The alleged pork barrel scam mastermind, Janet Lim Napoles, remains in jail despite the decision of two divisions of the Sandiganbayan to grant her petition for bail in two plunder cases. She is serving a life sentence at the Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong City for the serious illegal detention of her aide-turned-whistle-blower, Benhur Luy. Nevertheless, the unexpected decisions released on Wednesday give us pause.
The antigraft court’s Fourth Division granted Napoles’ petition and that of dismissed Masbate governor Rizalina Lanete. The former governor’s son posted a total of P830,000 bail (for plunder and for 11 counts of graft), allowing his mother to leave Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City for the first time since she surrendered to the authorities in February 2015. Since Lanete is still contesting the Ombudsman’s ruling dismissing her from the post and barring her permanently from public office, she can now freely campaign for reelection as governor.
The Fifth Division granted Napoles’ petition and that of former Apec party-list representative Edgar Valdez; he posted a total of P1.71 million bail (for plunder and for seven counts of graft). Valdez also leaves Camp Bagong Diwa after over a year in detention.
In the Lanete case, the Fourth Division said it found the evidence uncompelling. “The Court is of the opinion that the evidence, presented by the prosecution, of the guilt of accused Lanete and accused Napoles is not strong.” It pointed out that the two accused never met, a fact admitted by the prosecution, and that the main witness, Luy, said he gave the kickbacks to the governor’s chief of staff, Jose Sumalpong. (The man is still at large.)
In the Valdez case, the Fifth Division ruled that the evidence proved that the lawmaker had received only P2.6 million from a Napoles conduit foundation, well below the threshold for plunder.
“For purposes of bail, to find that the evidence of guilt is strong against the accused Valdez that he amassed, accumulated and acquired by himself the total amount of P57,787,500 representing commissions and kickbacks from foundations and NGOs controlled by Napoles … when the evidence produced by the prosecution showed that the amount received by Cong. Valdez from SDPFFI [Social Development Program for Farmers Foundation Inc.] was P2,627,500 and no other evidence was adduced to prove that part of P57,787,500 came from MAMFI [Masaganang Ani Para sa Magsasaka Foundation Inc.] and PSDFI [Philippine Social Development Foundation Inc.], would violate his right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against him.”
Lanete and Valdez are not the first political figures allowed to post bail on the nonbailable crime of plunder; last year, the Supreme Court voted 8-4 allowing Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile to post bail on pork-barrel-scam plunder charges, on “humanitarian grounds.”
Both divisions of the Sandiganbayan took pains to state that the grant of bail did not mean that Napoles, Lanete and Valdez were already found not guilty; the trials are still continuing.
But the decisions are cause for concern, just the same.
They were immediately picked up on the campaign trail. Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, for instance, took a brief respite from his campaign for the vice presidency to air his suspicions about the grant of bail. “I am greatly appalled. Galit po ako kung bakit nabigyan ng piyansa si Napoles. Bakit po? (I’m angry that Napoles was granted bail. Why?)” Cayetano asked aloud in a huddle with reporters in San Miguel, Bulacan.
We can expect the antigraft court’s decisions to become political fodder—even for those candidates who are in fact allies of Enrile, Lanete or Valdez. It’s election season, after all.
But we must also note with concern the justifications offered by the court itself. For instance, the fact that the principal accused in a case did not actually handle the illegal funds is or should be of little moment; only stereotypical villains in bad movies do that. Naturally, the cash must be coursed through staff or close-in aides. The fact that Lanete’s own chief of staff, the man the prosecution has proven to have received the kickbacks, is at large is not an excuse but instead a telltale warning sign.
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