Ombudsman exec: Estrada bail ruling to have ‘adverse effects’ on pork cases
If the ruling allowing former Sen. Jinggoy Estrada to post bail would be affirmed, it would have “adverse effects” on the plunder cases in connection with the pork barrel scam, a high-ranking Ombudsman official admitted.
Special prosecutor Edilberto Sandoval said if the Sandiganbayan and the Supreme Court upheld the requirement of identifying a “main plunderer,” then “the pending cases will be adversely affected.”
On the other hand, Sandoval said cases yet to be filed by the Ombudsman in the antigraft court could avoid the Estrada ruling’s effects since they could be adjusted to meet the stricter threshold of evidence.
“This is a very new ruling. But if the SC would stick to this and it would become final, then we have to adjust the filing of cases,” he said in a press conference. “The cases to be filed maybe, I don’t fear any [adverse effect].”
SC’s new requirement
But, Sandoval, a former Sandiganbayan presiding justice himself, hoped the antigraft court and the SC would still do away with the need to identify a “main plunderer” in a given scheme – effectively a stricter requirement for prosecutors to hurdle.
The threshold of evidence was lifted higher by the SC decision on July 19, 2016, to acquit former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the P366-million Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office case.
“With the 16 years I was with the Sandigan… this is the first time that the SC said [the ‘main plunder’] is an element of plunder,” he said.
He maintained the Arroyo ruling was inapplicable because it involved different circumstances, especially as the alleged conspirators in the PCSO case were “all public officials.”
In the PCSO case, Sandoval said it was unclear who among the accused public officials planned the scheme, prompting the SC to ask who the “main plunderer” was.
‘The act of one is the act of all’
The pork barrel cases pertained to the wide-ranging scheme where businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles allegedly gave kickbacks to tap the lawmakers’ Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) allocations for her purported network of dubious foundations.
Sandoval said there should not have been a need to conclusively identify a “main plunderer” in the pork barrel scam case, since it involved a conspiracy where “the act of one is the act of all.”
“Even if the other co-conspirator has formed only one part of several parts in the continuous criminal acts, he will be considered the main or principal accused,” he explained.
“All are charged, they were charged in conspiracy, government officials together with private individuals,” he stressed. “Definitely, one of them is the main plunderer.”
No to sweeping application
Sandoval said a motion for reconsideration is being prepared highlighting such differences between the Arroyo and the Estrada cases.
He held out hope that the courts would not keep on applying the Arroyo ruling at the expense of the pending pork barrel scam cases.
“I have trust and confidence in the Sandiganbayan and the Supreem Court that they will prevent a sweeping application of the ruling that there must be pinpointed a main plunderer,” Sandoval said. “Otherwise, it may affect many cases.”
“We will cross the bridge when we reach it, we are ready to argue that,” he said.
During the press conference, Sandoval also repeatedly invoked the dissenting opinion of Associate Justice Zaldy Trespeses, one of the two justices who were outvoted by the three in favor of Estrada.
Trespeses had pointed out the court did not even hold a new round of bail hearings to check if the prosecution evidence still held up to the Arroyo ruling’s standards.
“You know, what Justice Trespeses opined is brilliant. On the basis of this… their ruling should be reversed; it’s procedurally infirm,” he said.
“They should have conducted hearings, especially to give opportunity to the prosecution to counter the new argument of the accused that there was no clear evidence, no strong evidence pin-pointing to a main plunderer,” he added.
The justice reasoned out that Estrada could still be considered the “main plunderer,” because his endorsement of Napoles’s nongovernment organizations “set into motion” the misuse of his PDAF allocations.
Amid the possible effect of the Estrada ruling on the pork barrel scam cases, Sandoval said Trespeses’ application of the “main plunderer” doctrine was “quite enlightening.”
The Sandiganbayan Fifth Division already ruled the evidence strong enough to establish the scheme and deny Estrada bail in a Jan. 7, 2016 decision. This became final when the court denied an appeal on May 11, 2016.
After the Arroyo ruling requiring that a “main plunderer” be identified changed things, Estrada filed on Sept. 12, 2016 an “omnibus motion” invoking that ruling. The Ombudsman objected on the grounds that it was a prohibited second appeal.
But, the Sandiganbayan in its split decision ruled the evidence was not enough to meet the new requirement of the SC.
“It may be validly questioned if there can still be a main plunderer when someone else appears to be the mastermind of the entire scheme,” read the resolution.
This referred to Napoles, who was not a public official like Estrada.
The Fifth Division’s membership was also entirely different when it denied Estrada’s bail application and when it granted it a year later.
The justices who actually presided over the bail hearings were Associate Justice Roland B. Jurado (now retired), Alexander G. Gesmundo (now with the SC), and Ma. Theresa Dolores C. Gomez-Estoesta.
The current regular members of the division were Associate Justices Rafael R. Lagos, Ma. Theresa Mendoza-Arcega, and Reynaldo P. Cruz.
Since they did not reach a unanimous vote, Trespeses and Associate Justice Lorifel L. Pahimna were assigned by raffle to form a five-member panel.
When Pahimna, an appointee of President Rodrigo Duterte, joined Mendoza-Arcega and Cruz, this allowed the court to reach the three votes required for a ruling.
Sandoval played down the role of politics behind the antigraft court’s turnaround.
“I still trust that the Sandiganbayan justices cannot be controlled by politics,” he said.
Besides Estrada’s P183.8-million plunder case, four other cases are pending in the Sandiganbayan against former Senators Ramon “Bong‘ Revilla Jr. (P224.5 million) and Juan Ponce Enrile (P172.8 million), as well as former Association of Philippine Electric Cooperatives Rep. Edgar Valdez (P95 million) and Masbate Rep. Rizalina Seachon-Lanete (P108.4 million). /atm