MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine government prosecutors filed corruption charges Friday against three senators who allegedly received hundreds of millions of pesos (millions of dollars) in kickbacks from funds allocated for projects for the poor.
Former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, former Senate Protempore Jinggoy Estrada and Sen. Ramon Revilla Jr. were charged with plunder, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment and is non-bailable.
Also charged were about half a dozen other people, including businesswoman Janet Napoles, who allegedly created dummy aid organizations used as fronts to receive government funds intended for agriculture and livelihood projects and from where the kickbacks were obtained.
The three senators have denied involvement in the scam, which triggered public outraged and a massive anti-corruption rally last year. Another rally has been scheduled for next week.
A lawyer for Revilla, who is a former action movie actor, said he would ask the anti-graft court to first review the evidence and not to immediately issue arrest warrants.
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales asked the Supreme Court to create at least two special divisions of the anti-graft court for the trials because of the "far-reaching consequences" of the cases. She said additional graft charges would be filed next week.
The three senators are among the most senior state officials charged since President Benigno Aquino III took office in 2010 after winning election on an anti-corruption and anti-poverty platform.
Aquino's predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, is in hospital detention on criminal charges and her appointee as Supreme Court chief justice, Renato Corona, was impeached after he was found allegedly hiding much of his assets.
Abigail Valte, a presidential spokeswoman, said the filing of the charges against the senators was "a step forward in the determination of the truth, which will be the basis for exacting accountability under our justice system."
The government ombudsman, who prosecutes state officials and employees accused of wrongdoing, filed the charges a year after the scam involving the Philippine Development Assistance Fund was exposed.
The 90-year-old Enrile was accused of receiving 172 million pesos ($3.94 million) in kickbacks out of 345 million pesos ($7.9 million) from project funds for lawmakers called the Philippine Development Assistance Fund. Enrile was the longtime defense secretary of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos before he broke away from the strongman in 1986.
Estrada, a son of ousted President Joseph Estrada, allegedly received 183 million pesos ($4.2 million) out of 278 million pesos ($6.4 million). Revilla allegedly got 224 million pesos ($5.1 million) out of 517 million pesos ($11.9 million).
Investigators of the ombudsman said in a report in April that Enrile, Estrada and Revilla adopted a "common scheme" under which each allegedly "repeatedly received sums of money from Napoles for endorsing her (nongovernment organizations) to implement the projects" funded from the senators' development funds.
It said that Napoles, the main conduit of the funds, made advances of the kickbacks from her own pocket and paid the balance after the Budget Department released the funds to non-existing organizations.
Napoles has been in custody since last year on a separate charge of illegally detaining a former aide who has turned state witness in the case. She has denied any wrongdoing.
Philippine media reports of her family's lavish lifestyle, including the alleged ownership of elegant houses and condominiums here and abroad, have angered many in a country where nearly a third of the 97 million people live on a little over a dollar a day and about a tenth have left the country in search of jobs and better opportunities abroad.