Janet Lim Napoles is the woman at the heart of the Philippines’ multimillion-dollar pork barrel scam. But is she a criminal mastermind?
By Sacha Passi Illustration by Victor Blanco
Clad in a bulletproof vest while appearing in court last year, Janet Lim Napoles must have wondered where it all went wrong. The businesswoman has become the face of a multimillion-dollar conspiracy that has ensnared some of the Philippines’ most powerful politicians.
The scam, which lasted for almost a decade, came to a halt in July last year when the 49-year-old was pinpointed as the mastermind behind the funnelling of $230m worth of government funds from the Priority Development
Assistance Fund (PDAF) – also known as the ‘pork barrel’ – to fake NGOs.
In an ongoing investigation, Napoles, the owner of Filipino trading group JLN Corporation, faces charges of plunder, malversation and corruption for her alleged involvement in the scam. The mother of four has denied the charges and refused to divulge any knowledge of the controversy despite being closely linked to key government officials also implicated in the scam.
Despite a history of alleged dodgy dealings associated with the Napoles name dating back to 2001, observers of the investigation believe it is more likely she served as a facilitator rather than a ‘mastermind’.
“For those who know Napoles, she does not have the brain or the clout to do what she is accused of. Pork barrel scams are complicated and can only be conceptualised by somebody who thoroughly knows the system. Napoles here serves as the implementer of the scheme,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director at the Institute of Political and Electoral Reform in the Philippines. “She has developed her contacts in various government agencies, including congress, through her personal associations. The public now sees her as the epitome of corruption in government.”
For President Benigno Aquino, a leader who has built his three-year rule on an image of being a corruption fighter, the pork-barrel fraud undermines his ability to push forward much-needed economic reforms in the country.
“This particular scandal is just one manifestation of a much more entrenched, long-standing way of doing business for well-connected elites,” said Michael Johnston, a professor of political science at Colgate University in the US. “Napoles has become the public face of a scandal that has had big implications for the president and his image, and for the expectations he has raised. In that sense, if her role persuades people that politics as usual has not changed much under Noy [Aquino], that’s important in its own right, over and above what happens to her.”
Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos have taken to the streets in protest at the government’s failure to protect the public funds. The PDAF has since been scrapped, by name at least, from this year’s budget after the Supreme Court declared the discretionary allowance “unconstitutional”.
All eyes are now on the Senate to see if the country is ready to weed out corruption from the ground up, or if it will be business as usual in the year to come.
“The real issue is not Napoles but the roles of elected members of Congress, especially in the Senate, and the role of government officials, including some in the current administration,” said John Sidel, a professor of international and comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“Given how many people may be implicated, there will undoubtedly be efforts to curtail the investigation and prosecution, especially given how many ‘big fish’ are involved and how much ‘dirt’ they have on one another across the political divide,” Sidel added. “The likelihood is that this will drag on at least until the [presidential] elections in 2016.”
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