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With Due Respect

Going for the jugular

Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is asking the Supreme Court to acquit her of plunder, arguing that she merely approved the release of P366 million to the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) from which she did not personally benefit, and that—going for the jugular—if she is convicted, President Aquino could be equally guilty of plunder for approving the release of Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) funds.

Brief background. After the high court granted bail to Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, I wrote on Oct. 18 (“By the SC, not by the UN”) that Arroyo’s lawyers—citing the constitutional principle of equal protection of the law—can obtain bail for their client if they could prove that, like Enrile, she is not a flight risk because of her fragile health and advanced age.

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Thereafter, her new counsel, Estelito P. Mendoza, filed a petition for certiorari in the high court praying, not for bail, but for the reversal of the Sandiganbayan’s (SBN) denial of her plea for a “demurrer” and for her immediate acquittal.

Mendoza did not rely on the controversial 8-4 Supreme Court decision he obtained granting bail to Enrile, or on the opinion of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention critiquing Arroyo’s plight.

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Recall that a Special SBN Division of five, voting 3-2, denied her demurrer and ruled that the prosecution had proven her guilt beyond reasonable doubt. The ruling meant that unless she presents countervailing evidence, she would be at risk of conviction.

However, Mendoza asked the “Court  en  banc  to act on the petition; and by way of interim measures: (a) to expedite the proceedings and to set the case for oral argument; and (b) to suspend further proceedings [in the SBN] … and finally … to render judgment annulling … [the SBN resolutions] denying Arroyo’s ‘Demurrer to Evidence’ … and ordering … the acquittal of … Arroyo…”

Two arguments. Arroyo’s 116-page petition was quite exhaustive but I have space to take up only two major arguments: First, the Information (or charge sheet) did not validly charge the crime of plunder; and second, granting it did, the prosecution’s evidence miserably failed to link her to the alleged plunder of the PCSO money.

On the first argument, Arroyo explains that the Information charged her and nine others with “willfully, unlawfully and criminally amass[ing], accumulat[ing] and/or acquir[ing], directly or indirectly, ill-gotten wealth in the aggregate amount … of [P366 million], more or less, through any or a combination or a series of overt or criminal acts … in the aggregate amount … of at least fifty million pesos…”

Since the Information did not specify how much each of the 10 accused “amassed, accumulated and/or acquired,” the presumption—pursuant to the principle that criminal indictments must be interpreted in favor of the accused—is that each of them did so equally, or only P36.6 million each. Thus, she could not have committed the crime of plunder, so she argues.

On the second argument, Arroyo contends that “the gravamen … of the offense of plunder … is that the public officer … amasses, accumulates or acquires ill-gotten wealth… in the aggregate amount … of at least fifty million pesos… “

And yet, she contends, “not a single exhibit of the 637 exhibits … nor a single testimony of the 21 witnesses … was offered by the prosecution to prove that petitioner amassed, accumulated or acquired even a single peso of the alleged ill-gotten wealth.” Neither was a conspiracy proven.

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The only act attributed to Arroyo is her scribbled “Ok” on the requests for the release of the PCSO funds. Thus, she avers that she cannot be said to have “amassed, accumulated or acquired ill-gotten wealth” of any amount because no PCSO money passed through, was held, or was used by her or for her personal benefit.

Matching Mendoza. As a general rule, petitions for certiorari questioning the rulings of lower courts denying demurrers are frowned upon. Such rulings are appealed only after the proceedings below had been completed. But, allowing an exception, the Supreme Court—upon receipt of, and as prayed for by, the petition—swiftly acted, stopped the SBN trial scheduled on Nov. 3, and directed the SBN to comment on the petition.

To my mind, these swift actions show that the high court was convinced of the prima facie cogency of the petition. But to be fair, it should have also called for oral argument. Cases of lesser public importance have been orally argued for the enlightenment of the parties and the people at large.

Can Solicitor General Florin T. Hilbay—who by law is the SBN’s and the prosecution’s counsel—match the clarity, certainty and creativity of Attorney Mendoza? Indeed, nothing less is expected from the “People’s Tribune.”

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Cheers to the “Journalists of the Year” awardees of the Metrobank Foundation (MBF): the Inquirer’s Nancy Carvajal, GMA Network’s Howie Severino and Rappler’s Marites Vitug. An independent board of judges led by Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales selected the winners. The Probe Foundation headed by Che-Che Lazaro was cosponsor, while CJ Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno was the guest speaker.

Metrobank (MB) group chair George S.K. Ty was abroad but MB group vice chair Antonio S. Abacan Jr., MB president Fabian S. Dee, MBF president Aniceto M. Sobrepeña and MBF senior VP Anjanette Ty-Dy Buncio ably represented him. As chair of the MBF board of advisers, I was asked to preside over the ceremonies.

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TAGS: Benigno Aquino III, Disbursement Acceleration Program, estelito mendoza, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Journalists of the Year, Metrobank Foundation, P-Noy, pcso funds, Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, plunder
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