US indicts woman at heart of Philippine graft scandal

Janet Lim Napoles (C) is a key suspect in the ‘pork barrel’ scandal where politicians allegedly embezzled roughly $200 million that was supposed to help poor Filipinos AFP

MANILA: A businesswoman at the centre of a massive Manila corruption scandal has been charged in the US with laundering about $20 million allegedly pilfered from the Philippine state, prosecutors said, adding they would seek her extradition. A federal grand jury in California indicted Tuesday Philippine national Janet Lim Napoles, a key suspect in the so-called “pork barrel” scandal where politicians allegedly embezzled roughly $200 million that was supposed to help poor Filipinos.

Napoles, along with five family members, is accused of wiring $20 million of the stolen money from the Philippines to California bank accounts, the US attorney’s office said in a statement. Lim, 54, is already behind bars in the Philippines, where she is on trial over graft charges stemming from the alleged embezzlement. The Manila law firm representing her declined to comment. The US indictment alleges the defendants used the money to buy real estate, shares in businesses, two Porsche Boxsters and finance the living expenses of three US-based Napoles family members.

“We will work with our Philippine counterparts to secure the extradition of the defendants to the United States,” said US Attorney Nick Hanna. The US government won a court order in 2015 to freeze $12.5 million worth of assets bought by Napoles and others using the allegedly stolen funds. “If the court orders the assets forfeited, the United States will work… to return the stolen funds back to the Philippine government,” the statement said. The money was intended for use in development projects chosen by lawmakers, but instead it was diverted to phoney non-profit organizations and stolen.

The scandal rocked the Philippines, where one in five people live on the equivalent of just over a dollar a day. Three Filipino senators were among those arrested in Manila in 2014 over the scam. After her arrest in Manila, the US government said, Napoles and her family attempted to quietly liquidate the American assets and move the cash back to the Philippines or accounts in the US and Britain. The defendants also allegedly attempted to give some of the money to Napoles’s US-based daughter, one of those indicted, who used the cash to open a fashion business.

Last year Napoles won a legal victory when a Philippine appellate court acquitted her of charges of abducting and detaining a former aide who turned state witness against her in the plunder and graft charges. However, President Rodrigo Duterte’s government recently dropped an earlier proposal to turn her into a state witness, which could have lessened her exposure to a long prison sentence if convicted. – AFP

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