Prosecuting the pork scammers

Three things need to be done to banish the pork barrel scam: (1) identify, investigate, prosecute and penalize the scammers; (2) recover as much of the scammed public funds as possible; and (3) avoid a repetition of this mess. Today, I have space to discuss only the first item and a little of the second. I will take up the third at another time.

Four angels. Unquestionably, beyond Janet Lim-Napoles, the conniving senators, congressmen and their cohorts should be held accountable. This job belongs to four gutsy ladies, whom I dubbed in an earlier column as “P-Noy angels” (8/2/12), namely, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, Commission on Audit Chair Grace Pulido-Tan, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, and Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares.

According to the Constitution, Ombudsman Morales is the “protector of the people.” Under Republic Act 6770, she has disciplinary authority to suspend and dismiss elective and appointive public officers, including Cabinet members, but excluding officials removable by impeachment, members of Congress, and the judiciary.

Though she cannot suspend or remove impeachable officials, she can nonetheless investigate them for the purpose of filing (a) impeachment charges in the House of Representatives; (b) civil cases for the recovery of ill-gotten wealth; and (c) criminal indictments for the violation of the antigraft and other penal laws. Against legislators, she can also investigate and file criminal and civil actions.

Chair Tan, the sentinel of public funds, has publicly revealed the COA audit of the pork barrel for 2007 to 2009, mentioning several lawmakers. I have no doubt she will continue the audit for the more recent years to negate the impression of selectivity in her work.

Secretary De Lima heads not only the prosecution arm of the government but also the National Bureau of Investigation. On her capable hands lies the responsibility of safeguarding the witnesses and gathering the evidence to convict the malefactors.

Not to be outdone, Commissioner Henares has initiated the investigation of the tax liabilities of the scammers. Using the lifestyle check and the inventory method, she can handily determine, “Al Capone style,” the criminal and tax liabilities on the ill-gotten wealth of the perpetrators.

PCGG, AMLC and Congress. In addition to the four P-Noy angels, the Presidential Commission on Good Government is mandated—aside from recovering the ill-gotten wealth of former President Ferdinand Marcos and his cronies—to (a) investigate other graft cases (like the pork barrel scam), and (b) institute measures to prevent their recurrence. In Cruz vs Sandiganbayan (Feb. 26, 1991), the Supreme Court upheld the PCGG’s authority, when directed by the president, to investigate non-Marcos corruption cases.

To fulfill its mandates, the PCGG has been granted extraordinary powers, such as to hold persons in contempt (a power that normally belongs to the judiciary and to Congress, and that the four P-Noy angels do not have), to take over business enterprises provisionally, to enjoin acts that threaten or impair its functions, and to request foreign governments to freeze the assets of corrupt officials. Additionally, the PCGG’s charter authorizes it to conduct preliminary investigations, provided that fact-finding is performed by another agency like the NBI.

Another government agency that can help in holding the scammers accountable is the Anti-Money Laundering Council. Already, it has been given five months by the Court of Appeals to freeze and look into the bank accounts of  Napoles. It should also look into and freeze the bank accounts of the public officials involved in the scam.

For its part, the Senate has started its own investigation. While this is mainly in aid of enacting new laws to prevent a repetition of this mess, each chamber of Congress, per the Constitution, may “punish its Members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds of all its Members, suspend or expel a Member.” Yes, it will take courage and gumption to “expel” colleagues for “disorderly behavior” in relation to the pork barrel scam.

Teamwork needed. It is said that too many cooks spoil the broth. From the foregoing, it is clear that several agencies have crisscrossing and overlapping prerogatives which, if not coordinated, could complicate the investigation and prosecution of the scam.

Fortunately, the Department of Justice, COA and Office of the Ombudsman, with the latter as head agency, have formed the Inter-Agency Anti-Graft Coordinating Council (IAAGCC) precisely to tackle “complex fraud-related government transactions with a national impact.” To strengthen the council, may I suggest the inclusion of the PCGG, Bureau of Internal Revenue, and AMLC?

Contrary to recent news reports saying the IAAGCC will investigate only conniving nongovernment organizations, the council was formed to look into transactions covering “P50 million or higher” and involving “high ranking public officials with the position of bureau director or higher.”

The Anti-Graft Law prescribes a jail term of only six years and one month to 15 years for corruption. Perhaps the IAAGCC can string together the charges to add up to plunder, a capital offense. Our penal laws provide not only jail terms but also perpetual disqualification from public office as well as forfeiture of unexplained wealth.

Speedy and sturdy justice is the cry of our people. I am sure the prosecutors know this and will live up to the challenge.

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