For the first time, I think the long-running word war between President Rodrigo Duterte and Senator Leila de Lima is leading somewhere. And I’m not talking about that poor excuse for a Senate hearing on the killing of alleged drug pushers and users that began yesterday.
Duterte announced early on Sunday that he wants to take a “second look” at the pork-barrel scandal, in which De Lima, as justice secretary of the previous administration, figured prominently as the designated prosecutor of lawmakers who pocketed billions in government funds. If you’ve been paying any attention at all, you would know that the prosecution of those who stole the Priority Development Assistance Fund was marked by the non-filing of cases, save for those against a dozen congressmen and three senators—all of whom were identified as enemies of the Aquino administration.
Levi Baligod, the original lawyer of Benhur Luy, the main whistleblower of the PDAF scam that exploded on the national consciousness in 2013 and made a household name out of Janet Lim Napoles, says the number of members of Congress charged by De Lima when she was justice secretary is way too low. A more faithful charge sheet, Baligod told me yesterday, would involve 14 senators and more than 100 congressmen now belonging to the newly opened 17th Congress.
De Lima has always made a big show out of charging those involved in the Napoles fund-diversion scandal but never really delivered. If Duterte is as serious about going after De Lima as he says he is, the president needs to look no further than Napoles, now serving time for the irrelevant (to the main scandal, anyway) crime of serious illegal detention.
(If Duterte wants to throw more personal dirt on De Lima, he can look into reports of how the senator’s ex-husband, the lawyer Plaridel Bohol, went to the office of a top official of the National Bureau of Investigation sometime that year together with the lawyer of Napoles. CCTV footage at the bureau showed Bohol and Napoles’ advocate arriving with a heavy paper bag—containing, some have speculated, crisp bundles of cash—and then leaving the office without it.)
Again, unless you have a very bad (or a very Yellow) memory, you may recall how the entire Aquino administration and practically all of Congress dedicated themselves to shutting down the scandal. Everyone from then President Noynoy Aquino to the most unheard-of congressman avoided being linked to Napoles—even as all of them were being identified on a daily basis as beneficiaries of her legendary largesse.
It may be argued that De Lima was not as involved in the PDAF scandal pulled off by Napoles as Aquino, Florencio Abad, Mar Roxas, Paquito Ochoa, Edwin Lacierda and a host of other Executive officials (to say nothing of Senate President Franklin Drilon and a “supermajority” of senators and congressmen) in the beginning. But De Lima was certainly involved in the massive cover-up that followed, because she was in charge of filing charges against everyone linked to the “pork barrel queen”—because her real job was to make sure that no Liberal Party bigwig or Executive top honcho was ever in danger of being haled to court.
And who knows what songs Napoles would sing if she is asked to do so in her cell at the Correctional Institute for Women, now that her former wards and protectors are no longer possessed with the powers they used to have? If I were Duterte, I’d stop fighting with the so-called human-rights advocates and go after De Lima by reopening the PDAF scandal.
Of course, everyone knows by now just how persistent Duterte is in pursuing the drug syndicates and their protectors in government and in uniform. But I would argue that the massive looting of government funds that took place during Aquino’s term—not only through the raiding of the PDAF but also of the Malampaya funds and the Disbursement Acceleration Program—is still in line with the new president’s campaign against corruption.
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Many people may consider De Lima now as the hatchet woman in the Senate of the remnants of the Aquino administration. But those who remember her clean-up role in the PDAF scandal know that her earlier designation was already prefigured in the first two months of the past regime, when she was just newly appointed as secretary of justice.
That was when De Lima refused to file charges against the officials of the new Aquino administration whom she herself identified as culpable for the killing of eight Chinese tourists by a deranged Manila policeman at the Rizal Park in August 2010. De Lima even vowed that she would resign as justice secretary if her recommendations to hold DILG Undersecretary Rico Puno, Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim and a bunch of other officials liable for the massacre were ignored.
What happened was, Aquino ignored De Lima’s investigation and the secretary completely forgot about her offer to resign. The rest is the sordid tale of Aquino’s six-year presidency, which is now (thank God) history.
Which all leads to my personal belief that if Aquino and the rest of his gang thought that De Lima would reprise the role of their defender as senator, they couldn’t have picked anyone worse for the job. De Lima has way too much baggage—not just personally—to defend even herself, when she doesn’t have the backing of Malacañang.
To paraphrase the old saying, when your only tool is a screwdriver, you tend to look at all problems as screws. It’s like that with Leila de Lima.