THE Supreme Court said the Office of the Ombudsman’s evidence of plunder against former President Gloria Arroyo was weak, in a decision released Thursday.
Earlier this week, the Court voted 11-4 to grant Mrs. Arroyo’s petition to dismiss the case, which alleged the misuse of P366 million in intelligence Funds from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office.
In the majority ruling written by Associate Justice Lucas Bersamin, the Court said the mere approval by the former president for release of the funds did not prove her guilt for plunder.
The Court ordered Mrs. Arroyo immediately released from the Veterans’ Memorial Medical Center, where she has been under hospital detention for almost four years.
In ruling in favor of Arroyo, the justices said state prosecutors failed to prove their charges of conspiracy between Arroyo and her co-accused, including appellant Benigno Aguas.
“There was no proof of any amassing, or accumulating, or acquiring ill-gotten wealth of at least P50 million against petitioners Arroyo and Aguas,” the decision read.
The tribunal also blamed the Ombudsman for its failure “to prove the predicate act of raiding the public treasury because it failed to prove that petitioners Arroyo and Aguas, as public officers, had benefitted from the act.”
The Court said the Ombudsman merely proved that Arroyo had affixed her unqualified “OK” on requests for additional confidential and intelligence funds from the PCSO.
“This was insufficient to prove that petitioner Arroyo had conspired to commit plunder because the affixing of the unqualified ‘OK’ could not be considered an ‘overt act’ for purposes of plunder because this act was a common, legal and valid practice of signifying approval of a fund release by the President and there was no causal relation to the intended crime,” the Court said.
“The insistence of the prosecution is unwarranted. GMA’s approval of requests for additional [intelligence funds] did not make her part of any design to raid the public treasury as the means to amass, accumulate and acquire ill-gotten wealth,” it said.
The Court also cited as a fatal flaw the failure of the Ombudsman to identify the “main plunderer” in the case as required by law, which made it very difficult, if not impossible to establish the allegation of conspiracy.
The Court said the Sandiganbayan First Division erred when it “completely ignored” these findings in denying the demurrer to evidence filed by Arroyo and Aguas.
The Court further concluded that the anti-graft court “acted capriciously, thus gravely abusing its discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction.”
The Ombudsman’s complaint involved allegations that P366 million of the PCSO’s intelligence fund had been misused and amassed by Arroyo and other officials from 2008 to 2010.
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales on Wednesday contested the Supreme Court’s finding that her evidence was weak, and said she would investigate Arroyo for the same alleged anomaly for the period 2004 to 2007.
But the Supreme Court said the Sandiganbayan completely ignored the failure of the Ombudsman to sufficiently charge conspiracy to commit plunder, and ignored the lack of evidence to establish that the accused had amassed ill-gotten wealth of at least P50 million.
“There were no witnesses presented to show that petitioners Arroyo and Aguas had amassed, accumulated or acquired ill-gotten wealth of any amount and there was also no evidence to show that the Confidential Intelligence Funds [CIF] of the PCSO had been diverted to either petitioner Arroyo or petitioner Aguas or accused Uriarte,” the Court said.
The majority also disagreed with the anti-graft court’s position that the prosecution had established the predicate of raiding the public treasury even without proof that the public officer charged had benefitted from the act, saying that holding that proof of where the money went and proof that petitioners Arroyo and Aguas benefitted were essential ingredients of the proof of the predicate act of “raiding the public treasury.”
In her dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno said the majority ignored the “stark irregularities” in the disbursement process of the CIF funds.
Sereno added that the majority decision also denied the concept of implied conspiracy as laid down in a case by the Supreme Court itself.
She also noted that the testimony of prosecution witness Aleta Tolentino had disclosed that there were several irregularities in the CIF requests and disbursements, which should have provided red flags.
“These irregularities were repeated in the course of three years. The CIF releases would not have been made possible without the approval of Arroyo. The funds could not have been disbursed without the complicity and overt acts of Aguas. Uriarte was definitely part of the scheme as the one who received the amounts. Even the ponencia admits that without Arroyo’s participation, Aguas could not release any money because there was then no budget available for the additional CIFs,” Sereno said, adding that Arroyo’s manner of approving requests for additional CIFs, seven times in the course of three years, reveals the initial, indispensable act in the conspiracy to commit plunder.
The Chief Justice also disagreed with the majority’s requirement that personal benefit needed to be proven, asserting that the same was not an element of the law nor has it been interpreted to be so by jurisprudence and that, for purposes of prosecution, material possession, as opposed to actual possession, of at least P50 million is sufficient.
Another dissenter, Associate Justice Marvic Leonen said Arroyo as a highly intelligent President should know what was happening and that it was her duty to stop, not abet or participate in such schemes.
Mrs. Arroyo on Thursday said she would give priority to her medical treatment after the Sandiganbayan ordered her release from hospital arrest.
Larry Gadon, lawyer for Arroyo, who has been suffering from cervical spine problems, said the former president would want a full medical checkup and treatment after her release.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court voted 11-4 to junk the plunder case against Arroyo that stemmed from her alleged misuse of P366 million in PCSO intelligence funds.
The Sandiganbayan authorized her release two days later.
Gadon said Arroyo will stay at her residence at the La Vista Subdivision in Quezon City and may undergo immediate medical checkup.
“Then the following day, she will go to St. Luke’s for new medical examinations—its either St. Luke’s Global or here in [Quezon City],” Gadon said.
Apart from medical treatment, Gadon said Arroyo is getting ready to go back to her legislative duties and she is looking forward to attending congressional sessions, including the election of Speaker and first State of the Nation Address of President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday, July 25.
“[Mrs. Arroyo] is very concerned with her duties as a congresswoman. Even if she was detained at the VMMC, she still managed to file bills in Congress—a few of which had been passed,” Gadon said.
Gadon said he has yet to discuss with Mrs. Arroyo his recommendation that she file civil cases against the government for her illegal detention.
While he had advised to follow this route, her first priority was to seek medical attention, Gadon said.
The latest Social Weather Stations survey showed that most Filipinos found the previous administration’s treatment of Mrs. Arroyo to be “fair.”
The non-commissioned survey, conducted via face-to-face interviews with 1,500 adults nationwide, found 57 percent of adult Filipinos saying the government’s treatment of her was fair, while some 21 percent said it was too harsh. Another 21 percent said it was being too lenient.
Also on Thursday, former President and now Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada said he was glad that Mrs. Arroyo has been ordered freed.
He said it was likely that her detention was politically motivated, since no evidence could be found to prove her guilt, Estrada added.
Former President Benigno Aquino III, who pushed for Mrs. Arroyo’s prosecution and detention, questioned the Supreme Court ruling.
“I have been told that the text of the decision is now available. I have asked my lawyers to study the document and advise me on the matter. This statement was prepared in response to the requests of media organizations for a comment. In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, I have several questions on my mind, a few of which I wish to share with our countrymen,” said Aquino in a statement.
He said nowhere in the PCSO charter did it state that its funds could be reallocated to security-related issues, as stated in th accomplishment report by former PCSO general manager Rosario Uriarte and Aguas.
But an Aquino ally, Senator Francis Pangilinan, said Arroyo’s acquittal was the result of the rule of law.
“We may or may not like the result. That is final, and we respect the decision of the Supreme Court,” Pangilinan said.
Another Aquino ally, Senator Franklin Drilon, said the Ombudsman should locate and present Uriarte, whom he described as “the missing link” in the plunder case.
“Rosario Uriarte was the principal resource person in the Senate investigation. She was the key witness who said that it was former President Arroyo who personally approved the PCSO intelligence budget. But I do not know, I do not think that she was presented as a witness in the case and so there was no testimony to that effect,” Drilon said.
“I would urge the Ombudsman at this point to check whether or not Uriarte has left the country or her whereabouts,” he added. With Rio N. Araja, Sandy Araneta, John Paolo Bencito
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