Parties butt heads on Bong case: Are pork testimonies ‘facts’?
Do the testimonies of pork barrel scam whistleblowers in 2014 count as “admissions of fact” in the upcoming plunder trial of detained former Senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr.?
Revilla’s camp, led by lawyer Estelito Mendoza, maintained that the witnesses who already testified during his 2014 bail hearing should again face scrutiny for their earlier statements in his trial.
In a 12-page memorandum, Revilla asked the Sandiganbayan First Division to exclude the gist of the bail hearing testimonies from the list of “stipulations” in the pretrial order governing the presentation of evidence during trial.
State prosecutors, however, objected to the request as they consider this to be a turnaround from the defense’s earlier moves before Mendoza hopped on board this January.
Stipulations are meant to avoid the unnecessary presentation of proof and speed up the trial. Jurisprudence holds that stipulations are essentially a waiver of the right to present evidence to counter the agreed-upon facts.
Bail hearing testimonies
The prosecution had moved for the inclusion of the testimonies of whistleblowers Benhur Luy, Merlina Suñas and Marina Sula regarding the dubiousness of the non-government organizations tapped by Revilla to implement the projects funded by his Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) proceeds.
The three had also testified that the six NGOs were controlled by alleged scam mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles, while another whistleblower Mary Arlene Baltazar also stated that she forged the signatures for the PDAF transactions alongside Suñas and Sula.
Other contested stipulations include the previous statements of Anti-Money Laundering Council lawyer Leigh Vhon Santos and Commission on Audit assistant commissioner Susan Garcia regarding the inquiry into the defendants’ bank accounts and the PDAF transactions respectively.
Another opposed stipulation pertained to the statement of Department of Budget and Management director Lorenzo Drapete regarding the processing of special allotment release orders drawn from Revilla’s pork barrel.
No agreement on veracity
The proposed stipulations were phrased this way: “If asked,” the witness “will testify/will answer” regarding the plunder allegations against Revilla.
The Revilla camp considered these veracity of these testimonies still open to dispute and not yet “removed from the field of controversy.” The defense stressed it had not agreed to the veracity of the statements.
Even if the stipulations were phrased in such a way that emphasizes the testimonial nature of the statements, the motion stated that including these matters will be “highly misleading and will result in confusion.”
Prosecutors claimed in their 17-page memorandum that the Revilla camp is already bound by the “stipulations and admissions made during the bail hearing” (which, it may be recalled, ended in the denial of Revilla’s petition as the court found the evidence so far to be strong enough).
They said that Revilla could not escape the “binding effect of judicial admissions” unless it was made through a palpable mistake or it was not done at all.
Don’t blame the former lawyer
Citing the Supreme Court’s 2002 Bayas ruling, the prosecution noted that a new lawyer cannot justify the withdrawal of stipulations by passing blame on the previous counsel (During the time of the bail hearing, Joel Bodegon was still leading Revilla’s defense).
Revilla’s camp, on the other hand, maintained that at the time, he “expressly reserved his right to cross-examine these witnesses.”
“This clearly negates any intention on the part of accused Revilla to waive the presentation of proof or production of evidence as to the truth of the matters which these witnesses would testify upon,” his memorandum read.
Are ‘ghost projects’ irrelevant?
Through the same memoranda, the prosecution and the defense also butted heads on the relevance of the issue of “ghost projects” to the allegation that Revilla amassed P224.5 million in kickbacks from his PDAF allocation.
Revilla’s camp reiterated that the alleged non-implementation of his pet projects should be set aside from his plunder trial—or at least, limited only for the purposes of proving “coaccused Napoles’ alleged receipt and misappropriation of PDAF proceeds for her personal gain.”
This was because Revilla was accused of obtaining the kickbacks “in consideration” of his endorsement of the Napoles-linked NGOs, and not necessarily during the implementation of the projects.
“The alleged ‘ghost or fictitious projects’… does not, in any way, refer to accused Revilla’s supposed act of amassing, acquiring or accumulating ill-gotten wealth in the amount of at least P224,512,500.00 or to ‘the [purported] scheme employed by the accused,'” Revilla’s memorandum stated.
It added that the prosecution should be disallowed from presenting “77 witnesses and voluminous documents for such irrelevant purpose,” especially as Revilla “continues to be incarcerated for almost three years in relation to this case.”
Part of ‘modus operandi’
However, the prosecution argued that the diversion of Revilla’s PDAF proceeds to ghost projects is relevant because it “forms part of the modus operandi.” They said the nonimplementation of the projects precisely enabled Napoles to give the senator kickbacks.
“It enabled accused Napoles to pocket the PDAF proceeds and recompense herself for the kickbacks/bribes given to, and received by, accused Revilla for every project he endorsed to a Napoles NGO,” the prosecution said.
It added that proving the fictitious nature of the projects “tends to establish the probability or improbability of the pattern of repeatedly receiving kickbacks” in the overall scheme.
Revilla’s trial is currently scheduled to begin on April 20, although the finalized pretrial order is yet to be released as of press time. The actor-politician also has a pending appeal on the court’s denial of his motion to quash the case on the grounds of the violation of his right to be informed of the accusations. CBB/rga