Jinggoy Estrada out on bail; Bong Revilla may be next
Former Sen. Jinggoy Estrada walked free on Saturday after spending three years in detention, becoming the second “big fish” implicated in the pork barrel scam to regain provisional liberty after former Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile in 2015.
Detained at Camp Crame since June 2014 as a sitting senator, Estrada was all smiles as he made his way to the Sandiganbayan Fifth Division’s clerk of court for fingerprinting and other procedures after his lawyers posted bail of P1.33 million on charges of plunder, typically a nonbailable offense, and graft.
“I can’t express my feelings right now, but certainly I’m very happy,” he told reporters, surrounded by his lawyers, supporters and family members, including his wife, Precy, and their children Janella Marie, Joseph Luis Manuel, Julian Emilio and Julienne.
In a blazer and pink shirt, Estrada appeared in good spirits as he was applauded after signing the last document for his temporary liberty.
‘Up to the courts’
“It’s up to the courts to decide the case against me. I deny all the charges against me. I did not steal anything,” he said of the cases he was facing.
Asked if he planned to return to public office, Estrada said: “Let’s cross the bridge when we get there.”
He said President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent statement assailing the “selective justice” of the Office of Ombudsman was very true, questioning the office’s decision to indict him.
Sought for comment on Estrada’s release, presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella said, “On the Estrada matter, we defer to the Sandiganbayan.”
The antigraft court, normally closed on Saturdays, opened shop with a skeletal force to receive paperwork for Estrada’s release.
Associate Justice Edgardo Caldona issued the release order a few minutes before 11 a.m. after Estrada’s lawyers paid bail in wads of P500 and P1,000 bills.
The Fifth Division, in a 3-2 decision, had granted Estrada’s second pleading, an omnibus motion to post bail on insufficiency of evidence and humanitarian grounds. But it denied Estrada’s motion to dismiss the case, whose trial would start on Monday.
Estrada is accused of plunder and 11 counts of graft for allegedly pocketing P183.79 million from his Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) allocation from 2004 to 2010 in the wide-ranging scheme allegedly masterminded by businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles in collusion with lawmakers.
In his motion, the former senator successfully argued that the prosecution failed to prove that he was the “main plunderer” or mastermind in the pork barrel scheme.
This was the same argument used by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, now a Pampanga representative, to win an acquittal from the Supreme Court in 2016 on charges she plundered state lottery funds.
In a 15-page resolution, the Sandiganbayan ruled that the evidence of the prosecution led to confusion as to who was the main beneficiary in the entire scheme involving Napoles and the lawmakers, who were accused of funneling their pork barrel allocations to bogus nongovernment organizations controlled by Napoles.
“This allegation only shows that the prosecution acknowledges there was really benefit to accused Napoles. But when it is considered that the evidence on record shows that she had substantial control of the operations after accused Estrada’s endorsement, the inference that accused Estrada is the main plunderer or the mastermind becomes shaky,” the ruling read in part.
Identifying the mastermind
In his dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Rafael Lagos, chair of the Fifth Division, said identifying the mastermind would only become material to the case, “if the alleged mastermind is characterized as such.”
“A reading of the court’s Jan. 7, 2016 resolution denying bail to accused Estrada does not show clearly that accused Estrada was the mastermind based on the evidence presented,” he said.
With Estrada’s temporary liberty, only one other former senator, Bong Revilla Jr., remains detained on plunder charges at the Philippine National Police headquarters in Quezon City.
Estrada noted that his cases were the same as those faced by Revilla and Enrile.
“Malamang, sigurado (I’m certain of it). My cases, Revilla’s and Senator Enrile’s are just the same,” Estrada said in an interview with reporters at a Chinese restaurant in Greenhills, San Juan, where he celebrated his release from detention on Saturday with family and friends.
“I don’t see any point that [Revilla] won’t be released as well … I am very confident. If there is FPJ [Fernando Poe Jr.] and Erap [Jinggoy’s father, Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada], there is also Bong and Jinggoy,” he said.
‘Speechless but happy’
Revilla told reporters on Friday that he was “speechless but happy” for Estrada’s imminent release from detention.
“It’s sad that Senator Jinggoy is leaving me,” Revilla said.
In August 2015, the Supreme Court granted bail to Enrile on humanitarian grounds, citing his advanced age and poor health. The ruling was upheld in July last year.
The Sandiganbayan magistrates were split in deciding Estrada’s bail petition with affirmative votes from Associate Justices Maria Theresa Mendoza-Arcega, Reynaldo Cruz, and Lorifel Lacap-Pahimna, who turned out to be the swing vote.
Apart from Lagos the other dissenter was Associate Justice Zaldy Trespeses.
As Estrada’s coaster van left the PNP Custodial Center, he waved through an open window and thanked his supporters, a handful of whom came from San Juan City.
Rebecca Macapagal, a 70-year-old retired employee of the San Juan City government, said they had been supporters of the former senator since 1992, when he served his first term as mayor of the city.
She went to Camp Crame along with 14 other retired city employees who call themselves “Team Jinggoy” early on Saturday. “We barely slept last night,” she confided.
As the van drove toward Camp Crame’s gate, it briefly stopped to oblige reporters chasing after the vehicle.
Estrada opened a window and spoke through it.
“Nagpapasalamat ako sa ating Panginoon. Nagpapasalamat ako sa Sandiganbayan at sa lahat ng nanalangin para sa aking kalayaan. Salamat. Salamat. (I would like to thank the Lord. I also thank the Sandiganbayan and everyone who prayed for my freedom. Thank you. Thank you.)” —With reports from Jeannette I. Andrade, Jodee A. Agoncillo, and Leila Salaverria