POLICE detained opposition Senator Jinggoy Estrada Monday, the second high-profile official arrested within days over the pork barrel scam.
Estrada, 51, gave himself up to police after the Sandiganbayan anti-graft court said it found probable cause to proceed with the charges and issued an arrest warrant.
“I never stole a single centavo from government coffers,” a defiant Estrada told reporters, as he accused President Benigno Aquino III of playing politics and cracking down on his opponents.
“At the end of the day, I will prove my innocence,” he said. “I will face all charges against me in court.”
Flanked by his father, ousted President Joseph Estrada, the senator then boarded a white van trailed by a long line of media vehicles for a short drive to the police headquarters, where he turned himself in.
Estrada is among 54 people indicted for an alleged scam in which lawmakers, their staff, and other officials are accused of embezzling millions of pesos allotted for development projects.
Estrada is accused of pocketing P183 million in pork barrel that was allegedly diverted to ghost projects.
He has been charged with one count of plunder, an offense for which no bail is allowed, and which is punishable by life imprisonment. He also faces 11 lesser counts of graft.
Senator Ramon Revilla Jr. was arrested Friday on similar charges, while the courts are expected to soon issue an arrest order for a third senator, Juan Ponce Enrile, a 90-year-old veteran politician who was once the chief martial law enforcer of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos.
The case erupted last year when businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles was accused of colluding with lawmakers to embezzle an estimated P10 billion pesos from legislator’s pork barrel.
Napoles initially denied any wrongdoing, then in a failed effort to turn state witness gave prosecutors a list implicating more than 100 lawmakers. She has also been charged with plunder.
Two of those on the list are now Aquino Cabinet members, although they deny the charges and say Napoles is trying to spread false information to deflect blame from herself and the other key players.
The President has refused to investigate them, drawing criticism for prosecuting only his political rivals while going easy on his allies and close associates.
The Palace on Monday denied accusations that there is a systematic plan to cripple the opposition with the detention of Revilla and Estrada, and the impending arrest of Enrile.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda belied the accusations of Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada and Senator JV Ejercito that the government is crippling the opposition by jailing minority senators.
“We can also assure Mayor Estrada that the perception that we have is entirely inaccurate. There is no systematic plan,” Lacierda said.
“What we have, however, is a plan to bring to court those who have been found to have misused their PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) and that would involve and affect anyone who have misused their funds - whether you are friend or foe,” he added.
Lacierda cited the case of former Customs chief Ruffy Biazon who was also charged with graft.
“The fundamental position of the President and of this administration is that we have asked all public officials to be accountable and one way of doing that is by way of finding where the evidence is and where that evidence takes us,” Lacierda said.
He described the arrest of Revilla and Estrada a significant step forward for the judicial system.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said the arrest of the two senators vindicated the findings of the Justice Department’s investigators.
“We would not refer the complaints to the Ombudsman if we were not convinced that there is basis for these cases. The same goes with the Ombudsman: they would have not filed the cases before the Sandiganbayan if they were not convinced of at the very least the existence of probable cause,” she added.
De Lima said the existence of probable cause was the only requirement for filing a criminal case in court, which will determine the guilt or innocence of the accused.
Along with Estrada and Napoles, the Sandiganbayan’s Fifth Division also ordered the arrest of John Raymund de Asis, a JLN Co. employee and Kaupdan Para sa Mangunguma Foundation Inc. president; Pauline Therese Mary Labayen, Estrada’s staff member; Budget Undersecretary Mario Relampagos; Allan Javellana, former president of National Agribusiness Corp. (Nabcor); Antonio Ortiz, former director general of the Technology Resource Center (TRC), and Gondelina Amata, president of the National Livelihood Development Corp. (NLDC).
The Fifth Division also issued arrest warrants for Nabcor employees Rhodora Mendoza, Victor Cacal, Romulo Relevo, Maria Ninez Guanizo and Maria Julie Villarolvo-Johnson; NLDC employees Emmanuel Sevidal, Sofia Cruz, Chita Jalandoni, Evelyn Sucgang and Gregoria Buenaventura; TRC employees Marivic Jover and Francisco Figura; Rosario Nunez; Lalaine Paule; Marilou Bare; Ma. Rosalinda Lacsamana, and Consuelo Lilian Espiritu.
Noel Malaya, Estrada’s lawyer, filed a petition for bail, saying the evidence against his client was “absent,” and that the senator was not a flight risk.
“There is no proof that Senator Estrada amassed, accumulated and acquired ill-gotten wealth,” Estrada’s lawyer read.
The court will hear Estrada’s bail petition on June 27 (Friday) at 8:30 a.m.
In 2001, Estrada was arrested for plunder under the Arroyo administration, but was cleared in 2007. His father was convicted, however, and later pardoned by then President Arroyo.
The Fifth Division granted Buenaventura a bail reduction of P90,000 from the original P240,000 bail for eight counts of graft, while Munsod posted P60,000 in bail for two counts of graft.
Lacsamana posted a bail of P120,000 for four counts of graft.
Earlier, Estrada posted bail of P330,000 for 11 counts of graft.
Apart from Estrada, those charged with plunder were Labayen, Napoles and De Asis.
The Sandiganbayan’s First Division has set an arraignment date of June 26 for Revilla.
Estrada, who was held in the Philippine National Police custodial center in Camp Crame, was welcomed by Revilla, who is detained in a room next to his.
Hours before Estrada yielded to the authorities, members of his family were in tears as the senator prepared to leave their house in the Corinthian Gardens subdivision in Quezon City.
Estrada said it was sad to be taken from his family on a baseless accusation.
He told his children “to always go to church” and assured them the was nothing to be ashamed of.
Estrada said he was confident the truth would set him free.
Before surrendering, he visited his father in his house on Polk Street in Greenhills.
The elder Estrada and wife Loy accompanied their son to police headquarters for his surrender.
Upon his arrival, Estrada went through the usual booking procedures including mug shots, fingerprinting, and a physical and medical checkup.
He waited four hours in the multi-purpose hall while police cleared up with the Sandiganbayan where he was supposed to be detained.
Estrada readied his things a few hours before his surrender on Monday, taking only his clothes.
He laughed when reporters asked him if he packed some insecticide after reports said the custodial center was full of rats and cockroaches.
Estrada thanked his supporters and promised to prove he had nothing to do with the pork barrel scam.
The senator said he had to dissuade his youngest daughter Jill, 8, from accompanying him to his cell, and said his children surprised him by decorating the chapel in their home on Polk Street in Greenhills with a wedding theme last Sunday.
“We renewed our (wedding) vows there yesterday (Sunday). It was very touching,” said Estrada who will be celebrating his 25th wedding anniversary on June 28.
Estrada’s daughter Janella, who is a councilor of San Juan, shared a video clip of the ceremony on Instagram.
“When I entered the chapel we were surprised that all our relatives were there. They decorated the chapel as if it was really planned,” he said. His wife Precy cried, he said.
Senator JV Ejercito said he was saddened by his half-brother’s arrest, even though they have had their differences.
In time, he said, he hoped to be able to visit him in his detention cell.
Ejercito was among those who signed the recommendation of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee to file plunder charges against Estrada, Revilla and Enrile. – With Rey E. Requejo and Francisco Tuyay
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