MANILA, Philippines – A star witness in a corruption scandal implicating powerful Philippine lawmakers publicly acknowledged her role Thursday in deals that defrauded the government of large amounts of anti-poverty funds and pledged to return nearly $1 million in kickbacks she received from corrupt deals.
Businesswoman and socialite Ruby Tuason testified at a televised Senate committee hearing that she decided to tell the public what she knew of the corruption and the alleged involvement of two prominent senators after watching the misery of many poor Filipino survivors of a powerful typhoon last November.
Originally among those facing corruption complaints, Tuason later was allowed by the Department of Justice to become a state witness after offering to disclose details of the alleged large-scale graft. She said she decided to return recently from the United States, where she hid for months, despite the risks because she felt so guilty.
"I really actually even felt like I was Judas Iscariot," Tuason said when asked by senators why she had a change of heart. "I don't want to die with 80 million Filipinos hating me. I don't want to die with my grandchildren being ashamed of me."
Tuason told the senators she handed kickbacks from bogus government livelihood projects to prominent Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, son of an ousted president, and Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile's chief of staff. She said she personally delivered stacks of money that were so heavy she once had to use a trolley bag to deliver them.
The two senators have strongly denied any wrongdoing.
The corruption scandal has outraged many in the poverty-stricken Philippines. TV footage and images of those implicated basking in luxury sparked such an uproar that hundreds of thousands of ordinary people joined a protest in Manila last August.
Department of Justice officials filed the first major corruption complaints in September against Estrada, Enrile and a third senator, Ramon Revilla Jr., who also denied any wrongdoing, following the public outcry over the alleged plunder of millions of dollars intended for anti-poverty and livelihood projects. Others facing corruption complaints were former lawmakers and a wealthy businesswoman.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said at the time that the complaints accused the lawmakers of conspiring with dummy aid organizations to funnel millions of dollars in government funds to non-existent agriculture and livelihood projects and received huge kickbacks in return.
The kickbacks were part of $141 million transferred from 2007 to 2009 to dozens of questionable private organizations, according to a government audit that was part of the evidence used against the lawmakers.