Palace: OMB, not Binay, decides on Tuason

MANILA, Philippines – Malacañang responded to Vice President Jejomar Binay’s statement that the testimony of socialite Ruby Tuason in the pork barrel scam was a mere “dud.”

Palace Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr was asked about Binay’s remark that Tuason’s statements against his close allies Senator Jinggoy Estrada and Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile was a “dud.”

In a report of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Binay contradicted the assertion of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima that Tuason’s testimony was “slam-dunk evidence.” The Vice President asked whether Tuason’s statements can “demolish anything.” He also questioned the plan to make her a state witness.

Yet Coloma said it is Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, not Binay, who will assess the weight of Tuason’s testimony. The Ombudsman is conducting preliminary investigation on the scam. It will determine whether or not there is basis to charge the accused with plunder before the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan. 

“The Office of the Ombudsman is the one evaluating the additional information or the affidavit submitted by Mrs Ruby Tuason. They are the ones with the duty and discretion about this matter so it is best that we wait for their judgment,” Coloma said over radio DZRB on Sunday, February 9.

Binay, Enrile and Estrada are top leaders of the opposition United Nationalist Alliance (UNA). Binay founded the coalition for his 2016 presidential bid, and sits on its executive committee along with Enrile and Estrada’s father, former President now Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada. The younger Estrada was reported to be eyeing to be Binay's running mate in 2016. 

Binay reacted to Tuason’s testimony a day after she made a surprise return to the Philippines from California to offer to turn state witness. She corroborated the statements of whistleblowers that Estrada and Enrile pocketed pork barrel funds, or money intended for priority projects benefitting the poor. Rappler first reported on Tuason's plan to testify. (READ: The secrets of Ruby Tuason

Tuason is a former social secretary of the elder Estrada, and was married to the late Butch Tuason, a cousin of former First Gentleman Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo. 

In her affidavit, Tuason said she personally delivered cash to Senator Estrada and Enrile’s resigned chief of staff, lawyer Jessica Lucila “Gigi” Reyes. She said she made the cash deliveries at the Senate, and sometimes met with Reyes and Enrile in restaurants in Taguig or Makati. (READ: Pork conduit: Excerpts from Ruby Tuason's affidavit)

Tuason appeared before Morales and De Lima last Friday at the Office of the Ombudsman to re-affirm her sworn statement.

Along with Senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr, Estrada, Enrile, Tuason and alleged scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles face a plunder complaint for supposedly conniving to funnel pork barrel funds to Napoles’ fake NGOs in exchange for kickbacks. Tuason admitted getting 1.5% in “referral fees.”

‘Other witnesses must come forward’

Coloma called on other witnesses to come forward. He said the Aquino administration is willing to evaluate the statements of other players in the scam to bolster its case against the lawmakers.

“If there are others who want to offer additional information that can help the process of tying up or confirming the earlier statements of the whistleblowers, the Department of Justice will accept and assess their information,” Coloma said.

Coloma said the Department of Justice (DOJ) can extend to other witnesses the same treatment it gave Tuason. De Lima has said that her department “provisionally admitted” Tuason as a state witness.

“The DOJ will assess whether or not there is enough basis to also give them consideration to join the Witness Protection Program or to treat them as state witnesses,” Coloma said. 

“The DOJ will take the necessary steps to improve the prosecution of [those who] allegedly misused public funds,” he added.

Coloma also echoed the statement President Benigno Aquino III made on the day Tuason returned to the Philippines.

Pangako natin sa sambayanan, kung saan tayo dadalhin ng ebidensya, doon tayo tutungo. Makakatulong ito sa pagsasara sa kabanatang ito na nangyari na pang-aapi sa ating sambayanan,” Coloma quoted the President as saying.

(We promise the nation, we will go where the evidence leads us. This will help in closing this chapter of abuse to our country.)

Tuason is set to appear before the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee on Thursday. De Lima allowed Tuason to testify, saying “there is no reason to decline” the Senate’s summon.

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, Enrile’s staunch rival, vowed to return to the Senate despite her illness to “grill” Tuason on the scam. – Ayee Macaraig/Rappler.com