• Reading time:9 mins read

Questions on ‘the pork barrel scam’ scoop

(First of Two Parts)

For the seventh straight day yesterday, the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s banner headlines have been its scoops on the alleged scam involving Congress pork barrel funds, that these were hijacked by one Janet Lim-Napoles.

The articles were mainly written by reporter Nancy Carvajal, and backed up by the paper’s investigative team chief Fernando del Mundo. Del Mundo even implied that a burglary at his home was done by criminals hired by the scam’s brains. That of course indirectly confirmed—dramatically—that the articles were on to something very serious, and that we in the press should be alarmed over such brazen attack on media.

The articles are certainly spectacular, and could be another feather in the cap of the PDI, where I am proud to have been a columnist. And as I‘ve always believed, excellent papers are excellent papers because of the exclusive, investigative stories it regularly publishes—a feat only four publications do. I do hope that the series leads to the reform of the pork barrel system, officially called Congress’ Priority Development Assistance Fund.

It is an unwritten rule—or professional courtesy—that a journalist from one paper does not criticize the reportage of another. He does so only by way of reporting a third party’s denials.

However, I’d have to stick my neck out in the case of this pork-barrel reportage, in the spirit of camaraderie in the brotherhood of journalists. After all we are all committed to the truth, and the last thing we would want is that our profession be used for a dark agenda.

What also prodded me to write this critique is that I witnessed first-hand in 2001 how an alleged whistle-blower could be so skillful as to fool even veteran intelligence officers and hard-nosed journalists. I’m referring to Ador Mawanay, who had very detailed figures on Panfilo Lacson’s alleged dollar accounts in US banks, which also became banner headlines for the PDI. Mawanay turned out to be a very clever con man, his allegations completely fabricated.

I must say when I saw a very short TV footage of the main accuser Benhur Luy impishly smiling as he took off his dark glasses and cap, he reminded me so much of Mawanay.

To be frank, I have become sick about self-styled whistle-blowers. We should drop that term whistle-blower, as it presumes what they are claiming is true, and call them the neutral term “accusers.”

Remember Dante Madriaga who accused a “Greedy Group (again a made-for-media term) headed purportedly by First Gentleman Mike Arroyo of extorting $40 million in the ZTE controversy? But do you remember that even rabid anti-Arroyo Senator Panifilo Lacson demanded that the Senate throw him in jail for being a liar? Did your read that he recently claimed that there was nothing wrong with the ZTE contract?

Or Jun Lozada, who thought that making up allegations against the former President could save him from the solidly-based corruption charges against him when he headed the Philippine Forest Corp. President Aquino himself doubted his truthfulness, and now Lozada is “whistle-blowing” against him and his relatives.

Many aspects of the pork-barrel reportage are odd, which professional journalists would easily detect.

First, the “P10-billion” figure is obviously designed for shock and media impact, since the accusers do not have a tally of the alleged pork-barrel funds stolen. Notice how the term “P10-billion pork barrel scam” has stuck so swiftly and has been repeated again and again in media now?

Whoever thought of “the P10-billion figure” is a skilled PR man, with an extensive background in advertising, and fully knowledgeable how certain terms could stick in the public mind. Would PDI run a “P150 million scam” story as its banner?

“Billions” attract readers: a stringer at the New York Times, Carlos Conde, got a much-desired space in the paper by claiming a $2 billion pyramid scam in 2003, which turned out to involve less than P20 million. The Aman pyramid scam became headline news because of the P12 billion the con men allegedly amassed, even if that figure logically appears to be so huge as to be unbelievable. (Another headline in that propaganda genre: “We control government”, attributed to Napoles, which of course enrages everyone.)

Second, why did the accusers leak the story only to the PDI, when crusaders would call for a press conference so all media would hear their revelations? Was it because this would ensure it headline play by one of the biggest newspapers in the country?

A PDI correspondent, Tetch Torres-Tupas actually reported three months ago: “JLN Group of Companies (the Napoles firm) allegedly oversaw the implementation of several government-funded projects like the alleged Fertilizer Scam, Malampaya Fund Scam, and the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).” That article didn’t go anywhere though, until details were added starting last week, particularly the P10-billion figure.

Third, why are the accusers willing to be interviewed to this day, only by the PDI (and its broadcast-media working partner GMA News)? Are they afraid of being grilled on their allegations?

Fourth, Luy claims he was defending himself against Napoles and her brother Reynaldo Lim, who kidnapped him in March. But in April, Lim and Napoles’ counsel presented the CCTV footage by the security of the posh Pacific Plaza Towers showing that he was resisting the NBI agents’ demand for him to join them. Six witnesses—including the condominium’s guards—testified that he was not detained at the couple’s condominium.

The Department of Justice dismissed the NBI’s allegations of Luy’s kidnapping on June 10, 2013. Nearly a month later, the accusation was resurrected through PDI’s “scoop”, with its July 17 article even headlined: “Kidnapping led to discovery of P10-B pork scam.”

Despite Luy’s resistance, the armed NBI agents managed to get him and keep him in its offices. That was three months ago. Could that period been used by NBI elements to work out with Luy—willingly, or under the threat of being salvaged— an elaborate “P10-billion pork-barrel” story?

Fourth, how did the 31-year old Luy—whose highest position was probably as office clerk get to hire a lawyer, and to be so media-savvy to link up with the PDI? His lawyer Levito Baligod is based in Cagayan province, but is reportedly to be close to ranking NBI officials.

Why have the alleged affidavits, which make up the sole basis of the PDI’s stories, not been published by the newspaper, for others to confirm if these were actually signed by the accusers and notarized? This is important if you remember that ZTE accuser Madriaga circulated in media his alleged affidavit that contained his accusations, but which he later refused to sign. Would the accusers later turn out not to have signed the affidavits, therefore disowning them?

Fifth, who is the retired general Napoles claimed in his April letter to President Aquino was with Luy and others who were attempting to extort P300 million from her, or else she would be completely destroyed in media?

Sixth, why do we have the same talking heads in this pork-barrel brouhaha as in the past character-assassination operations undertaken by Mr. Aquino or his cohorts against former President Arroyo and former Chief Justice Renato Corona.

First is Justice Secretary Leila de Lima with her usual quote, “yes, the NBI is investigating” and the next day offering the accusers to be put under the Witness Protection Progam, which implies that they could be killed by the accuser’ guns-for-hire since their accusations are correct. Then BIR head Kim Henares steps in to practically label the target as a tax-evader, which obviously assumes that there is stolen money on which taxes should be levied. Then it is the Ombudsman ordering her own investigation. And of course Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda with his drone that “this is part of the President’s anti-corruption campaign.”

Seven, and most importantly, the brouhaha’s targets. There are about 60 senators and over 800 congressmen in the ten–year period the alleged pork-barrel scam operated. There are many legislators most people and I know are so unscrupulous who I do not have the shadow of a doubt enriched themselves through the pork-barrel system. I would have listed them if not for my pity that this newspaper would be embroiled in an expensive libel suit.

But Luy alleged that only five senators were involved in this scam: Former Juan Ponce Enrile who can still, even by a long shot, foil Aquino’s plan to completely put the Senate under his thumb; his protégé, the quiet but fiercely independent Gregorio Honasan; and three senators who would likely make a bid for the presidency (or the vice presidency) in 2016—Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., Ramon “Bong” Revilla, and Jinggoy Estrada.

Too early for 2016? People have very long memories with regards to corruption allegations. Many still remember President Quirino’s “golden aurinola”—which actually turned out to be brass. Many still believe the canards hurled against President Arroyo in 2007 in a propaganda drive to trigger a fake People Power revolt, even if none has been proven so far, even after the Aquino government has left no stone unturned looking for evidence.

The PDI headline yesterday—why am I not surprised?—has President Aquino entering the picture, just in time for his SONA on Monday, and in effect confirming the five-part series: “P-Noy orders full fair, probe of pork scam.” (The subhead was “BIR also to scrutinize tax records of JLN,” a clever implication that yes, Napoles stole P10 billion.)

The truth could be somewhere in between. My gut feeling is that Napoles might have been involved in pork-barrel or municipal-fund scams but certainly not in the scale of a P10 billion operation.

Did somebody come up with a brilliant scheme to use this to end the ambitions of presidential hopefuls?

As is often the case, elaborate fabrications are exposed when one of its allegations that are shown to be totally erroneous. This involves the fifth banner headline of the PDI: “Malampaya lost P900 million in JLN racket.” On Sunday, I’ll discuss why auditors of Commission on Audit, and even Aquino’s budget secretary Florencio Abad would have fallen off their seats laughing after reading that.