MANILA, Philippines - The woman embroiled in the P10-billion pork barrel fund scam had informed President Aquino of an alleged attempt of her former personal assistant – now a purported star witness in the scandal – to extort at least P300 million from her.
In a two-page letter sent to Aquino last April, a copy of which was obtained by The STAR, businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles related the “demand” by alleged whistle-blower Benhur Luy – through lawyer Levito Baligod – for P300 million, apart from several other demands, “in exchange for dropping” the illegal detention case.
“On March 27 (2013), I met with attorney Baligod and this time he demanded a higher amount (P250 million to P300 million), excluding their other demands such as issuance of Canadian visas for all of the Luy family members, including himself (Benhur),” Napoles said.
This was on top of the initial P38 million they tried to extort. There was also a demand for $1.5 million “pocket money” and the “opening of a legitimate pharmaceutical business to be given to the youngest sister who will be left behind in the Philippines.”
“We reiterate that the charges against us are all false, fabricated and a mere product of lies, perpetrated by our business competitors, with the ulterior purpose of besmirching our reputation and destroying our name,” a portion of the letter read.
Napoles sought Aquino’s help, particularly after agents of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) raided their unit at the Pacific Plaza condominium in Bonifacio Global City on March 22 without any warrant.
“We write with feelings of utmost disappointment, desperateness and extreme fear for our lives, as a result of the continuous threats, intimidation and even physical harm being inflicted upon us by some unscrupulous individuals, in cohorts with corrupt NBI agents,” she said in her letter to Aquino.
The NBI, however, justified the “warrantless arrest” based on a serious illegal detention complaint allegedly filed by the Luy family against Napoles and her brother Reynald Lim.
“This sudden illegal intrusion into our home and (invalid) warrantless arrest, all in complete disregard of our constitutional rights, reminded me of the human rights violations during martial law which your parents strongly opposed,” Napoles wrote.
The NBI stepped into the probe because of the alleged kidnapping of Luy.
Luy, who worked as Napoles’ personal assistant in the trading company JLN Corp., submitted an affidavit to the NBI claiming Napoles was behind a P10-billion scam using the pork barrel of senators and congressmen for ghost projects over the past 10 years.
Malacañang defended the NBI, saying it was part of the agency’s mandate to investigate any allegation of wrongdoing.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte, however, refused to comment on the allegations against Napoles.
Valte said they were not privy to the contents of the affidavits and would withhold any comment until such time that the NBI released its findings.
Napoles denied the allegations that Luy was held against his will.
“We are decent law abiding citizens. We are not kidnappers, we are not criminals. My family and I are legitimate businessmen,” read the letter.
Napoles’ letter, dated April 17, also requested Aquino to release her brother Reynald from NBI custody. She said her brother was arrested under an “illegal warrantless arrest, who is continuously languishing in the hospital under close watch since March 22.”
“We likewise seek your help in this illegal extortion activity involving private individuals and officers/agents of the NBI and for the protection of our family,” Napoles told the President.
She described the serious illegal detention charges as “illogical and unbelievable.”
Last June 10, the Department of Justice (DOJ) – through assistant state prosecutor Juan Pedro Navera – threw out the charges against Napoles and her brother, which was approved by Senior Deputy State Prosecutor Theodore Villanueva and Prosecutor General Claro Arellano.
Relatedly, assistant city prosecutor Rey Camilo Dumlao recommended the filing of “qualified theft” charges against Luy – who was also a witness in the P728-million fertilizer fund scam – before the Pasig City regional trial court.
This was based on the complaint Napoles filed against Luy in connection with the P300,000 that he “misappropriated” and the total P5.5-million loan he separately obtained in August and December 2012 without Napoles’ knowledge.
Napoles has been linked to an alleged scam involving the diversion of pork barrel funds of several lawmakers into dummy non-government organizations (NGOs) purportedly for ghost projects worth P10 billion.
Her lawyer Bruce Rivera said his client had been advised by doctors to take a rest after suffering from hypertension “due to stress brought about by these allegations.”
Rivera though stressed Napoles is denying the charges that he attributed to “a simple extortion case.”
“They have nothing against my client but mere baseless claims of Benhur Luy. Where’s the document to show that my client has this alleged NGO or foundation?” Rivera told dzBB.
Rivera said the accusers should bring the charges against his client before Congress or the Anti-Money Laundering Council.
“My client does not personally know these senators and congressmen being implicated. It is very unfair for these lawmakers to be dragged into the issue,” he said.
Rivera maintained the issue was personal between Napoles and Luy.
MOST issues clarification
On the other hand, the law firm of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. clarified yesterday its alleged links to Napoles.
The law firm Marcos Ochoa Serapio Tan (MOST) said it only served as collaborating counsel for Napoles and her brother Reynald in the earlier preliminary investigation at the DOJ on serious illegal detention charges filed against them by Luy.
The law firm explained their lawyers only collaborated with Freddie Villamor, Napoles’ counsel who needed help since he was conferring with her at the hospital most of the time.
“The firm’s written engagement with Ms. Napoles was limited only to handling the preliminary investigation stage. It was agreed that should the Department of Justice recommend the filing of the kidnapping case against Ms. Napoles and her brother, the firm would have to determine whether or not it would continue to represent her at the trial stage,” read the statement.
“Since the firm only acted as collaborating counsel, it did not formally enter its appearance in the kidnapping case,” it added.
The law firm also revealed that after the pleadings were submitted to the DOJ, and even before the DOJ issued its resolution dismissing the complaint, they already withdrew from the kidnapping case.
The law firm stressed it has never served as counsel for Napoles in connection with her alleged involvement in the P10-billion scam.
Napoles has denied any involvement in the misuse of billions in pork barrel funds of lawmakers. However, her former employees said she was the one who set up foundations using them as dummies.
Napoles was also the one who negotiated with and offered kickbacks to senators and congressmen, they claimed.
They said up to 60 percent of pork barrel funds given to the foundations were offered as kickbacks.
They said a lot of the funds from which commissions and kickbacks were taken were coursed through the Department of Agriculture, which also disbursed the P728 million in fertilizers funds in 2004.
DBM: No pork to foundations
The Department of Budget and Management (DBM) clarified it does not release the pork barrel funds of senators and congressmen directly to foundations and NGOs.
“We release the funds to government agencies, not to NGOs,” Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said in a television interview.
Abad was obviously reacting to the statement of Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. that the DBM should explain the reported irregularities in the use of billions in pork barrel funds.
Marcos and Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, Ramon Revilla Jr., and Gregorio Honasan have allegedly given hundreds of millions in their Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) allocations to fake NGOs supposedly organized by Napoles.
Explaining the process of disbursing PDAF allocations, Abad said senators and congressmen submit to the DBM requests for the release of their funds.
The requests contain the amounts the lawmakers allocate for projects chosen from a menu embodied in the annual budget, and the agencies to which the money would be released, he said.
Abad said a bureau in the DBM makes sure that the projects are consistent with those listed in the menu.
The funds are then released to the identified national agencies, he added.
Abad pointed out that implementing agencies have the option of undertaking the projects themselves or hire NGOs to implement them through a memorandum of agreement.
He said it is the lawmakers and the agencies that identify the NGOs to which the funds are then given.
“It is the lawmakers and implementing agencies that are ultimately responsible for whatever irregularities in the use of the funds,” he stressed.
Enrile to COA: Release report
Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, for his part, maintained the Commission on Audit (COA) should reveal the results of its special audit on the use of the PDAF.
Enrile said he stands by the entire record of how he had directed the distribution and use of funds made available to him as a legislator to identify projects to be funded by the government.
“I am submitting myself to a full investigation and audit of all my PDAF allocations over the years as I served as senator,” Enrile said.
Enrile added the exposé was selective instead of looking at all the lawmakers’ fund disbursements.
Sen. Francis Escudero, for his part, said he never gave funds to foundations and NGOs.
Escudero said he has been allocating his P200-million annual PDAF to government hospitals for medical assistance to indigent patients and local government units for the improvement of public markets.
Escudero also said that he usually does not allocate huge amounts for projects other than medical assistance.
Some politicians named in the scam, such as Sen. Ramon Revilla Jr., said the issue was not legitimate but a plot to demolish the political opponents of the administration.
Valte replied Malacañang is focused on solving problems such as the relocation of informal settlers and does not have time for such things.
She also said President Aquino had been very strict against making accusations without evidence to support them.
“The President is always very strict – and this is something that he has repeated to us – that government should never accuse without evidence and that we should never proffer accusations without proof. The investigation will settle that,” Valte said.
She said they were fixing a lot of problems like the informal settlers’ relocation, especially those living in danger zones.
“Because of the focus on those problems, we no longer allot time for those things,” Valte said.
“I understand that the senator mentioned that he has a source. We would appreciate it if that information was given to us because, certainly, that is not the case – that the demolition is coming from us,” Valte said.
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales announced yesterday the creation of a special team of investigators that will look into the ghost project allegations of certain members of Congress.
Morales said the six-man investigating panel has been tasked to conduct a parallel probe in coordination with the NBI.
Morales explained that under Republic Act 6770 or the Ombudsman Act of 1989, the anti-graft agency may initiate the investigation even without a complaint.–Aurea Calica, Edu Punay, Jess Diaz, Christina Mendez, Marvin Sy, Paolo Romero, Michael Punongbayan, Evelyn Macairan