8/29/2013
Janet Lim Napoles, fall girl

In these past few weeks I can't help but feel terrible for Janet Lim Napoles.

Here she is, a woman doing her best to earn money for her family, and literally everybody wants her behind bars. They hear about all of her assets - her many homes, her many vehicles, her three yachts, even - and they just foam at the mouth, as if being filthy rich is a major problem in society that needs to be eradicated pronto. Why don't they do that to the Ayalas?

But of course, Napoles isn't just a filthy rich woman. Here's a woman accused of getting rich not off mining, or of meat, but off scamming government of up to ten billion pesos, of conniving with legislators to funnel discretionary funds to their pockets via bogus projects. Every honest (as if they have a choice) taxpayer would hear of this story and foam in the mouth. So that's where my hard-earned taxes go! is the collective response.

This is a story that hits the gut so hard. We have had a lot of political storms over the years, but unlike past altercations, where all the anger manifests itself, at least in the beginning, in political speeches and gatherings from the masses (likely paid), this one is a mostly middle class concern, spreading from social media and getting the ire, mostly, of professionals and executives, of corporate people seeing a huge chunk of their paychecks wheeled away to government and finally having solid proof that it's not going anywhere.

Maybe it's the tendency of the Internet being an echo chamber, but I have to say that a lot more people had comments about this than any other issue. Everything else - say, all of Gloria Arroyo's scandals - mostly had the activist types commenting. This time, it's pretty much everybody. I remember seeing Jan's tweets these past few days, for instance, and I remember asking him, "you're commenting a lot on this, huh?"

"Well," he said, and I am, again, paraphrasing, "I'm a taxpayer and this is where my money goes? Of course I'm angry."

The whole pork barrel issue - from the first mention of the scam, to today's discussion of discretionary funds across government - is, of course, a very complex issue, one that involves many stakeholders and lots of money. ("Marami pala tayong pera?" said an executive who I had a lunch meeting with yesterday, referring to the government's 2.3 trillion peso budget.) But here we are, going out in the streets and typing in all caps on Twitter, antagonizing Napoles, only antagonizing Napoles, as if her being apprehended will magically remove this whole problem away.

So, for a moment, yesterday's surprise developments - Noynoy Aquino putting a ten million peso bounty on Napoles, and as I went to sleep last night, Napoles turning herself in, to the president, no less - seemed like a very good thing. Sure, there were jokes about it ("did she turns herself in so she can collect the reward?" she pretty much everybody) but there was a collective sigh of relief, that a thief finally turned herself in and put behind bars.

I have a big problem with this, though: Janet Lim Napoles is just a fall girl.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't feel terrible about Napoles because I think she's innocent, never mind all that "innocent until proven guilty" principle nobody seems to believe in anymore. You have relatively sufficient proof that she masterminded this scam; of course, anybody discerning would call for her arrest. I know I have. But the events leading up to this suggest that there's something even more complex brewing under it.

The government, for one, has taken this fight against Napoles (take note, fight against Napoles) very, very personally. When you have the government's official Twitter account, and the president's press team's official Twitter account, actively peddling information that would help citizens turn Napoles in, you know shit's really hit the fan. But of course. Here's another front in Noynoy's war against corruption. Here's a president who's looking for a relatively instantaneous culture change, not just in government, but across all sectors. Here you have a private citizen who uses all of her connections to enrich herself. This goes against everything he's fighting for, so of course, he'll take the front seat in this ride.

But the government's actions on the whole pork barrel scandal doesn't quite stack up. They're out to get Napoles, but they initially kept mum on the existence of the funds itself. Noynoy, of course, flip-flopped on how to deal with these funds, first saying that pork barrel in itself is a good thing, but those misusing it is another. Then, in an attempt to look like he's yielding to public demand, he announced in a televised press conference that he's scrapping the PDAF entirely, only to replace it with itemized budgets - budgets that, according to columnist Neal Cruz, essentially legalizes the power of Congress to insert their pet projects in the budgets of government departments.

Everybody's talked about how Noynoy's statement misses the point entirely: that all he did was rename pork barrel and add an extra layer of executive oversight to it, giving that "mafia between executive and legislature" thing Miriam Defensor-Santiago mentioned a little more heft; that he hasn't even mentioned other discretionary funds in government, especially his own. But that statement also helped him do one more thing, channel the people's anger not towards government, but towards the civilian behind it all. Noynoy took lengths to explain that the "new" PDAF cannot allocate funds to non-profit organizations and government-owned corporations, an obvious stab at the allegations against Napoles. Add to that the government's more active than usual role in catching this woman, and you have a lopsided view of things.

It must be noted, though, that Napoles is not being arrested for her involvement in the pork barrel scam. She and her brother, Reynald Lim, have been issued an arrest warrant for serious illegal detention, for holding former associate Benhur Luy against his will. You've heard that story, of the two siblings locking Luy inside his office, and telling his family that he went on a "spiritual retreat"? Luy would ultimately lead the group of whistleblowers against Napoles.

Admittedly, however, it is impossible to arrest Napoles on the basis of her supposed actions on government funds. At least at this moment. We have sworn statements from her associates, we have some ledgers and lists, but everything is so muddy nowadays that separating fact from speculation is a gargantuan undertaking.

But still, she's now arrested. Well, technically, she surrendered, to Noynoy, no less. She sent feelers at lunchtime yesterday, formally turned herself in at nine in the evening, and is now being detained at Camp Crame. A collective sigh of relief from those who were still awake at the time. It's all over... right?

You know me. This is when I sound like a deranged conspiracy theorist. This is when I suggest that all of this feels so scripted, down to the fact that news broke at eleven in the evening, down to the fact that Mar Roxas and Edwin Lacierda were actually there during Napoles' transfer to the DILG. This is when I even suggest that, the whole time Napoles was missing, she was actually in the protection of the government itself, hoping to manage her release until the paperwork is ready, until they can say that she's decided to clear her name by becoming a state witness.

Okay, that doesn't sound quite farfetched, although I will admit typing that made me feel like one of those people government hates: those skeptics who can't find anything good about anything. (But I am, right?) Anyway, we now have Napoles. The woman we all hate because, let's all admit it, because she's rich, is now behind bars, already paying for her supposed crimes against the country. The government can now claim one victory, but they will have to continue the witch hunt, because what we want is not just for Napoles to go, but for the legislators who benefited to go. And what better place to start than Bong Revilla?

Revilla is one of five senators supposedly involved in the scandal, whose pork barrel was funneled towards bogus projects, only for him to benefit. We've heard a lot from him lately. He's essentially denied allegations against him, even going as far as questioning the COA report tagging him in these transactions, recruiting a handwriting expert to analyze whether his signatures were fake, only to be rebuffed by the national audit, who claim that he himself verified his signatures as real.

We've also heard from his wife, Lani Mercado, a congresswoman representing the city of Bacoor, and her statements retweeted the world over. "Basta 'wag lang manghihingi sa amin ang mga tao!" she said when asked about pork barrel, a statement that has since represented the perceived excesses of legislators. Of course, she'd later say that she was quoted out of context.

With Napoles in hiding, and now being detained herself, it's inevitable public anger will shift towards the Revillas - that they will be antagonized as much as Napoles was, as much as Renato Corona was, as much as Gloria Arroyo was. And again, I can't help but feel terrible for them.

Now, again, don't get me wrong. I'm not defending the Revillas. I live in Bacoor and I don't really feel their presence here at all. We became a city a couple of years ago - a campaign led by Bong's brother, Strike, who is our current mayor - and all we got was a bunch of tarps patting us in the back for being a city, "from Bong, Lani, Strike and Jolo". There were allegations that they participated in vote buying to strengthen their hold in the city, although all I really saw of it were a bunch of Facebook posts and nothing more. But it's safe to say that they represent some of the worst that government can do.

But at this rate, it's safe to say that they - being of a bigger profile than the other legislators tagged in the scandal and, ehrm, being connected to Arroyo - are the next target. Sure, Bong has said that he's not going to appear in the Senate probe into these matters, but what's stopping anyone? They demonized Corona, and he was then a sitting Chief Justice. These things are easy for them.

Regardless of whether the Revillas are damned to hell, however, we have to admit: Napoles' surrender is a major milestone, and it will be used, ultimately, to placate a country that is furious about the misuse of their hard earned money. A token arrest, if you will. All this government needs is to land some big fish and then proclaim, come the next State of the Nation Address, that we (we, because Noynoy loves that word) have vanquished corruption once and for all.

Luckily for Noynoy, last Monday's protests were an expression of rage against the system of pork barrel, and not against, as Amando Doronila pointed out, the failed leadership of a president when it comes to a hot-button topic. Dude's lucky that, despite all of this, people still see him as a beacon of integrity, as a possibly Quixotic figure who's out to fight windmills. Sure, some of us, me included, think that his true colors - Noynoy Aquino as just like every other politician, corrupt and conniving - have been revealed in these past few weeks, but does it even matter now? He's winning a fight, and yet, he and his cohorts will be getting away with so many things.

And your responses...

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