Woman in $293.8m scandal surrenders to Philippine leader

MANILA - A Philippine businesswoman who allegedly helped legislators embezzle 10 billion pesos (S$293.8 million) in government funds has surrendered to President Benigno Aquino, officials said Thursday.

Clad in jeans, pink sneakers and a hoodie, Janet Napoles strode into Malacanang presidential palace late Wednesday, according to photographs released by Aquino's office.

The middle-aged woman had eluded a nationwide police manhunt as details of her family's lavish lifestyle fuelled popular outrage in social media.

"Now that we got her, we can bring her to court," Aquino spokesman Edwin Lacierda told reporters.

"We are doing our best to further bring us closer to the truth."

Napoles faced arrest for allegedly detaining a former aide-turned-whistleblower to keep him from revealing details of the alleged embezzlement.

However justice officials are readying additional charges that she allegedly connived with legislators to syphon off money from a development fund.

Lacierda said he fetched Napoles from a Manila cemetery on Wednesday night and brought her directly to the palace after her lawyer alerted the government that she wanted to surrender.

Lacierda said no special treatment was afforded the fugitive, but acknowledged that Napoles was not hand-cuffed and had even been given a 10-minute audience with Aquino, who assured her of her safety amid alleged threats to her life.

Aquino went with the group that took Napoles to the national police headquarters, Lacierda said.

Napoles' surrender came three days after tens of thousands of Filipinos held a mass protest demanding her arrest and the abolition of legislators' controversial Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).

The fund is supposed to finance lamakers' pet development schemes, but critics charge they are "pork barrel" projects which have traditionally been a source of corruption.

Napoles allegedly syphoned off money through fake non-governmental organisations.

"We're all after Ms. Napoles. Everybody was so outraged. She has become the symbol of what we were so angry about last Monday," Lacierda said.

The protest germinated on Facebook as people vented their frustrations.

The online movement snowballed into a protest call, and on Monday up to 100,000 people joined the peaceful rally in Manila.

While Aquino had backed the protest, critics on Thursday said they were suspicious of the circumstances surrounding what they called a "VIP surrender".

"Our challenge is for her to bare all and for Malacanang to ensure that she is not coached or censored under custody," said the Labor Party group.

Aquino won the presidency in 2010 on a platform to end the pervasive corruption he blames for many of the country's woes.

Among his first acts was to work for the impeachment of a Supreme Court chief justice he accused of protecting his predecessor Gloria Arroyo from prosecution.

Arroyo is in detention and is now facing charges of massive corruption.