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9 charged with plunder

Two graft court panels eyed to try pork cases exclusively

CHARGES of plunder and graft were filed against opposition Senators Juan Ponce Ernile, Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla Jr. before the Sandiganbayan Friday for their alleged involvement in the pork barrel scam.

Representative from the Office of the Ombudsman arrived at the anti-graft court at 3:30 p.m. to file the suits against the three senators, the accused mastermind of the scam, Janet Lim Napoles, and others.

Charge sheets. Sandiganbayan employees hold
up copies of the charge sheets against Janet
Lim-Napoles and Senators Juan Ponce Enrile,
Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla Jr. Manny Palmero
Also sued were Jessica Lucille Reyes, Enrile’s former chief of staff; Pauline Therese Mary Labayen, a member of Estrada’s staff, and Richard Cambe, Revilla’s chief of staff.

John Raymond de Asis, a JLN Co. employee and president of Kaupdan Para sa Mangunguma Foundation Inc., were accused along with the three senators.

The foundation was one of the non-government organizations allegedly controlled by Napoles.

Ronald Lim, Napoles’ older brother, was also named a co-accused for allegedly having acted in concert with the principal suspects, Enrile, Estrada, Revilla and Napoles.

The cases will be raffled off to the Sandiganbayan’s five divisions on June 13.

The Office of the Ombudsman said the cases are only the first batch of all the recommendations submitted by the National Bureau of Investigation.

A Sandigandayan source said the assigned court will be given 10 days to establish a probable cause for the issuance of warrants of arrest.

More charges for violations of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act are set to be filed next week, the Ombudsman said.

Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales requested the Supreme Court to create at least two special divisions of the Sandiganbayan to exclusively try and conduct continuous trial of the Priority Development and Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel cases.

In a letter to Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Morales cited as compelling reasons the “national magnitude of these cases, the complexities of the issues involved, the number of accused and the far-reaching consequences of these cases.”

Morales cited as a precedent the creation of a special division in 2002 to try former President Joseph Estrada and his co-accused, also for plunder.

Morales on Friday created a special prosecution panel composed of three teams to handle the cases against the senators and their co-accused.

The panel will be co-chaired by Deputy Special Prosecutor John Turalba and acting Deputy Special Prosecutor Manuel Soriano Jr.

Preparations have already been made at the custodial center in police headquarters at Camp Crame for the detention of three senators and dozens other indicted at the Sandiganbayan. Road blocks have been put up on roads leading to the custodial facility, presumably to beef up security in case warrants of arrest are served against the senators.

Police spokesman Chief Supt. Rueben Theodore Sindac, however, said he had no idea what the road blocks were for, or why improvements were being made to rooms in the custodial center.

Last month, the police formed a security team intended that would be assigned to the senators if they are ordered arrested.

Senate President Franklin Drilon said Friday he would not allow law enforcers to arrest Enrile, Estrada and Revilla in any part of the Senate building in Pasay City.

“As a matter of institutional courtesy... I will not allow the law enforcement officers to serve the warrant in the Session Hall or in the Senate. Not as a matter of law, because by law, they can exist, but as a matter of institutional courtesy. They should not be arrested while they are in the session,” Drilon said.

The Senate is in session until June 13 and will adjourn on June 14.

If all the three senators are served the warrants of arrest, Drilon said he would request that not be arrested in the Senate premises.

Even with the three senators absent, the Senate will continue to function, Drilon said.

“Next week, we will pass about six bills. This first regular session of the 16th Congress is more productive than the first regular session of the 15th Congress notwithstanding all the problems that we face,” he said.

He added that the arrest of the three senators would have no impact on the voting on bills and treaties.

Drilon said the detained senators can still file bills, but will not be able to cast their votes.

Enrile, Estrada and Revilla were accused of funneling their PDAF to bogus non-government organizations set up by Napoles.

Drilon said he believed Enrile, Estrada and Revilla are not likely to go into hiding, and will probably seek legal remedies available to them.

All three senators have denied any involvement in the pork barrel scam.

Drilon said the charges before the Sandiganbayan were part of the constitutional and legal process that the senators must accept and respect.

In a statement, Drilon said the search for truth may be painful, but it would strengthen government and reinforce the people’s trust and confidence in the justice system.

“We hope that the Sandiganbayan will set the case for speedy trial so that the innocent would be cleared and freed, and the guilty punished and jailed,” said Drilon.

The Justice Department department said Friday it would continue its investigation into the alleged involvement of more lawmakers in the pork barrel scam.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said the department would pursue its fact-finding probe of two affidavits submitted by Napoles, even if she does ot cooperate.

“Out vetting of her two affidavits will continue. This investigation on the PDAF controversy is not yet done,” De Lima said in an interview.

Although President Benigno Aquino III has questioned Napoles’ credibility, De Lima said her affidavits were “valuable and worthy” and could provide leads for evidence gathering.

She added that the Ombudsman’s decision to deny Napoles’ request for immunity had no bearing on the vetting process, which is aimed at verifying the truth of her claims in the affidavits.

While immunity was off the table, she said Napoles’ camp may pursue “other options”—apparently referring to a plea bargain.

De Lima played down the threat of Napoles’ lawyer, Bruce Rivera, to no longer turn over documentary evidence to the National Bureau of Investigation.

“I don’t think she [Napoles] will refuse to submit [the evidence]. If Mrs. Napoles would not submit those supporting documents, how can she prove the veracity of her claims? If she claims that what she said in her two affidavits is true, then she should cooperate and provide proof other than her words,” she said.

De Lima added that the investigation would proceed even if Napoles decides not to cooperate.

The Justice secretary said the department would have to reevaluate the status of former Technology Resource Center director Dennis Cunanan, after the Ombudsman rejected his plea for immunity.

Cunanan, one of the co-accused in the pork barrel scam, was given provisional coverage under the Witness Protection Program.

De Lima said she was pleased with the Ombudsman’s decision to uphold the department’s finding of probable cause for plunder and other charges against the three senators.

“We are very pleased about this development. We were really expecting the Ombudsman to sustain its finding of probable cause and deny the motions for reconsideration… We maintain that really we have sufficient and strong evidence [that] can hold [up] in court,” she said.

At the Palace, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the senators have several legal options, including questioning the denial of their motion before a higher court.

She said such an appeal could proceed even after the Ombudsman files the case before the Sandiganbayan.

At the Sandiganbayan, the cases will be raffled off to determine which division will handle them. This the paves the way for the issuing of warrants of arrest, Valte said.

Valte denied that the Palace had asked the police to prepare detention facilities for the three opposition senators.

“I remember them saying that it coincided with the current issues that they were fixing up I think some of their facilities,” she said.

“But you know, really, when it comes to detention, it’s the court that determines where the place will be, not the Executive,” Valte added.  With Francisco Tuyay

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