There are witnesses and there are really good witnesses. And in the last two hearings of the House of Representatives, some of the latter category are starting to rise head and shoulders above the rest, in terms of credibility and the potential value of their testimony.
But first, let’s separate the convicted chaff from the credible grain. I happen to share Senator Panfilo Lacson’s view that the convicts paraded by the Department of Justice to relate tales of lurid, sensational and corrupt behavior by Senator Leila de Lima and other justice and prison officials can’t really be trusted.
Lacson, who spent decades as a top policeman before starting a second career as a politician, believes that the convicts may be telling the truth in Congress. But their credibility can’t really be all that high or they wouldn’t be in jail to begin with.
The grant of legislative immunity by the House committee on justice to the convicts presented by Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre for the duration of their testimony could also have loosened their tongues and made them susceptible to fabricating stories, as De Lima herself has already alleged. For instance, I wonder how much of the exuberant account given by convicted robber Herbert Colangco before the panel isn’t embroidered with lies, since Colangco considers himself a performing artist who required the presence of his talent manager while he testified.
On the other hand, the first hearing last Tuesday also produced the testimony of National Bureau of Investigation agent Jovencio Ablen Jr., whom Lacson gives high marks for credibility. And yesterday’s second hearing came up with a gem in the form of the narration of PNP Director Benjamin Magalong.
It was Ablen who narrated how De Lima, through her controversial driver-bodyguard Ronnie Dayan, received money from NBI deputy director Rafael Ragos. Ablen’s detailed and vivid testimony explained how he was able to see De Lima herself at the door of her house in Paranaque City while Dayan was receiving the cash from Ragos at the gate.
Lacson approved of the way Ablen recalled the dates and times, the license plates and other details of the handoff of money from Ragos, who gave millions to De Lima through Dayan twice, according to the NBI agent’s recollection. And when Ablen recalled how he was designated by Ragos (who was concurrent officer-in-charge of the Bureau of Corrections) as the conduit for the cash raised by the convicted drug lords, he won praise from Lacson again for his forthright testimony.
Ragos, who my sources told me is a longtime friend and associate of De Lima and who introduced Dayan to her, “appears to be hiding something,” Lacson said. But the testimony of Ablen convinced the senator that there is enough basis to charge De Lima criminally in a proper court of law.
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Yesterday, Magalong appeared before the House justice committee and explained the strange case of how he conceived of a plan to end the illegal drug trade run by prominent inmates inside the national penitentiary—only to be left out of the high-profile raids that De Lima started conducting at the prison some years back. Magalong, who was head of the PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group, narrated that his was not the only agency involved in the planning of “Oplan Cronus” kept out by De Lima; the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency was told by De Lima to send only its K-9 unit and not to bother asking its human operatives to participate.
Magalong told the committee that he and his men were really angry about being kept out of the raids, renamed “Oplan Galugad” and headed by De Lima herself. He testified that he met with De Lima several times after he presented his “Cronus” plan, asking when the justice department intended to implement it and offering himself up as ground commander of the operation, only to be told to wait repeatedly.
The testimonies of Ablen and Magalong are clearly the most credible presented so far against De Lima. And taken together with the tales told by the convicts, they create a clear narrative of De Lima’s alleged involvement in the illegal activities at the national penitentiary that were allowed by corrupt government officials who received millions in bribe money over several years.
And Congress has its work cut out for it, over and certainly way above linking De Lima to the crime gangs that have made the national penitentiary a walled Las Vegas, as one convict-witness described it. Our lawmakers need to ensure that the shenanigans inside Bilibid are stamped out and never allowed to happen again, through better-crafted laws that will prevent corrupt enforcers and executives from making a mockery of the jail time served by convicted felons.
Of course, the erring officials of the Aquino administration who allowed the NBP to become the epicenter of criminal activity that it has become should also be prosecuted and jailed. And if they are reunited in the penitentiary with the convicts that they made money out of, in exchange for looking the other way, then justice will truly be served.