MANILA, Philippines - The Department of Justice (DOJ) is not ruling out the possibility of using Janet Lim-Napoles, the fugitive businesswoman at the center of the pork barrel controversy, as a witness in running after the major players in the scam.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said the DOJ would decide whether Napoles can qualify to become state witness only after she surrenders and faces the charges.
“We’re not yet considering that at this point. She should surface first and surrender before we can go into that,” she said.
De Lima said the probe of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) is still in the fact-finding stage and is focused on allegations against Napoles and several lawmakers made by whistle-blowers led by Benhur Luy and Merlina Suñas.
“The focus now is to file a case against Napoles and her cohorts implicated by the whistle-blowers. We are not yet in a stage where we need to decide on whether she can be state witness or not,” she said.
De Lima, however, did not immediately turn down the possibility, considering that Napoles has been pinpointed as the brains of the scam while the law requires a state witness to be among the least guilty of the crime charged.
The Rules of Court provide that “any person who has knowledge of or information on the commission of a crime and has testified or is testifying or is willing to testify” may become state witness upon approval of the court hearing the case.
De Lima earlier said the recent Commission on Audit (COA) report on the alleged misuse of pork barrel of lawmakers – officially known as Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) – had shown a “wider web of anomalies.”
In the COA report, only 10 of 82 non-government organizations (NGOs) used to siphon billions in PDAF were linked to Napoles, making her a relatively minor player in the anomaly.
The Inter-Agency Anti-Graft Coordinating Council led by the Office of the Ombudsman and DOJ has convened to investigate the “bigger picture” of the pork barrel scam based on the COA report.
De Lima has also hinted the NBI was readying criminal charges against Napoles and several lawmakers supposedly involved in the racket.
Earlier, a group of priests had offered Napoles protection on condition that she bares all she knows about the scam.
Napoles and her brother Reynald Lim are both still at large two weeks after a Makati City regional trial court ordered their arrest over a separate case of serious illegal detention filed by Luy.
On the lookout
Immigration officials said they have been ordered to be on the lookout for the siblings and have alerted their counterparts in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Bureau of Immigration (BI) officer-in-charge Siegfred Mison said they have coordinated with their counterparts from Indonesia and Malaysia and requested that they be on the lookout for Napoles and her brother.
The BI was able to directly coordinate with the Indonesian immigration officials since they have an office in Davao.
They were provided with copies of pictures of the siblings with the information that their passports have been cancelled.
As for Malaysia, Mison said the BI is leaving it up to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to coordinate.
Mison added he would also bring his request for assistance before the immigration departments of countries included in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) during their upcoming directors-general meeting in Vietnam.
“We would be giving information to countries of possible destination if she is able to flee the country,” he added.
Mison said the possibility the siblings would escape to Vietnam was remote.
He also doubted that Napoles would be able to travel to another country north of the Philippines because of the prevailing inclement weather.
Despite the heightened alert against Napoles and her brother, Mison still strongly believes that they are still in the country trying to cool things down before making their escape.
Mison said they are monitoring all possible exit points after receiving information that sometime last week, the three yachts that were often used by Napoles were no longer docked at the Manila Yacht Club.
Mison said they have yet to confirm if Napoles owns the vessels.
“We have alerted the possible exit points for her to leave the country such as via Balut Island. It is three hours away from Marore Island which is the closest island of Indonesia to the Philippines. While Bongao, Tawi-Tawi leads to Malaysia,” Mison said.
Mison said they have also coordinated with the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) to track down the three missing yachts.
The PCG said they have been tasked by De Lima to search for the yachts.
“Justice Secretary Leila de Lima has given instructions that we intensify the search of yachts along the border crossing areas at the southern backdoor, specifically in Balut Island that leads to Indonesia and Bongao that leads to Malaysia. We are on the lookout for them at the ports,” PCG spokesman Commander Armand Balilo said.
The BI has also coordinated with the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) to check out the hangars of private airplanes.
“CAAP might want to consider giving us access or they could be vigilant and try to find out who are using those private planes that have the capability to fly out of the country,” Mison said.
The BI has also asked the DFA to be on the lookout for look-alikes of Napoles and her brother.
Considering the reported vast financial resources and connections of Napoles, she could afford surgery to change her appearance and secure a bogus passport.
Mison said the new passports would still contain the passport holders’ fingerprints and even if they change their appearance, they would be caught through their fingerprints if they attempt to leave the country.
The NBI said they would formally request the Interpol, through Philippine Center for Transnational Crime (PCTC), to put Napoles and her brother Reynald on its red notice list.
Another immigration official, on the other hand, said there were no indications of Napoles and her brother attempting to leave the country through Clark International Airport in Pampanga.
The official said a “lookout order” was issued on the siblings earlier this month.
But the official, who asked not to be named, could not say whether records of departures were checked before the issuance of the lookout order.
“All I can say is that we are on alert in compliance with that lookout order,” the immigration official said.
Unlike a hold departure order, a lookout order only directs immigration officers to alert or inform the justice department if the subject tries to leave the country. -Evelyn Macairan, Aie Balagtas See, Ding Cervantes