Two Sandigan divisions grant bail to Napoles
Two divisions of the Sandiganbayan Wednesday granted the bail pleas of suspected scam mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles and two former lawmakers in the plunder cases in connection with the P10-billion pork barrel racket, sparking outrage that the government’s case was weak and could derail its anticorruption campaign.
While the decisions were hollow victories for Napoles, the development could open a floodgate of similar petitions from other personalities standing trial for the alleged misuse of the congressional Priority Assistance Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), among them detained Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla.
Napoles is serving a life term at the Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong City after she was convicted for the illegal detention case filed by primary whistle-blower Benhur Luy.
Edre Olalia, secretary general of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, said the decisions undermined the purported Aquino administration reform program.
Three other divisions of the antigraft tribunal had already thumbed down her separate petitions for temporary liberty.
Plunder is a nonbailable offense, but the antigraft court grants the bail petition of an accused if the evidence presented by the prosecution is weak.
In granting the bail petition of Napoles and her co-accused, sacked Masbate Gov. Rizalina Lanete, the Sandiganbayan Fourth Division said Ombudsman prosecutors failed to prove that Lanete pocketed at least P50 million of her PDAF, or pork barrel allocations, when she was still the Masbate representative from 2007 to 2009.
“In summary, this court is of the opinion that the evidence, presented by the prosecution, [on] the guilt of the accused Lanete and Napoles is not strong,” it said in a unanimous ruling. The court said it was “not clearly shown how accused Lanete participated in the scheme described by the prosecution … through ghost or fictitious projects.”
Curiously, the 77-page decision was written by Associate Justice Geraldine Faith Econg, who was designated by President Aquino to the antigraft court only last January. Associate Justice Jose Hernandez, Fourth Division chair, and Associate Justice Alex Quiroz concurred with Econg’s ruling.
Moments after the division released its resolution at around noon, the Fifth Division issued a 254-page decision allowing Napoles and former APEC party-list Rep. Edgar Valdez to post bail.
“Taking all the evidence and the pertinent law and doctrinal rules together, it would appear that for purposes of bail, there appears to be doubt as to the total amount of the alleged ill-gotten wealth amassed, accumulated and/acquired by accused Valdez,” the Fifth Division ruled.
It was penned by Associate Justice Roland Jurado, division chair, and was joined by Associate Justices Rafael Lagos and Maria Theresa Mendoza-Arcega.
The same division is handling the plunder and graft cases that the Office of the Ombudsman brought against Estrada and Napoles.
The Fourth Division set Napoles’ and Lanete’s cash bonds at P500,000 while the Fifth Division required Napoles and Valdez to pay P1.5 million for their temporary freedom.
Shortly after the fourth division issued its ruling, two of Estrada’s lawyers were seen securing a copy of the document from the Office of the Clerk of Court.
“Sorry, I cannot give you any comment. I’m not the spokesperson for the legal team,” lawyer Noel Malaya told the Inquirer.
Laurence Arroyo, one of Lanete’s counsels, immediately went to the Sandiganbayan in Quezon City to process the former governor’s bail.
Lanete was also required to pay P30,000 for each of the 11 counts of graft for allegedly embezzling P112.3 million of her pork barrel.
Her son, lawyer Jesi Lanete, took out a bundle of cash from a shoulder bag and handed a total of P830,000 in P1,000 bills to a personnel of the Sandiganbayan cashier division around noon.
A visibly elated Lanete, who was wearing a white dress, appeared before clerk of court Jeoffre Zapata accompanied by her relatives and supporters.
“Thank you to Him up there. Thank you of course to my lawyers and my fellow Masbateños who never left me,” she told reporters. “The victory is not mine, but theirs.”
Arroyo said they were “hopeful” on getting a positive ruling from the court whose members, he said, were known for being “honest, courageous and independent of the executive as they should be.”
“We hoped for this. [But] I can’t say it came as a surprise because we were confident in so far as the evidence is concerned,” Arroyo said.
In its ruling, the Fourth Division said the Ombudsman prosecutors had admitted that Napoles and Lanete “never met to discuss the latter’s percentage” of commissions or kickbacks from the PDAF-funded projects, which Lanete coursed through Napoles’ network of bogus foundations.
It said whistle-blower Benhur Luy also told the court that there was “never an instance that money was handed personally to accused Lanete.”
“There were evidence put forward by the prosecution indicating that some projects were not ‘ghost’ projects at all,” the court said.
“Luy himself claims that accused Lanete once talked to him over the phone asking that the vests to be delivered be in her favorite color, orange,” it added.
This same reasoning was used by Estrada and Revilla in their attempt to secure their temporary freedom, but the court dismissed their defense.
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