Not guilty—but return the money?
That, in a nutshell, is the exceedingly odd decision rendered by the Sandiganbayan yesterday that acquitted former senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. of plunder in the case arising from the infamous pork-barrel scam. Only Revilla’s former chief of staff, Richard Cambe, and businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles, were found guilty of the charge and sentenced to reclusion perpetua and absolute disqualification from public office.
However, despite the prosecution having failed, in the words of the court, “to establish beyond reasonable doubt that accused Ramon ‘Bong’ Revilla Jr. received, directly or indirectly the rebates, commission and kickbacks from his PDAF [Priority Development Assistance Fund]” and therefore “cannot hold him liable for the crime of plunder,” the next paragraph of the dispositive portion declared that the “accused” (not the convicted, mind, meaning all three—Revilla, Cambe and Napoles) “are held solidarily and jointly liable to return to the National Treasury the amount of One Hundred Twenty-Four Million, Five Hundred Thousand Pesos (PhP124,500.00).”
Put another way, Revilla is not guilty of stealing public money, according to the court—but he needs to return the money anyway.
Any ordinary observer is bound to get whiplash from the violent double-take he or she has to make in the face of that confounding decision. Imagine, too, the perplexity of Revilla’s lawyers, who, buoyant on one hand for the acquittal of their client, had to announce on the other that they would appeal that portion of the Sandiganbayan’s decision directing Revilla to pay up—a strange postscript that only sustains the questions about where Revilla got the money in the first place.
And the money isn’t peanuts. Other than the testimony of whistleblower Benhur Luy, who testified that Revilla, through his aide Cambe, funneled his pork-barrel funds to bogus foundations set up by Napoles in exchange for kickbacks, the crux of the prosecution’s case was a report by the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) that looked into Revilla’s bank deposits and transactions.
What it found should have been deemed damning. According to the AMLC, from April 6, 2006 to April 28, 2010, the former senator, his wife then Cavite Rep. Lani Mercado, and their children had assets in banks amounting to some P87.6 million. The details of those amounts, said the AMLC, corresponded to Luy’s records of transactions when Revilla supposedly received his share of the laundered PDAF from Napoles’ office.
So Revilla had millions in unexplained funds, which already raises questions of ill-gotten wealth (he still faces 16 counts of graft, a bailable offense). The Sandiganbayan must think that money doesn’t belong to Revilla in any way, else why would it order him to return it to the government? Still, Revilla ends up absolved of plunder, and only his underling Cambe and Napoles are convicted. How, then, did Revilla end up with the stash? Where did he get it? And does this mean Cambe, Revilla’s factotum, engaged all on his own in fraudulent transactions with Napoles involving millions of pesos in kickbacks over several years, under the very nose of his unsuspecting boss? That is a scenario hard to believe. But that is what the Sandiganbayan is asking the public to swallow with its decision.
One gets a sense of the hoops the judges went through to arrive at their decision from reports about how the voting went. The Sandiganbayan’s First Division consisting of Justices Geraldine Faith Econg, Edgardo Caldona and Efren dela Cruz deadlocked on their first vote on the case, failing to reach the required unanimity. Justices Georgina Hidalgo and Ma. Theresa Dolores Gomez Estoesta then joined their three colleagues to form a special division of five to break the impasse. Econg, Caldona and Hidalgo subsequently voted to acquit Revilla; Dela Cruz and Estoesta dissented. Revilla was free after four years in jail.
Former senator Jinggoy Estrada, on trial for the same offense, exulted at his colleague’s acquittal, seeing it as a good omen for his own prospects, and that “talagang napagkaisahan lang kami (we were targeted) in the previous administration.”
He’s saying forget the official AMLC report, for one, and even that directive for Revilla to return the money to the people, and just accept the Sandiganbayan’s forked ruling without quibble. The Filipino public can only scratch its head at the truly peculiar, magic-realist ways justice can take in the Philippines when it comes to the high-profile and powerful. This very case is a star entry in Revilla’s old TV show: “Kap’s Amazing Stories.”
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