‘Pork’ prosecutors: Outnumbered, but not outgunned
“It’s a prosecutor’s dream case, and a defense nightmare,” said Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon Gerard Mosquera, of the cases involving the pork barrel scam, which has implicated several high-profile politicians and lawmakers, among them Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Bong Revilla and Jinggoy Estrada.
Despite the online bashing that the team constantly endures from a public impatient with the glacial pace of court proceedings, the head of the prosecution panel said he believed “the case will be won based on evidence, and we have the evidence.”
The particular challenge they have to face, said Christine Marallag-Batacan, a member of the Ombudsman’s team handling the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scam cases, is “facing the high-caliber lawyers” of the powerful politicians involved in the cases, and being outclassed by the technology their well-funded adversaries have at their disposal.
“Imagine facing three law firms that has at least three high-profile lawyers each,” Batacan said of the three-member prosecution team usually fielded at each hearing.
“And while we (leaf through) our papers, these [defense lawyers] scroll down (their tablets) to read the pleadings,” she added.
“It’s quite a spectacle when you see (all those defense lawyers) in court. Sometimes the court just asks them to appoint a captain,” confirms Ryan Hartzell Balisacan of the intimidating scene that their outnumbered team contends with. At 31, Balisacan is one of the youngest member of the PDAF team.
But while outnumbered, they are not outgunned, the Ombudsman’s team declared.
They have in fact been winning points in the lopsided court battle to try one of the biggest corruption cases that this scandal-weary nation had ever seen.
Some one and a half years since the start of proceedings, the 35-member PDAF team is counting on the strength of its evidence to cope with what is expected to be a tedious trial of eight graft, plunder and malversation cases against several accused.
Already, the team had scored victories at the preliminary stage and bail hearings at the Sandiganbayan, where the alleged brains, businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles and her cohorts, have been accused of funneling taxpayer money into bogus nongovernment organizations.
Also on trial are Napoles’ alleged accomplices in government: Senators Enrile, Revilla Jr., and Jinggoy and five former members of the House of Representatives: Masbate Gov. Rizalina Seachon-Lanete, Edgar Valdez of the Association of Philippine Electric Cooperatives, Rodolfo Plaza of Agusan del Sur, Samuel Dangwa of Benguet, and Constantino Jaraula of Cagayan de Oro City.
Of the accused senators, only Enrile had been granted bail through the controversial Supreme Court ruling that cited humanitarian reasons for the exception from detention rules.
Most recently, the Ombudsman won the antigraft court’s favor when the latter junked Estrada’s bail plea on Jan. 7, citing prosecution evidence that Estrada was alongside Napoles “at the apex of the PDAF scam.”
“We’re winning these cases… The only incidents that had not gone the prosecution’s way were the motions to transfer the accused to a regular jail,” said Mosquera.
“But, practically, 90 percent of the incidents have gone the prosecution’s way…Our evidence is strong, our witnesses are all complete, our documents are all intact. We have a very strong case, a good set of prosecutors and a good strategy,” he added.
According to the website of the Office of the Ombudsman, the independent office headed by the stern former Supreme Court Associate Justice Conchita Carpio Morales, scored a
75-percent conviction rate in cases it had handled as of September 2015.
Such relative success is a little known fact to the public, said Batacan, adding that people and the media could sometimes be unfair in judging the capabilities of government prosecutors.
“It’s like the public is always too quick to judge against the prosecutors. Their general impression is [that] prosecutors are slow…but they don’t really see what happens in court,” added the acting director at one of the Ombudsman’s prosecution bureaus.
“In the court, there will be arguments. When a justice states a ruling, it’s usually done in high pitch…and we cannot respond the same way. So for an observer, it might come off that the justice is angry. But (that’s) normal,” said Deputy Special Prosecutor Manuel Soriano Jr.
But they understand how much the public wants to see results, the prosecutors added. And already, hearings on the PDAF cases are being held thrice a week, more frequently than other cases.
“The public wants convictions because in their eyes, these (people) stole our money. But why are the cases taking too long?” asked Joefferson Toribio, another PDAF team member.
“Sometimes, the delays are attributed to us when in fact it’s the usual judicial proceeding,” Toribio said, adding that the defense regularly files motions for delay in court.
The PDAF cases have also exacted a heavy personal cost from these mostly young team members.
Soriano, a father of three, said he missed sharing quality time with his young family, while Batacan had to turn down friends’ invitations to book piso-fare flights. Most of the prosecutors also have to work through the night, on weekends and holidays to finish the pleadings and prepare for the hearings.
“I’ve had so many sleepless nights, especially after reading the negative (media) reports,” said Soriano.
Despite the hurt and the exhaustion, everything has been worth it, the team said.
“I don’t want to be too melodramatic about it, but when you like what you’re doing, it doesn’t really feel like work,” said Balisacan, who took a massive pay cut after opting out of a private law firm.
“No offense to those in the private sector, but here, our concept of ‘client’ is more amorphous. Because our client is the Republic of the Philippines,” he added.
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