The Supreme Court decision to suspend the ongoing trial of former Armed Forces comptroller Carlos Garcia for the lesser crimes of direct bribery and money laundering is a welcome development, a kind of stopping of a runaway legal clock.
It gives the nation a chance to review the anomalous plea bargain which the Office of the Ombudsman entered into with Garcia, then facing a plunder case, in 2010, and then subsequently ratified by the Sandiganbayan—a necessary second look that is not dependent on the same agency partly responsible for the anomaly in the first place.
The high court acted on the petition for certiorari filed by the Office of the Solicitor General, against the Special Second Division of the Sandiganbayan, the Office of the Ombudsman, the Office of the Special Prosecutor and Garcia himself. “Without giving due course to the petition, the Court required the respondents to comment on the petition within 10 days from notice and in order not to render the instant petition moot and academic, issued a TRO effective immediately enjoining the respondent Sandiganbayan from continuing with the proceedings,” spokesperson Theodore Te told reporters.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima welcomed the order: “That’s a very good sign the Supreme Court would be able to take a really hard look at the issues and study the very significant issues raised in the petition of the OSG.”
Those “very significant issues” are rooted in the anomaly of a plea bargain struck with a high-profile accused who was, by almost all accounts, already losing his plunder case.
When the news about the plea bargain broke, in December 2010, public reaction was swift and scathing. “Abomination,” we said in this space, joining the national chorus of outrage.
“The plea bargain that government prosecutors struck with the lawyers of ex-general Carlos Garcia … is a legal abomination. It violates both the explicit letter of the law and the spirit that gives law life; it makes a mockery of the justice system at the very moment that system is under great stress; not least, it feeds the cynicism of the public, more and more of whom believe that Lady Justice is not blind. When the moneyed are haled to court, she only pretends to close her eyes.”
When the Sandiganbayan dismissed the motion of the Office of the Solicitor General to intervene in the Garcia case, in May 2011, we joined the many aghast at the antigraft court’s twisted rationalizations and its sheer failure to even attempt to do justice.
We wrote: The “justices rationalize their inutility in a way that explains why the corrupt continue to hold sway in the country. ‘As we have intimated above, we are aware of the existence of a big amount of money in the possession of the accused. But where these sums of money came from was not shown and explained.’ Judges living in a vacuum may think that bribes are exchanged with the use of official receipts and record books which government prosecutors must track down, but everyone else knows it is the military general earning a five-digit salary per month but enjoying hundreds of millions in assets who must do the explaining.”
And again: “Green-lighting of a plea bargain in which the official with unexplained wealth was allowed to keep 55 percent of the amount discovered is tantamount to an act of surrender.”
The high court’s order will allow all of us to inquire into the circumstances of surrender.
It will help a curious public understand how a general with a modest salary can amass a fortune worth at least P300 million—and why neither the Ombudsman’s prosecutorial team nor the Sandiganbayan justices remembered that, according to the law itself, an official’s unexplained wealth is presumed ill-gotten. It will help a suspicious public understand how the second most famous plunder case in the country’s history could be the subject of an all-but-secret plea-bargain negotiation—and why neither the Ombudsman’s prosecutorial team nor the Sandiganbayan justices remembered that, according to the law itself, a plea bargain can no longer be entered into once trial commences.
Perhaps it will also help a telenovela-loving public understand if, when both the Ombudsman’s prosecutorial team and the Sandiganbayan justices saw nothing incriminating in the revealing and candid confessions of Garcia’s wife (made to US officials), they were merely pretending to close their eyes.