Half a victory
The recent Sandiganbayan ruling ordering several Marcos cronies to return public money to the government may count as a meager victory—the big fish, the Marcoses and Juan Ponce Enrile, were once again absolved and only the cronies were punished—but it’s still a welcome break from the disheartening slew of dismissed cases relating to the Marcos ill-gotten wealth that the Sandiganbayan has dealt government prosecutors and the people in recent months.
In a 142-page ruling last week, the court ordered close Marcos associates Manuel Nieto Jr. and Jose Africa to return to the government their ill-gotten shares in Eastern Telecommunications Philippines Inc. (Etpi), which the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) valued at around P2.95 billion. Nieto was also ordered to pay the government some P68 million, the equivalent value of Etpishares that had been transferred or conveyed to ISM Communications Corporation.
Africa’s and Nieto’s heirs were ordered as well to return to the government their shares in Etpi, all stock or cash dividends they had received or deposited, and any interest that these shares have earned or may still earn. They were also told to pay P1 million each in exemplary damages.
But while the Sandiganbayan ruled that there was enough evidence to show that Africa, Nieto and other small shareholders of several companies were “merely used as a conduit to further hide defendant Ferdinand Marcos’ ill-gotten wealth,” it also dismissed the cases against the Marcos couple and fellow defendant Enrile, among others, for the prosecution’s failure to establish a “preponderance of evidence against them.” That’s the same dismaying reason cited in previous Sandiganbayan rulings that junked similar ill-gotten wealth cases, among them the P267.371-million civil forfeiture case against the late dictator and former first lady Imelda Marcos and their associates that the antigraft court threw out in October this year.
Still, if there is some comfort to be had, it can be found in the court’s ruling stating unequivocally that the money Africa and Nieto had used to secure shares of stock can be traced back directly to the ousted president. The court pointed to several receipts and bank documents showing that Roberto Benedicto, a former ambassador to Japan, had received a P15-million check from then President Marcos, which was deposited to a trust account in Traders Commercial Bank. Of that amount, P1.08 million was withdrawn and used by Benedicto, Africa and Nieto for the initial capitalization of Etpi.
The court also cited Nieto’s admission in a 1986 affidavit that 40 percent of his and Africa’s shares in Etpi belonged to Marcos. Nieto attempted to retract his statement in another affidavit months later, but it was dismissed by the court. “Nieto … was a former ambassador to Spain,” noted the court. “Given this, it can be reasonably concluded that he signed the affidavit with full knowledge and understanding of its clear import; and that he would not have made such declaration unless it were true.”
The sequestered shares in Etpi are ill-gotten wealth at first glance, added the court, and that Marcos had “betrayed the trust reposed on him by the Filipino people when he resorted to this insidious scheme of employing his codefendants Nieto and Africa as his dummies in acquiring the 60 percent shares of stock in the Etpi.”
Thus: “The shares… are ill-gotten wealth of defendant Ferdinand Marcos; hence should be reverted/reconveyed to the Republic of the Philippines.”
However, in dismissing the cases against Marcos, Enrile and others, the Sandiganbayan ruled that although the PCGG had wanted to seize the assets of the defendants, the forfeiture can be applied only to company shares illegally acquired, in this case, those of Nieto and Africa.
Call it half a victory then—the Marcoses escaping the noose once again, but the Sandiganbayan ruling adding to the jurisprudence that clearly damns them for their plunder and thievery. Those words will now become part of the unalterable historical record—cue the gnashing of teeth among Marcos revisionists. Also, the decision restores faith somewhat in the work of government prosecutors; in the words of former chief justice Artemio Panganiban, the ruling “showed that when the prosecution presents sufficient proof, the Republic could recover ill-gotten wealth from the cronies.”
There are 18 more pending forfeiture cases against the Marcoses and their associates, according to Solicitor General Jose Calida. It’s even more imperative that government lawyers not lose any of those cases now.
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