The truths and lies of Janet Lim Napoles
MANILA, Philippines – The life of businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles is the stuff of legend.
There are stories of luxurious milk baths; of millions in cold cash stored in bathtubs; of glitzy parties where politicians, celebrities-slash-politicians and Philippine society’s movers and shakers mingled the night away.
And then there’s the story of how Napoles allegedly amassed millions through the biggest corruption scandal to rock the country in recent history.
The 50-year-old, according to whistleblowers and witnesses, worked in cahoots with politicians or their aides to siphon off millions in Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF) or pork barrel through fake projects and bogus non-governmental organizations that she herself had set up.
But that’s not the woman lawyer Bruce Rivera knows.
Napoles’ spokesman and legal counsel speaks of a woman who spent weekends feeding the hungry, funded charities, prayed fervently, and was generous – but never boastful – to her friends.
‘How you portray her’
In the cold, air-conditioned walls of Judge Elmo Alameda’s sala is where tidbits of Napoles’ life is unearthed and narrated in excruciating detail to members of the court, lawyers, and a soundbite-hungry media.
Alameda, presiding judge of Makati Regional Trial Court Branch 150, has the happy task of hearing the kidnapping charges filed by scam whistleblower Benhur Luy against Napoles and her brother Reynald "Jojo" Lim.
Everything – from her alleged propensity to curse, to what goes on in her vagina – is fair game inside the court. But there was one instance when Rivera felt enough was enough.
The defense team wanted Alameda to let Napoles stay in the hospital for a few more weeks, and presented Napoles’ oncologist as their witness. During his narration, the doctor said he could not rule out the possibility of “private, intimate contact” being the reason for the bleeding, adding that Mrs Napoles was “only human” and had “urges.”
The prosecution, wanting to prove Napoles’ medical woes were of her own doing, wanted to follow up on what “intimate contact” meant. Rivera and the defense team would not have it. They asked Alameda to let “other people” – the media, in particular – leave the courtroom to protect Napoles’ privacy.
Rivera later downplayed the doctor’s statements in media interviews. It was impossible, Rivera said. There was no way “intimate contact” could happen in the confines of Napoles’ hospital room.
“Kayo kasi, you say so many things about her,” Rivera told Rappler months later, before launching into a long list of things media has allegedly exaggerated on – milk baths included.
The media says so many things about her. It’s a line Rivera often repeats about the kind of coverage his client gets. “Galit na galit na mga tao sa kanya. Wala na silang ikagagalit pa,” he would say. (People are already angry at her. There’s no way they could hate her even more.)
‘I cannot tell a lie’
It is not easy speaking in behalf of and, for the most part defending, a woman hated by many and pre-judged by many more.
Rivera has been there from the very beginning. On July 17, 2013, it was Rivera and JLN Corporation lawyer Afredo Villamor who faced media, shortly after the Philippine Daily Inquirer came out with reports exposing the scam.
Back then, Rivera read this statement from Napoles: “I would like to put on record that I have nothing to do with the so-called misuse of senators’ and congressmen’s PDAF using bogus NGOs, as alleged in the series of Inquirer reports.”
Back then, Rivera took it as the truth. But as the controversy dragged on, Rivera learned more and more about Napoles’ actual involvement in the scam.
Before July 2013 ended, Rivera knew what he had to do. “They were asking me to tell a lie. Sabi ko, hindi ko kayang gawin iyan (I told them it’s something I could not do). I cannot lie through my teeth,” said Rivera. (READ: 'Madame Jenny' Napoles, woman in the eye of a storm)
And so Bruce Rivera walked away from the case and from the harsh spotlight that followed Napoles since that an odd interview she granted to the Inquirer, to Camp Crame, to Laguna, and to Camp Bagong Diwa where she is currently detained.
Without Rivera by her side, Napoles sought the services of lawyer to the stars Lorna Kapunan. In a separate interview, Kapunan said she was referred to Napoles by a friend from the Philippine Red Cross. Napoles, it turned out, was one of the organization’s biggest anonymous donors.
Rivera went back to a quiet life practicing law and teaching law at San Beda College Alabang and Mendiola, while Napoles defended herself in public and even waged war against several journalists.
The ‘real’ Napoles
It was in the streets of Quiapo, Manila, where Napoles and Rivera first met.
Rivera then was a law student who was months away from taking the Bar. He decided to do charity work on the weekends, he said, for good karma points.
He found himself volunteering in Manila for the Magdalena Luy-Lim Foundation’s feeding program. Rivera caught Napoles’ eye; she asked other volunteers to introduce her to him.
“Sabi daw niya, sino 'tong maputing ito? Laging andito ah,” Rivera said of the first impression he made on Napoles. (She wondered, why’s this fair-skinned guy always going here?)
The connection was instant and the two became “kindred spirits,” said Rivera. For a while, she’d call him “anak” (son) and invite him to lunches and dinners at her home. Rivera was then staying at a dormitory in Manila, and hot meals in a nice home were always welcome.
During those visits, Rivera saw what he says was the “real” Napoles – low-key and humble, never flashy. Meals were simple viands that reminded them both of their Bisaya heritage (Napoles grew up in Basilan while Rivera grew up in Cebu).
“Hindi sosyal ang pagkain. Kumakain nga 'yan nakakamay lang,” recalled Rivera. (She wasn’t fussy about food. In fact she’d eat with bare hands.)
Napoles’ friends are hard to come by nowadays. Some of them benefitted from her wealth, some of them earned through Napoles, and others simply don’t want to associate themselves with her. “They just left,” said Rivera.
Rivera is still there, regardless of the intrigues. “I have nothing to hide. And I have no problems with people saying that my source of income is sketchy. I know the truth,” he said.
One of Napoles’ former counsels, Alfredo Villamor, has since been dragged into the scam as well. He was supposedly one of her PDAF scam agents.
Rivera admits that it was obvious the Napoles were monied but he chose not to delve into the details. “I never asked. It was never my business,” Rivera explained.
After he passed the Bar, Rivera was offered a job at Napoles’ flagship JLN Corporation, which he turned down. He said he didn’t want to mix business with friendship back then.
David vs Goliath?
In the 6 months or so that Rivera was gone, a lot happened – Napoles found herself a fugitive for two weeks before surrendering to no less than the President; she was then shuttled from Camp Crame, then the Makati city jail, and finally to Fort Santo Domingo in Laguna.
But Napoles reached out to him again in November 2013, weeks after Kapunan left (whether she resigned or was sacked is up in the air). As early as November 2013, even before she was set to testify before the Senate blue ribbon committee, Napoles was ready to come out with the truth.
“She asked to see me and told me 'What can I do, attorney?'” recalled Rivera. But Napoles was still hesitant, said Rivera. Telling the “truth” meant dragging other people – including the President’s closest friends – into the scandal.
Napoles’ work method through the years also made it doubly difficult. She never used a laptop in all her years of business, nor did she have anything recorded electronically. Napoles was very secretive that way.
Every single document and every single transaction was either written down in a notebook, scribbled on loose pieces of paper, or simply committed to memory.
“Sabi nga niya sa akin, kung p'wede lang uminom ng maraming gingko biloba para lang matandaan ko lahat eh,” said Rivera. (Napoles told me: If only drinking gingko biloba can help me remember everything.)
The family asked Rivera to represent Napoles before the Senate. He was willing to, but there was a problem – the hearing was scheduled more than a week before he was set to return to the Philippines from a vacation in the United States.
“I just told her to avoid incriminating herself,” said Rivera.
Napoles asked the Senate to move her scheduled hearing because she had no legal counsel to represent her but this request was denied. With lawyers from the Public Attorney’s Office by her side, Napoles famously (or infamously, as is always the case with her) uttered the line: “I invoke my right to self-incrimination.”
It would not have been the first time Rivera represented Napoles before the blue ribbon committee. Back in 2007, Napoles asked Rivera to check if she was being summoned by the committee over the so-called “fertilizer scam.”
But Rivera said when he went to the Senate to inquire, he was told the probe was over and that Napoles’ testimony wasn’t needed anymore.
Late April, or almost 6 months after Napoles first considered “telling all,” she finally did. In a surprising meeting with Justice Secretary Leila de Lima in a room at the Ospital ng Makati, Napoles told De Lima what she knew.
Napoles had wanted the meeting since November 2013, and it was arranged by Rivera through common friends. De Lima was Rivera’s co-teacher in San Beda, and both are alumni of the school.
With the help of Rivera and David’s team of lawyers, Napoles produced two signed affidavits detailing what she knew or remembered about the pork barrel scam. The list involved more than 100 lawmakers from all parts of the political spectrum and was part of Napoles’ bid to secure immunity for her and her children in the plunder case.
But her appeal would be rejected by the Ombudsman, who noted that Napoles seemed to be the most guilty in the case.
Napoles is facing graft and plunder charges before the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan alongside senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Ramon Revilla Jr, and Jinggoy Estrada.
‘We have a problem’
On top of his duties as Napoles' spokesman, Rivera is also her lead counsel in the serious illegal detention case filed against her by Benhur Luy. The case has been dragging on for a year, and Rivera is the 4th lawyer to handle it (Kapunan, Villamor, David were lead counsels before him).
The scam was first reported in the media on July 12, 2013, a Friday. The following day, Napoles called Rivera up. “May problema (I have a problem),” she told him.
The problem turned out to be Benhur Luy, who was now claiming Napoles had him kidnapped from December 2012 to March 2013.
Rivera insists none of the Luys’ accusations are true. “Mrs Napoles cannot kidnap. And Reynald Lim, he’s sickly and meek,” said Rivera, referring to Napoles’ brother who is also an accused in the case.
Luy claims Napoles had him “kidnapped” and hidden at the retreat house Bahay ni San Jose because she discovered he was running his own version of the pork barrel scam. But the Napoles camp insists it was Luy who wanted to go on a “retreat,” to make amends with Napoles.
Napoles, said Rivera, was livid at Luy over the way he implemented his version of the pork barrel scam. Luy was eventually “rescued” by the National Bureau of Investigation.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Rivera is confident the truth will prevail and that Napoles will be acquitted in the kidnapping case. After a year of detention, Rivera said Napoles has "accepted her fate."
With Napoles' accounts frozen, none of her lawyers have received compensation for their services. There have been no discussions with the lawyers from David's team nor has there been any mention of money between Napoles and Rivera.
Rivera said he does not mind. His income as a teacher and from his other clients (yes, he does, in fact, have other clients) are more than enough to sustain the life of a bachelor.
And besides, he said, you don't count favors when you're friends.
There is a phrase tattooed on Rivera’s right arm: “To thine own self be true.”
It’s a quote taken from Hamlet, a tattoo Rivera and his partner had gotten earlier this year.
He tells Rappler it doesn’t really mean anything else, but to those observing the case, it might as well serve as a reminder for himself and his high-profile client.
Rivera said he has no regrets, and probably will never have regrets, about taking on the case. He insists Napoles is still willing to tell the truth, even if the truth is something people do not want to hear.
“I’m not saying she’s a saint, but more people can be crucified,” said Rivera. – Rappler.com