Fertilizer scam case dawdles in Sandigan
Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has been arrested twice for the first two of the many charges that the Aquino administration has been threatening to bring against her for alleged financial irregularities in her nine-year presidency.
One of the most scandalous of these, the alleged diversion of P728 million in fertilizer funds to help Arroyo’s presidential campaign in 2004, appears to be bogged down in the Sandiganbayan antigraft court.
Fourteen months after plunder charges were filed against former Agriculture Secretary Luis “Cito” Lorenzo, former Agriculture Undersecretary Jocelyn “Joc-joc” Bolante and former Agriculture Assistant Secretary Ibarra Poliquit for their alleged involvement in what has come to be known as the fertilizer fund scam, the court’s 2nd Division has yet to rule on the various motions for juridical determination of probable cause filed by the accused parties.
In a motion for juridical determination of probable cause, the court decides whether there is probable cause to issue a warrant of arrest or hold-departure order against the accused. Plunder is a nonbailable offense.
‘Deceit and theft’
A special panel from the Office of the Ombudsman, convened in October 2008 to conduct a preliminary investigation into the case, filed the plunder charges in the Sandiganbayan in July 2011.
Included on the list of those charged were private fertilizer suppliers Jaime Eonzon Paule, Marilyn Araos, Joselito Flordeliza, Marites Aytona, Jose Barredo and Leonicia Marco-Llarena.
The special panel released a joint resolution in April 2011, charging the accused of “criminally amassing” P265.6 million out of the P723-million fertilizer funds released under the Farm Input-Farm Implement program in 2004.
The accused allegedly misappropriated funds amounting to P56.6 million, devised a scheme to overprice transactions to gain P56 million and made a profit of another P153 million after allegedly conniving with fertilizer suppliers on spurious deals.
Bolante and Paule, chief of Feshan Philippines, were tagged as the masterminds of the scheme to commit “a clear case of deceit and theft.”
The panel also said Poliquit was liable for approving the disbursement of the funds, while Lorenzo shared the liability for plunder because he deputized Bolante to handle the funds.
Aside from plunder, Lorenzo, Bolante and about 30 government officials and officers and personnel of fertilizer companies were also recommended charged with falsification of documents, malversation of public and private funds, and violations of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.
‘No basis’ for charges
Following the filing of plunder charges against them in July 2011, Bolante and Poliquit asked the Supreme Court to stop their indictment for plunder, saying the Ombudsman investigated them only for violations of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, or technical malversation of public funds, which did not include plunder.
Bolante also said he “answered and rebutted all the charges” against him in the preliminary investigation and that there was no evidence to support the charges.
In the same month, Lorenzo asked the Sandiganbayan in an omnibus motion to defer the issuance of an arrest warrant and dismiss the plunder case against him, echoing Bolante’s argument that he was never subjected to any preliminary investigation for plunder.
Lorenzo said that even if the Ombudsman followed the proper process, there was still no basis to charge him with plunder since it was not him but Bolante who handled the funds for the program.
Frustrated with the slow pace of the case, Lorenzo in June 2012 asked the antigraft court to speed up the resolution of his plunder case and decide on his pending motion to dismiss it for lack of preliminary investigation.
But while the case in the Sandiganbayan has dragged on for more than a year, the controversy itself has stretched on for a much longer period.
The alleged scam was first exposed in March in 2004, when then presidential candidate Sen. Panfilo Lacson accused Arroyo, herself running for election, of “virtual vote-buying” by authorizing the release of P728 million to favored officials to buy farm inputs like fertilizer and pesticide for their constituents.
Taking his cue from Lacson’s accusations, lawyer Frank Chavez filed a plunder case against Arroyo after the election. Chavez named Bolante as one of those who signed the papers for the release and disposition of the funds.
In October 2005, the Senate opened an inquiry into the controversy, with Bolante, who resigned from the agriculture department in September 2004, as the main witness.
However, just before the Senate committee on agriculture, chaired by then Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr., opened its inquiry into the alleged fertilizer fund scam, Bolante flew to the United States, apparently to evade the hearings. Lorenzo also fled the country.
On the request of the Senate, the US Embassy canceled Bolante’s visa and he was arrested and held in the US. His petition for asylum was rejected by US courts and he was deported to the Philippines on Oct. 28, 2008.
Upon Bolante’s return, the Senate blue ribbon committee, chaired by Sen. Richard Gordon, launched a new investigation into the fund scam in November 2008.
Bolante clears Arroyo
In his testimony in the Senate, Bolante cleared Arroyo, saying the “implementation of the P728-million farm input-farm implement program was approved by [the budget department] without the President’s approval.”
Bolante also appeared before the House committee on agriculture, where he cleared all House members, governors and mayors whose names appeared on an alleged list of beneficiaries of the fund, saying they were merely project proponents with whom the Department of Agriculture coordinated.
Witnesses came forward in the succeeding Senate hearings. The names of more personalities, including local government officials, were mentioned and dragged into the scandal.
In February 2009, the Senate blue ribbon committee, after eight hearings, concluded its investigation of the scam and recommended the prosecution of Bolante as its alleged mastermind and nine others.
It also held responsible Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, whose “gross inaction,” it said, allowed “people to get away with crime.”
In July 2010, amid news of Lorenzo’s return to the country, the Office of the Ombudsman announced the results of its five-year field investigation into the scam and recommended that Lorenzo and Bolante be indicted for graft and malversation along with 22 others.
Because of Gutierrez’s alleged failure to act promptly on cases like the fertilizer fund scam, two complaints of impeachment were filed against her by party-list House members Risa Hontiveros of Akbayan and Renato Reyes of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan.
Gutierrez was impeached in March 2011. A month later, a few days before her impeachment trial was to begin at the Senate, she resigned from her post.
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