Bad start in plunder suit

By: Malou Guanzon Apalisok June 29,2014 - 11:54 AM

The move of prosecutors from the Office of the Ombudsman to amend the information they filed with the Sandiganbayan in relation to the plunder cases of Senators Ramon Revilla, Jr., Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada and Juan Ponce Enrile has stirred up a hornet’s nest and has given the defense political and legal capital to attack the anti-graft body in many fronts.

To recall, state prosecutors filed with the Sandiganbayan last Wednesday, June 25, a manifestation with motion to admit amended information against Senator Revilla. At the heart of the move is to strike out the phrase that alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles siphoned off lawmakers’ discretionary funds “for her personal gain”.

Reports say the Ombudsman was prompted by an argument made by Napoles, a co-accused in all three plunder cases, who, in assailing the finding of probable cause against her, argued before the Sandiganbayan that “no plunder of lawmakers’ Priority Development Assistance Fund was committed because her actions were meant to enrich herself and not the public officials.”

To this, the Ombudsman issued a memorandum on June 24 ordering the amendment of information in all three cases.

“The introductory paragraph in each of the information may be rephrased so as to emphasize that the Senator was the one who amassed, accumulated, and acquired ill-gotten wealth in connivance or in conspiracy with his co-accused public officer and private individuals,” the memo said.

The focus word is “conspiracy” which the Ombudsman wanted to change to “in connivance”.  The phrase is supposed to make Senator Revilla the mastermind of the scam.

As we all know, the Office of the Ombudsman was forced to withdraw its motion after the Sandiganbayan first and fifth divisions warned the prosecutors that the move could void the original information and result in Estrada being set free on bail.

Lawyers from the prosecution and the defense had a field day discussing the significance of the aforementioned events. On the part of the defense, it was not surprising to hear them talk as if their clients had already been vindicated.  On the other hand, the administration highlighted the move of the Ombudsman as simply procedural, with no effect on the merit of the case and strength of the evidence. But expect the defense to highlight this issue and use it at every turn.   I’m not saying the plunder cases are doomed but it is a bad start for the prosecution.

Meanwhile, the Aquino administration finds itself reacting to reports that the turn of events simply means that government is grooming Napoles to become state witness.

As an ordinary taxpayer, I hope this is not true because her disclosures will only sow confusion. Besides, the Commission on Audit and the National Bureau of Investigation have already built up a strong case based on the testimonies of whistleblower Benhur Luy and other former employees of Napoles.

Amid the noise surrounding the legal complexities in the priority development assistance fund (PDAF) scam suits, civil society is urging the Supreme Court to create at least two special divisions of the Sandiganbayan to ensure the speedy disposal of cases. A petition to this effect was initiated by Transparency and Accountability Network executive director Vincent Lazatin and posted online through change.org. Lazatin is set to formally submit the petition today to the Supreme Court.

The initiative was based on the request of Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales who earlier called on the High Tribunal to create special divisions in the Sandiganbayan for the high-profile cases.  The average case disposal rate at the Sandiganbayan is about eight years.

I signed the online petition because the PDAF cases involve some of the  most powerful people in the country who hold high positions in the government.  The cases deserve a special division to ensure continuous and speedy trial. In fact, the accused who are claiming innocence should welcome this move.

Our people have suffered enough and can no longer wait eight years for justice to be served.  Such a tradition practically allows these cases “to slip quietly into the night”.

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TAGS: Janet Lim Napoles, Jinggoy Estrada, Juan Ponce Enrile, Office of the Ombudsman, plunder, pork barrel, Ramon Revilla

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