PRESIDENT Benigno Aquino III said members of his Cabinet who are being dragged into the pork barrel scandal are innocent until proven guilty, and will remain at their posts until there is sufficient evidence to charge them in court.
“Here in our country, it is a basic right of all accused that they are innocent until proven guilty, not guilty until you prove yourself innocent,” the President said.
“If all critics of our Cabinet secretaries demand that we replace our officials, and if we give in to them every time they criticize, then how can we have a Cabinet?”
At least three Cabinet officials have been implicated in the pork barrel scam, allegedly organized by Janet Lim Napoles: Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Technical Educational and Skills Development Authority director general Joel Villanueva, and Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said Thursday that Napoles has applied for immunity from suit in exchange for testifying for the state on the pork barrel scam and the Malampaya fund mess.
De Lima said she was evaluating the request.
Amid calls for the Cabinet officials to resign, Aquino said if there is evidence against them, the government will initiate the filing of cases.
“This I can promise you: if there is sufficient evidence, we will bring them to court,” he said.
He said it is the obligation of government to ensure that airtight cases are filed against those who misuse public funds.
“If we file weak cases based on assumptions and unfounded accusations, it is like guaranteeing that the cases will be dismissed. It is like giving the accused a perpetual get-out-of-jail card because we have the principle of double jeopardy, meaning we cannot file the same case again,” Aquino said.
The President cited the case of Villanueva, who was accused of channeling his pork barrel fund to a non-government organization of alleged scam mastermind Janet Napoles when he was still a party-list representative of the Citizens Battle Against Corruption (Cibac).
“This is not to pre-judge, but Secretary Villanueva showed to me the alleged request letter that he signed. What was printed in the letterhead was another party-list and not Cibac,” he said.
Aquino said the government cannot also be hasty in filing the cases against the 25 incumbent and former senators who were in the lists of Napoles and whistleblower Benhur Luy.
“Should we have filed the cases against the 25 and leave it up to Batman to ensure that the cases prosper? Or should we ensure that the cases we file hold them accountable for plundering public funds?” the President said.
He recalled that the first list he got contained the names of 14 senators, the list submitted by Napoles as well as the one with rehabilitation czar had 11 names each.
“There is only source, but the contents were different,” the President said.
Aquino was also lukewarm to calls for Napoles and Luy to be called to the Senate to testify again.
“Are they trying to help clarify the discussion or are you out to muddle this? Do they want me to lose time to file cases by making us explore all their accusations? We have to be careful with this,” the President said.
“And I just want to stress, my understanding is that the affidavit of Napoles is still unfinished and is a work in progress. I wonder what will be Chapter III or her third revision? Six months from now, will she recall the names of all those in her list?”
“Maybe they want us to get dizzy and confused, and we will not agree to that,” the President added.
De Lima said she received Napoles’ request for immunity along with her initial signed and notarized affidavit, which covers the three senators and five congressmen already charged in the first batch of plunder cases before the Office of the Ombudsman.
De Lima said she would assess Napoles’ qualifications as a state witness and submit a recommendation to the Ombudsman, which will have the final say.
De Lima noted that the Department of Justice’s witness protection program, which provides security to state witnesses, also has power to vet applicants.
However, De Lima said Napoles’ application for state witness status is not a priority of the Justice Department.
“That could only be secondary to the vetting or the evaluation of her allegations in her initial affidavit and then in the longer, complete affidavit that we’re waiting for. It’s only after vetting that we will able to know is she’s qualified (to become state witness) or not,” De Lima said.
The law says a state witness must not be the most guilty in the crime, and that her testimony be necessary in the successful prosecution of the case.
The Ombudsman has earlier approved the application for immunity from criminal suit of another accused in the pork barrel scam, socialite Ruby Tuazon, who has turned government witness.
The camp of pork barrel scam whistle-blower Benhur Luy immediately opposed Napoles’ application for coverage under the witness protection program.
Luy’s lawyer Raji Mendoza pointed out that Napoles’ credibility has already been destroyed after she lied “many times” in her testimony before the Senate.
“We believe that she should not be granted immunity. Her questionable credibility is a natural liability that can do nothing to contribute to the cause of our witnesses,” Mendoza said in an interview.
“We don’t know if what she’s saying is the entire truth, sanitized truth or entire lie,” he added.
Napoles, who is still in the Ospital ng Makati following surgery to remove her uterus, still owes the state hospital P100,000 in unpaid bills.
The hospital’s medical director, Perry Ishamel Peralta, she she might be discharged, however, if she gives them a promissory note.
Peralta made his statement at the Makati regional trial court trying Napoles for a case of serious illegal detention filed by Luy.
Peralta said the unpaid hospital bills would not prevent Napoles from leaving since she can write and sign a promissory note, and said doctors had approved her discharge as early as May 5.
Her lawyers filed a motion asking the court to allow her stay longer at the hospital, keeping her out of her detention cell in a police camp in Sta. Rosa, Laguna.
Also on Thursday, Vice President Jejomar Binay said anyone guilty of misusing public funds, whether they are allies or not, should be punished.
He also agreed that the pork barrel scam has become muddled by recent revelations of several lists from Napoles and Luy.
In the House, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte said it was unlikely that the scandal would taint the innocent “Let me point out that of 289 members, only 18 current, including from the opposition, are in the Lacson list. Only one or two of them occupy important posts,” he said. – With Christine F. Herrera, Joel E. Zurbano and Sara Susanne D. Fabunan