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Philippines gets state witness against senators in fund scam

MANILA: A suspect in the illegal use of Philippine lawmakers’ discretionary funds turned state witness and agreed to testify against at least two senators accused of pocketing kickbacks.
Ruby Tuason, who faces plunder charges at the Office of the Ombudsman, was given provisional protection in exchange for her testimony, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said at a televised briefing in Manila Friday. The ombudsman, the nation’s anti-graft agency, will later rule on her immunity from prosecution.
The testimony of Tuason, who moved in the same circles as the senators, provides “slam-dunk evidence” that bolsters the government’s case against people who pocketed hundreds of millions of pesos in kickbacks from so-called pork-barrel funds, de Lima said.
The scandal over the misuse of government funds has overshadowed President Benigno Aquino’s efforts to focus on improving infrastructure and completing a peace deal with Muslim rebels in the country’s south as hallmarks of his second and final term in office. In Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index the Philippines improved 11 places to 94th out of 177 countries.
“Tuason’s testimony corroborates what the other whistle- blowers have said,” de Lima said. The witness, who arrived from the U.S. early Friday after leaving the Philippines in August, had promised to return her commissions from the illegal transactions, she said.
Tuason said she had personally delivered commissions to Senator Jinggoy Ejercito Estrada at his Senate office in Pasay City and to Senator Juan Ponce Enrile’s chief of staff outside his office, de Lima said, citing Tuason’s affidavit that was not circulated.
“Tuason’s testimony will be crucial to pinning down high- profile suspects such as Estrada, Enrile and his chief of staff Gigi Reyes,” Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science lecturer at the Ateneo de Manila University, said by phone. “The fact that she chose to return from abroad means that the investigations have generated significant momentum.”
Enrile, Estrada and Senator Ramon Revilla Jr. were accused before the ombudsman in September of pocketing a portion of their discretionary funds that were channeled to bogus foundations. Some lawmakers got half of their misused funds, a whistle-blower told a Senate hearing on Sept. 12. All three have denied any wrongdoing.
Aquino said Tuason can “strengthen” the government’s case against those charged in the scam. “It will help bring closure to the wrong that was done to the nation,” Aquino told reporters Friday in Manila. He said he is awaiting a report from the Department of Justice on Tuason.
The Supreme Court in November stripped Congress of its discretionary power to allocate funds for infrastructure and development projects, ruling the practice illegal.
About three of four Filipinos think that at least half of lawmakers’ discretionary budgets are lost to corruption, and more than half of them are unaware of any local projects implemented by a lawmaker in the past six years, according to a September poll by Pulse Asia Research.