Three top leaders of the political opposition in the Philippines were charged Monday with plunder, the highest form of corruption under Philippine laws, a development that could alter the political landscape in the country in the run-up to the presidential elections in 2016.
Two of those charged in the Office of the Ombudsman-- Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla -- are potential candidates for president when the term of incumbent President Benigno Aquino III ends three years from now. The Philippine Constitution provides for a single six-year term for a president.
The Ombudsman is the government agency tasked with prosecuting corruption charges involving government officials. After conducting a preliminary investigation, the Ombudsman will file the case at the Sandiganbayan, a special court tasked to handle graft cases filed against public officials.
The third opposition leader sued for plunder is former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile. At 89, Enrile, a veteran legislator and still a senator, does not have any presidential ambition but is one of the three "godfathers" of the opposition alliance along with Vice President Jejomar Binay and former President and now Manila Mayor Joseph Ejercito Estrada.
In the next presidential polls, Binay is slated to run for president in the opposition against now Interior Secretary Mar Roxas of the ruling Liberal Party.
In the charge sheet filed with the Ombudsman, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima alleged that the three, along with scores of others, conspired with Janet Lim-Napoles, a businesswoman, in receiving kickbacks and payoffs worth P10 billion (0.24 billion US dollars) from projects supposedly undertaken by non-government agencies ( NGOs) but were later found to be bogus and the projects non- existent.
In order to support the charges, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) that spearheaded the investigation of the case, brought two vans loaded with documentary evidence. The NBI also gathered evidence from testimonies of the so-called " whistleblowers" who exposed the Napoles' scandal and from the special report of the government's Commission on Audit that also dug into the fund irregularities.
The complaint alleges that Napoles took the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) of the accused lawmakers and channeled it to her bogus NGOs. In his testimony before the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee last week, key whistleblower Benhur Luy said lawmakers received kickbacks from Napoles to up to 50 percent of the funds disbursed in exchange for selecting the Napoles' NGOs.
The PDAF is a lump-sum appropriation given to Philippine legislators under the national budget which they can disburse at will for their constituents. The set-up, patterned after the "pork barrel" system in the United States, has been subject of abuse by unscrupulous politicians, some of them pocketing portions of the fund.
Napoles, 49, the alleged brains, surrendered to President Aquino on Aug. 28. She is now detained at Fort Sto. Domingo in Sta. Rosa, Laguna, a government facility some 30 kilometers south of Manila.
Enrile, Revilla and Estrada all denied the accusations against them and vowed to fight off the plunder charges in the Sandiganbayan if the cases were filed there.
In a statement issued by his spokesperson Monday night, Enrile said the filing of plunder charges against him was regrettable. " Let me make clear that I am innocent of the charges filed against me," he said.
Enrile issued the statement from a hospital where he was brought over the weekend, a day before the filing of the complaint against him and other lawmakers.
"My only appeal to you is not to prejudge me," a teary-eyed Revilla told reporters from the Senate session hall Monday. Earlier, Revilla accused the Aquino administration of singling out opposition stalwarts in its drive against corruption.
"They're trying to condition the minds of the public that we're the worst thieves and I can't accept that," Estrada said of the charges, stressing he had no such record as a long-time public servant.
Senator Estrada is the son of former President Estrada, the first Philippine president to be charged with and convicted of plunder some years back.
Analysts here said because the justice system in the Philippines is notoriously slow it would take years before a final decision on the charges against the lawmakers is handed down.
In fact, it took six years for the Sandiganbayan to convict former President Estrada for plunder. Estrada, however, was pardoned by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo before he could serve his sentence of life imprisonment.
Arroyo, now a representative from her district in Pampanga, north of Manila, is also facing plunder charges on top of other charges filed against her by the Aquino government. Arroyo, who is sickly, is now detained in a government medical facility in a Manila suburb pending the resolution of her cases.