Napoles-Pork Barrel Scandal and the Public Figure Doctrine

The P10-billion pork barrel scandal involving so-called businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, her family and business is indeed becoming more like a reality television show.

After the controversy broke out following revelations by’disgruntled’ whistleblowers, photos, blogs and social media posts about Napoles daughter, Jeane, started to emerge to add more drama and suspense to this controversy concerning billions of pork money or PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) being siphoned off into ghost non-government organizations allegedly controlled and operated by Napoles.

To make the story short, the billions of pork money given to some corrupt (allegedly) lawmakers in the Senate and Congress, were secretly and creatively funneled to bogus NGOs, which were used as conduit for anomalous moneyed transactions. At least six whistleblowers, who were all former employees of Napoles, revealed that there were about 20 fake NGOs involved in the P10-billion monkey business. 

Does this grand, creative scheme make you think how easy it is to make money off our cash-strapped government in case you’re ‘lucky’ enough to acquire political connections?

But of course, we all know by now that Mrs. Napoles is nothing but filthy rich! She herself claimed her now questionable wealth is the fruit ofIsn't Jeane Napoles a super rich girl? their hard-work and, perhaps, investment skills. Also, the mother’s claim was further substantiated by her daughter’s blogs and instagram posts flaunting her ritzy lifestyle and super-upper class status.

Mrs. Napoles is now filthy rich that she can afford to file a flurry of legal charges against her critics and accusers. Her lawyers said they would file perjury complaints against supposed whistleblowers Benhur Luy and Merlina Suñas for allegedly accusing Napoles of soliciting money from lawmakers’ pork barrel for non-existent projects through bogus foundations.

They would also file a disbarment case against Luy’s lawyer, Levito Baligod, before the Integrated Bar of the Philippines for allegedly extorting money from the Napoles camp in exchange for his client clearing Napoles’ name in the issue.

Of course, the Napoles camp also needs to make their media critics pay for questioning their questionable wealth. That is, for exercising their press freedom.

Media companies that will be charged with libel include Philippine Daily Inquirer and Rappler. According to its letter of reply, Rappler is “being singled out for stories on the lavish lifestyle of Jeane Napoles, daughter of Janet, while the Inquirer is being targeted for its reports on the alleged fund scam involving legislators and fake NGOs.”

The lawyers of Napoles led by Lorna Kapunan stated in a demand letter that Rappler’s staff writer,  Natashya Gutierrez, disregarded the right to privacy of our clients, exaggerated details about their lifestyle, sensationalized half-truths and gossips relating to their properties, spread lies about them and published very personal details that seriously impact on their security.”

The lawyers state in their letter: “While the law provides for an exemption for the public to intrude into one’s privacy, such as when the person scrutinized is a public figure, the fact of the matter is that Ms Napoles and her family members are not public figures. They have lived away from the public’s prying eyes and have maintained private lives. They went into private businesses and never dabbled into politics.”

They claimed Ms Napoles and her family members, particularly her husband and daughter Jeane, “are not public figures”. Is this legally true?

Well, according to the public figure doctrine, there are three types of public figures. They are as follows:

  • General public figures: they “are prominent figures in society, typically what one would consider traditionally famous people like politicians, athletes, and celebrities”.
  • Limited purpose public figures:  are people who have entered the public discourse in connection to a particular controversy, who “have thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.”
  • Involuntary public figures: they are people who become public figures “through no purposeful action of their own,” by their association or participation in some high profile event or controversy, though these are “exceedingly rare.”

Based on the above types and legal definitions of public figures, Mrs. Napoles and some of her family members fall within the concept of involuntary public figures.

As for the case of Jeane Napoles, did her blog and Instagram posts make her a public figure? Again based on the doctrine, it’s her “association” (e.i by being the daughter of Napoles) and also her online postings that elevated her to a public figure status. A good example of involuntary public figure is “not informed” Christopher Lao, whose outrageous televised interview caused public uproar and social media outrage.

However, the problem with the third type of public figure is that the absence of guiding principles or parameters could injure the protected rights of a supposed ‘involuntary public figure’. Here judges may apply the case-by-case approach. In the United States, a case-by-case approach may violate the principles established in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.

In his scholarly article, legal commentator Matthew Lafferman cautioned that using a case-by-case approach “substantially increases
the possibility that courts designate a large number of people involuntary public figures.”

Well, the truth is, we’re living in a digital society. While I am against defamation law, I find this pork barrel case and the public figure doctrine very interesting.

Nevertheless, Lafferman conceded that “social media users would be powerless to escape a public figure designation without avoiding social media altogether. This indiscriminately broad application of the test would also disregard the Court’s reluctance to apply the public figure doctrine when the test would convert an entire class of people into public figures.”

But still, did Mrs. Napoles and her family members become public figures by reason of their involvement in a high profile P10-billion pork barrel scam?

I say, let the court decide. But logic dictates that if you voluntarily, blatantly committed or perpetrated a heinous crime or a shocking corruption activity and finally get caught, you would– and should– be held liable under the law. And the final revelations of your crimes makes you a public figure. Napoles and company should be thoroughly investigated for the crimes and corrupt practices they alleged committed.

You cease to be a “private individual” once you deal with the government as a crony, a high profile contractor, or a “graft” operator. That’s the price one needs to pay for dealing with anomalous government transactions and activities.

The truth is, Mrs. Napoles brought it to her family the very moment she allegedly agreed to operate a multi-billion peso pork barrel monkey business.

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