Whistle-blowers wary

3 witnesses cast doubt on Tuason’s motive, says lawyer

A LAWYER of the pork barrel scam whistleblowers on Sunday said the sudden appearance of Ruby Tuason was suspicious.

“We have doubts,” said lawyer Stephen Cascolan, counsel for Marina Sula, Arlene Baltazar and Monette Briones, former employees of the alleged mastermind of the pork barrel scam, Janet Lim Napoles.

Tuason, the former secretary of ex-President and now Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, arrived Friday from the United States, armed with a sworn statement that she had delivered kickbacks from Napoles to Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Juan Ponce Enrile, both of whom are facing plunder charges over the pork barrel scam.

But Cascolan said they had no idea what happened in the past few months to Tuason, who left the country two days after Napoles surrendered to President Benigno Aquino III.

“What were her true motivations? We can also ask who sent her here? Was this voluntary or part of a plan? Was she a part of the defense plan? Before she cooperated, we really didn’t know where she was coming from. So as of now, please bear with us if we have doubts,” said Cascolan in an interview over radio dzBB on Sunday.

Napoles, Estrada, Enrile, Senator Ramon Revilla Jr., Tuason and over 30 other personalities are facing plunder complaints before the Office of the Ombudsman in connection with the multi-billion peso anomaly.

Last Friday, Tuason arrived in the country from the United States escorted by witness protection program director Martin Menez, NBI special task force head Roland Argabioso and NBI Interpol head Dan Daganzo. She offered to tell all she knew about the racket in exchange for freedom from prosecution.

She applied as a state witness in the pork barrel scam, and was immediately placed under provisional coverage of the government’s witness protection program.

Cascolan complained that while Tuason was given provisional coverage under the program, his clients were still treated as respondents and had no immunity.

“While they are giving statements, they also need to answer the charges against them, which we find irregular,” the lawyer said.

While his clients were being used as resource persons in the various investigations into the pork barrel scam, they now had to answer the charges based on their own statements.

Cascolan was also suspicious when told that Tuason surfaced to testify due to a bothered conscience.

“At what point did Ms. Tuason [become bothered by her] conscience?” he said.

In an affidavit submitted to the Office of the Ombudsman, Tuason disclosed that since 2004, she acted as a conduit of Estrada and Enrile for the kickbacks and other entitlements through a scheme allegedly developed by Napoles, who used dummy organizations to receive congressional pork.

Tuason said she personally handed to Estrada and Enrile’s chief of staff, Gigi Reyes.

But Cascolan questioned the value of Tuason’s testimony, noting that probably cause has already been established by the Justice Department and the NBI.

Cascolan also raised the possibility that Tuason was planted by the defense of those charged with plunder.

In a separate radio interview, Senator Aquilino Pimentel III warned Tuason against lying when she testifies before the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee on the pork barrel scam.

“She should be careful. She should not change her story because the whole country has heard it. We will record her testimony during the hearing,” said Pimentel, a committee member.

He said Tuason’s testimonies should be consistent with her written affidavit.

Pimentel also said Tuason would have to prove her assertion that she entered the Senate building through the parking entrance to deliver kickbacks to Estrada.

“It is easy to say that--the deliveries go through the basement. One can easily concoct stories, but this is a matter of proof,” said Pimentel.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima on Sunday said she stood by the statements of Tuason, saying she appeared to be telling the truth about Estrada and Enrile.

“It’s more than just a corroborative testimony. This is direct evidence,” De Lima said, referring to Tuason’s sworn affidavit which became the basis for her acceptance in the witness protection program.

The Justice secretary insisted that Tuason’s statement was “slam dunk evidence” that beefed up the plunder case filed by NBI before the Ombudsman against the two opposition senators.

“Critics are looking for direct evidence that they said were missing in the testimonies of Benhur Luy and other whistleblowers – someone with personal account of how the kickbacks were given to these

lawmakers - and this is what Ruby Tuason has provided,” De Lima said.

“We now have whatever was missing in the testimonies of our whistleblowers,” she added.

De Lima said Tuason was also able to meet all the requirements under the law to qualify as state witness, most importantly her being not the most guilty in the crime charged.

De Lima issued her statement after Estrada impugned the credibility of Tuason, saying she was forced to tell a lie to save herself from prosecution.

Estrada also claimed that Tuason was harboring ill feelings about him because he was not able to provide her financial help.

However, De Lima said she considered the version of Tuason, that she decided to cooperate with the government to clear her conscience, to be more believable.

Malacañang, meanwhile, urged other potential witnesses in the pork barrel scam to come forward.

“If there are other people who are willing to offer information that can help in the process of completing or confirming the earlier story of the pork barrel scam whistleblowers, the Department of Justice will accept and validate what they have to offer,” Presidential Communications Operation Office Secretary Herminio Coloma said.

“The DoJ will determine if there is enough basis to give them consideration to be placed under the Witness Protection Program or if they can be considered as a state witness,” Coloma said.

In an earlier interview, President Benigno Aquino III said the government will only consider Tuason’s application for state witness if her testimony would “benefit the state.”

“The criteria being utilized, I understand, is he who is not most guilty can be offered. So if the testimony benefits the state then that would probably be considered,” Aquino said.

Aquino admitted that Tuason’s testimony could put a closure to the P10 billion pork barrel scam allegedly masterminded by Napoles.

The scam involved channeling the Priority Development Assistance Fund or pork barrel of lawmakers to bogus non-government organizations affiliated with Napoles for ghost projects, in exchange for kickbacks.

“When she said she would testify, we now have one person who can complete the process, who can weave the story, who can reaffirm the allegations of our whistleblowers,” Aquino said.

“So this would strengthen the evidence that we have, and as we have promised the Filipino people, we will go where the evidence takes us,” the President added.

Tuason allegedly received P242.77 million in kickbacks on behalf of a still unidentified principal. With Rey E. Requejo and Joyce P. Pañares

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