Manila: A Philippine businesswoman who allegedly helped legislators embezzle 10 billion pesos ($230 million) in government funds has surrendered to President Benigno Aquino, officials said on Thursday.
The surrender took place less than 24 hours after Aquino announced a P10 million (Dh833,333) reward for information on her whereabouts.
Clad in jeans, pink sneakers and a hoodie, Janet Napoles strode into Malacanang presidential palace late on Wednesday, according to photographs released by Aquino’s office.
The middle-aged woman had eluded a nationwide police manhunt as details of her family’s lavish lifestyle fuelled popular outrage in social media.
“Now that we got her, we can bring her to court,” Aquino spokesman Edwin Lacierda told reporters.
“We are doing our best to bring us closer to the truth.”
Napoles faced arrest for allegedly detaining a former aide-turned-whistleblower to keep him from revealing details of the alleged embezzlement.
However justice officials are readying additional charges that she allegedly connived with legislators to siphon off money from a development fund.
Lacierda said he fetched Napoles from a Manila cemetery on Wednesday night and brought her directly to the palace after her lawyer alerted the government that she wanted to surrender.
Militant and moderate activists — including independent congressmen — continued calls for the abolition of presidential and lawmakers’ “pork barrels”.
“The surrender of Janet Lim Napoles to President Aquino who personally escorted her to the headquarters of the Philippine National Police...should not deter the public from calling for the abolition of the pork barrel of the president, senators, and congressmen,” said Congressman Terry Ridon, of Youth Party, a sectoral seat at the House of Representatives.
“The surrender looked like it was part of a calculated tactic to weaken increasing calls on the president to give up his own pork barrel,” said Ridon, adding, “The public should not be deceived. The public should pursue issues of reform which were raised by multisectoral groups in a protest...last Monday.”
Ridon called for further investigations into allegations by Napoles’ relative that she has been a major player in the misuse of lawmakers’ Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). “The investigation of this well-entrenched corrupt practice might lead all the way to the presidential palace,” Ridon said.
Aquino allegedly ordered the firing of Brian Yamsuan, media consultant of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa last August 27, when the issue of the pork barrel scam was at its peak, Ridon said.
Earlier, President Aquino and Justice Secretary Leila de Lima hinted that Napoles might be used as a state witness. If that happens, observers said, she might identify “selectively and not all the guilty lawmakers who called for release of funds from the budget department (of the executive level) in favour of fake projects and non-existing companies”.
Meanwhile, the Makati Regional Trial Court filed the case against Napoles who was charged of illegally detaining whistleblower Benhur Luy, her relative and office worker. He and five others are now under the government’s protection programme for revealing Napoles’ alleged involvement in the pork barrel scam from 2010 to 2013.
Her arraignment was scheduled on September 9.
She surrendered for fear of her life, said Napoles’ lawyer Lorna Kapunan, adding she did not know where she and her brother hid.
There were reports that she might he charged with plunder for her alleged participation in the siphoning of lawmakers’ development fund.
Former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, Senators Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jinggoy Estrada, and Gregorio Honasan were identified as the lawmakers who allegedly approved requests of non-existing groups and bogus development funds.
The opposition senators denied the allegations. Four of them belong to the opposition. Marcos’ party has allied with Aquino’s party in 2013.
At the same time, several local government leaders claimed on TV that their signatures were forged in documents that showed they received development funds for non-existing projects.
The investigation is expected to be widespread, involving members of line agencies in charge of development projects and local government officials who oversee development projects in their respective areas.
Meanwhile, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee began its own probe on Thursday.
“Maybe we can invite Janet Napoles in the next hearing,” said Senator Francis Escudero.
“I also want to find out who arranged for her surrender to President Aquino,” he said.
Aquino has been criticised for personally bringing Napoles to the police headquarters in suburban Quezon City on late Wednesday night.