Witnesses say Villa got cash, SUV from Napoles

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Rene Villa, chair of the Local Water Utilities Administration. Photo from www.lwua.gov.ph

Rene Villa, chair of the Local Water Utilities Administration (LWUA), received cash and campaign donations from Janet Lim-Napoles, the alleged mastermind of a P10-billion scam that turned the congressional Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) into kickbacks, according to her former employees.

“He was a regular visitor in the office until the pork barrel scam broke out and always received money from madame Jenny,” said Marina Sula, one of 10 former Napoles employees who have turned whistle-blowers.

Records provided by the employees to the Inquirer showed that on Feb. 24, 2010, Villa, a Liberal Party stalwart and political ally of Senate President Franklin Drilon, received P500,000 taken from the vault of the Napoles office at Discovery Center on Ortigas in Pasig City.

On May 6, 2010, Villa also received P300,000 withdrawn from Masaganang Buhay Foundation’s Account No. 073-3-07352347-9 in Metrobank, according to one document. The foundation was one of the 20 nongovernment organizations (NGOs) allegedly controlled by Napoles that were used as conduits for ghost projects.

Sula said she witnessed various occasions during which Napoles handed Villa either a brown envelope or a paper bag containing money. She said Napoles’ nephew John Lim took the money from the office vault.

Merlina Suñas, another whistle-blower, told the Inquirer that Villa received donations and a sport utility vehicle (SUV) from Napoles for his unsuccessful campaign for Iloilo representative in 2010.

Villa told the Inquirer that he became a lawyer for Napoles after he quit the Arroyo administration as agrarian reform secretary in 2005 in the wake of the “Hello Garci” vote-rigging scandal.

A plunder case has been filed against Napoles in connection with the misuse of P900 million from the Malampaya Fund coursed through the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) for assistance to victims of Tropical Storms “Ondoy” and “Pepeng” in 2009.

Napoles deals with DAR

Suñas said Napoles’ transactions with the DAR started in 2007 after Villa became Napoles’ lawyer in her firm, the JLN group of companies.

Suñas said one of the biggest transactions was P200 million secured from the Malampaya Fund. She said that documents, like requests by local mayors for funding, were given to Villa by Napoles to handle.

Villa became the agrarian reform secretary in 2004 but resigned after he joined the so-called “Hyatt 10” group of Cabinet officials and government executives who left their posts in protest over allegations that then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo stole the 2004 elections following the “Hello Garci” scandal.

He told the Inquirer earlier that before he was appointed LWUA chair in September 2011 by President Aquino, he was lawyering for Napoles. Villa replaced former Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay, who was sacked for alleged misuse of the agency’s funds.

Villa said he became friends with Napoles after he helped her in a failed bid to engage in a coal project involving Indonesian and other foreign partners.

‘A very generous client’

In a phone interview, Villa said the cash he received from Napoles was part of his compensation as lawyer for the businesswoman.

“I must admit she is a very generous client but these are payments for my services. I’m paid attorney’s fees and where the money came from, I’m not in a position to know. Since when has lawyering become a crime? If it were a crime, then we should abolish it,” he said.

Villa said he could not say whether Napoles’ cash and gifts to him were campaign contributions because she gave them as her client.

“How can this act of giving be misconstrued as a bribe when I wasn’t in government then? If I wanted to enrich myself in government, why did I quit twice?” said Villa, who resigned as presidential assistant for Western Visayas at the height of the “jueteng” scandal in the Estrada administration and as agrarian reform secretary in the Arroyo administration.

Villa said his visits to Discovery Center in the last few years were incidental as he availed of discounts from Napoles for food and lodging of his personal guests at the condominium hotel.

He dismissed suggestions that he helped Napoles facilitate her deals with the DAR in 2007 and 2009. “I was a pariah at the DAR at the point, how could I throw my weight around then?” asked Villa.

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