Something significant went largely unnoticed in the political fog and noise of the last several weeks: On June 14, the Sandiganbayan’s Fifth Division unanimously ruled that enough evidence had been presented 1) to proceed with the trial of former senator Jinggoy Estrada on plunder and graft charges relating to the P10-billion pork barrel scam, and 2) to convict him, if the evidence from the prosecution so far were left unrebutted.
The decision was the result of Estrada’s appeal, and that of his coaccused, plunder convict Janet Lim-Napoles, to file a demurrer to evidence. The court rejected the plea and said it was convinced that, “Based on the evidence on record … the prosecution presented sufficient evidence, both testimonial and documentary, which established each element of the crime of plunder against the accused,” and that “This, if unrebutted by contrary evidence, is sufficient to support a conviction for the crime as charged.”
Estrada was clearly counting on the sensational game plan for exoneration devised by his coaccused, former senator Bong Revilla, to likewise work for him.
The Sandiganbayan eventually acquitted Revilla of the plunder and graft cases against him — though he was ordered to return P124 million to the national treasury. Revilla refused, and still won back a Senate seat. Estrada, out on bail, ran in that race, too, and lost — but surely the court would look as kindly on him as it did on Revilla?
That the court said no is a hopeful development. Estrada’s case is the last forlorn hope for any conviction arising from the pork barrel scam; aside from Revilla, former senator Juan Ponce Enrile had beaten the same charges much earlier.
However, while the court did say there is enough evidence to nail Estrada, a conviction is still very much up in the air. As in Revilla’s case, the mass of evidence underpinning the charges against Estrada — that he got P157.6 million in pork barrel kickbacks from 2007 to 2012 — came from an Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) report.
If Revilla’s acquittal is any gauge, however, an AMLC report already disclosing the unexplained wealth flowing in and out of a defendant’s bank accounts is still no guarantee of a guilty verdict. The court, in the end, chose not to believe the AMLC report — a decision that puzzled many.
The fact that cases against Revilla, Estrada and many others accused of ill-gotten wealth in public office have to rely on the results of a confidential, court-mandated investigation by the AMLC points to a major hurdle in running after suspects in plunder and corruption cases: the country’s rigid bank secrecy laws, which prohibits the disclosure of details of “all deposits of whatever nature” in Philippine banks.
Former senator Sergio Osmeña III, the author of the antimoney laundering law, himself said the Philippines needs to “lighten” the law to allow the government to crack down more effectively on money laundering and other crimes.
“We have the strictest bank secrecy act in the world,” he said — a fact that has prompted Sen. Panfilo Lacson to file Senate Bill No. 26, which seeks to amend the law by stripping the bank records of all government officials and employees of confidentiality.
Under this bill, everyone in government “from the President down to the lowest-ranking employee” cannot avail themselves of the bank secrecy privilege, thus preventing the crooked among them from using the law to hide and evade investigations into possible ill-gotten wealth.
The deterrence factor of such necessary disclosures cannot be discounted. Had such exemption been in place and the public allowed the opportunity to scrutinize the asset records of public officials, would Revilla have been able to waltz out of jail and walk off with P124 million of the people’s money?
Wouldn’t the prosecution of suspects of wrongdoing, or their exoneration as the case may be, be made easier with more public and transparent evidence? Wouldn’t the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth of every government official now reflect facts and figures with more accuracy and honesty, as they can very well be cross-checked with their financial records? And wouldn’t President Duterte himself welcome the chance to come clean on rumored unreported assets for which he’s been dared time and again by his opponents to sign a waiver?
With the corrupt in government having found a refuge in the country’s stringent bank secrecy laws, perhaps it’s time to tweak the law to allow the people a peek into what their so-called public servants may be hiding from view. As this administration loves to say, if one has nothing to hide, one has nothing to worry about.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.