opinions of individual bishops with that of the CBCP,” he said in a statement.
Fr. Edu Gariguez, CBCP-National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace (NASSA) secretary- general, earlier suggested that those involved in the pork barrel scam should visit the provinces and personally apologize to the people for betraying public trust.
“They should seek forgiveness from the people and return the money that they stole,” Fr. Gariguez said on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) said it is reaffirming its “commitment to preserve the integrity of the public expenditure process” in the face of controversy involving some of its officials and staff. – With Aurea Calica