Philippine investigators seek graft charges against Aquino ally, senator

MANILA (AFP) - Philippine authorities have moved to file corruption charges against two top politicians, including an ally of President Benigno Aquino, the justice secretary said Saturday, as part of a massive graft scandal that has embroiled numerous officials.

The justice department has asked a special anti-corruption body to file charges against Joel Villanueva, a former congressman who is now Aquino's top advisor on vocational education, and Senator Gregorio Honasan, an ex-military colonel who plotted failed coups against Aquino's mother, former president Corazon Aquino, according to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima.

"DOJ... endorsed to (the) Ombudsman the charges against them," she said in a text message to AFP.

"The Ombudsman will still determine whether there is sufficient basis to subject them to preliminary investigation and later, to file cases."

The DOJ recommendation is the first step before the filing of criminal charges and the possible arrest of the officials, she said.

The office of the country's Ombudsman separately said it would start a preliminary investigation against Villanueva and other officials.

Aside from Villanueva and Honasan, the justice department's investigating arm is also seeking to file charges against three other legislators, four former lawmakers and their aides.

Villanueva is the most senior Aquino ally to be entangled in the scandal involving businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles, who allegedly paid tens of millions of dollars in bribes to Philippine politicians and officials from 2004-2012.

In return, she apparently received US$200 million (S$276 million) from congressional funds which were supposed to help poor Filipinos.

Napoles, who is already in jail in the Philippines for kidnapping her cousin in 2014 in an alleged cover-up attempt, has been charged along with family members in the corruption case.

Three opposition senators, including former defence minister Juan Ponce Enrile, have also been detained and charged in connection with the scam.

Villanueva has denied the allegations made against him, saying: "I did not steal, I was not corrupt and I never took the money of the people." Aquino's spokesman Herminio Coloma, meanwhile, said on Saturday that Villanueva was "a conscientious public servant", and was not required to resign despite the allegations against him.

Critics earlier accused Aquino of only investigating his political opponents and not his allies.

The office of the Ombudsman said in a statement that Villanueva was being probed for funnelling 10 million pesos (S$308,000) in agricultural aid to a non-government organisation that turned out to be bogus, when he was a legislator in 2008.

Also cited was Honasan, who led coup attempts in 1987 and 1989 against then-president Corazon Aquino.

Honasan was later granted amnesty as part of a peace effort and successfully ran for senator.