Exclusive: Napoles parties with anti-graft court justice

MANILA, Philippines - When the pork barrel scam being investigated by the Ombudsman finally reaches the Sandiganbayan, one senior magistrate may have to inhibit himself in the case if it is raffled to his division.

Pork barrel poster queen Janet Luy Lim Napoles did not only brush elbows with lawmakers who allocated millions of pesos of their Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to her alleged dummy non-government organizations (NGOs). She also exchanged pleasantries, smiles, and posed for photo opportunities with a magistrate who was a member of the Sandiganbayan's Fourth Division that handled the Kevlar helmet case.

That case first linked her to a scam involving government funds for the ghost purchase of 500 Kevlar helmets in 1998. What were delivered late were helmets of inferior quality made in Taiwan instead of the US, as specified by the Marines. The scandal forced the filing in August 2001 of malversation charges against officers and civilian suppliers involved in the anomalous deal.

Kevlar links

Associate Justice Gregory Ong, who chairs the Sandigan's Fourth Division and who was short-listed by the Judicial and Bar Council as Presiding Justice candidate, was surprised when Rappler showed him a photo of himself — all-smiles and apparently having a good time — with Sen Jinggoy Estrada and Napoles.

While he acknowledged that he was indeed the one in the photo, he quickly denied knowing Napoles and suggested that it was one of those instances when a stranger, or a common guest in a party, would want their photos taken with him.

“I do not know her. She did not appear in court. I think she had a waiver of appearance in court,” he replied when reminded that Napoles and her brother, Reynald Lim aka Reynaldo Francisco, were both respondents in the Kelvar helmet case.

In that case, Napoles was acquitted while her brother was convicted. This, despite all the payment for the supposed transactions going to Napoles' bank accounts. Her brother applied for and was granted probation by the Sandiganbayan.

Asked where the photo was taken, Ong vaguely remembers the occasion but said it could have been one of the parties frequently hosted by Estrada. “Jinggoy is a friend. I am closer to him than with the father,” Ong said, referring to former President Joseph Estrada. The former president appointed Ong to the Sandiganbayan in 1998.

Angry with Jinggoy?

In an interview Wednesday, August 28, Ong sought to downplay the first impression that he was close to or even a friend of Napoles. He explained, “I was beside Jinggoy. Jinggoy was the one in the middle. If she was beside me, that would have been a different story.”

He said he “would not be stupid enough” to be posing with Napoles had he known that she was the respondent in the case previously handled by his division. The ruling, where a number of Marine officials were found guilty, was penned by Justice Jose Hernandez. Ong and Justice Maria Cristina Cornejo concurred.

Told about the propriety of members of the judiciary being seen in social events that could compromise their integrity, Ong said: “I should have learned my lesson.”

Ong said it is likely that Estrada asked him to join the photo opportunity with Napoles.

Was Estrada aware that Napoles was a former respondent in Ong’s sala? Did he intentionally put the magistrate in a compromising situation?

Ong said, “Kaya nga ako nagagalit sa kanya. Ginamit nya ako. Nagamit ako." (That’s why I am angry with him. He used me. I got used.)

He added he has severed his ties with Estrada. “I deleted his number," he quickly replied when asked if he would still try to call Estrada. “Very unfair ginawa ni Jinggoy.” (What Jinggoy did was very unfair.)

The younger Estrada in previous interviews, had sought to downplay his association with Napoles, merely saying that he knows Napoles “through a friend.”

Previous photos published by Rappler showed Napoles table-hopping with other guests in a party hosted by Estrada. Napoles, for her part, said she was closer to Estrada’s wife, Precy Vitug.

Estrada has been dragged into the pork barrel controversy after whistle blowers said he was among the senators whose PDAF went to the bogus NGOs put up by Napoles. A special audit on PDAF from 2007-2009 showed that Estrada shared P396.25 million of his PDAF during those years to Napoles-linked NGOs. 

Napoles surrendered Wednesday night after going on a lam for two weeks. A Makati court issued an arrest warrant against her and Reynald Lim in connection with the serious illegal detention case filed by the National Bureau of Investigation in behalf of pork barrel whistle blower Benhur Luy.

Beyond reproach

Although not expressly stated in the Canon of Judicial Ethics, purists insist that judges, justices and members of the judiciary are expected to be more conscious about who they interact with socially to preserve the integrity of their position.

On the extreme, they are expected to live a monastic life or a life of semi-isolation—that is, far removed from social functions, public events and other activities that could put them in compromising situations.

In her best-selling book, "Shadow of Doubt," author and Rappler editor at large Marites Danguilan Vitug wrote about justices adopting self-imposed taboos once they became members of the judiciary.

“For the judiciary, seclusion is a way of life. Justice Abraham Sarmiento, when he was still on the Court, explained in a speech that their business was deciding cases ‘free from the influence of men’s, especially politicians’ opinions, except legal arguments of advocates. Our business is reading the law..unmindful of the passing parade,” Vitug wrote.

She further quoted Sarmiento as saying, "Government works with utmost transparency, we work in strict confidentiality. Bureaucrats live with an open book; most of our books are closed to public scrutiny.”

In a separate interview, one Sandiganbayan justice said that judges and justices should be above suspicion not only with their rulings or decision but also on public perception. “We justices are bound to be fair and impartial but we must also be beyond reproach on public perception.”

The justice said “there is no hard and fast rule” on how judges and justices should behave outside the confines of the court but certain situations or circumstances could compromise their integrity.

Referring to the photo of Ong, Estrada and Napoles, the justice said “that picture is nothing. But given the ongoing reports of the pork barrel scandal, it gains a different context.”

Clean conscience

Ong previously applied for a seat in the High Court but this application was scuttled due to questions about his citizenship. He insisted he has never been involved in any situation that could taint his integrity. 

“You investigate my background. Was there a time I took a bribe? Ask any lawyer,” he said.

Told that we obtained information that it was even he who was advising Napoles about legal strategies in connection with the Kevlar helmet case,  Ong asserted, “I deny that. Impossible!”

He further said, “My conscience is clear. Wala akong pakialam sa kanila,” referring to the Napoles. (I have nothing to do with them.)

He added: “Whatever you want to write, if you want to destroy my reputation, just be fair.” - with reports from Rey Santos Jr/Rappler.com