Why did SC free Gloria Macapagal Arroyo?
SINGAPORE—No reaction to the Supreme Court dismissing charges against former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo even cited its legal reasoning. Most were aired even before the decision was released!
We must mature beyond criticism based on who appointed who. The Supreme Court justices voted 11-4 to dismiss, including nine of 10 Arroyo appointees. The 10th is no less than Justice Antonio Carpio, our most senior jurist and architect of the lawsuit against China.
But if one argues a decision was politicized, one still needs to attack it on legal grounds to do more than gripe. Further, the two non-Arroyo appointees in the 11 are Justice Estela Perlas Bernabe, who handled the pork barrel case admirably, and Justice Francis Jardeleza, who dazzled in high-profile arguments as solicitor general.
We must also outgrow treating Supreme Court decisions as political maneuvers. We must evaluate legal rules blind to the accused, as a doctrine for an enemy today must apply to a friend tomorrow.
The issue was simple: When is a government official a coconspirator after she approves a transaction that became anomalous?
If the rule is too broad, genuinely uninvolved officials may be charged, even as harassment, and no official would dare sign anything.
What if the approver only wrote “OK” on letters?
What if the amounts approved seemed unusually large?
What if a request for funds was recycled word for word, year after year, and always approved?
Arroyo approved P366 million of Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) “Confidential and Intelligence Funds” (CIF) from 2008-2010. In comparison, only P15 million was approved in 2002. These funds are used to monitor misuse of PCSO funds, such as donated medicine being resold and sweepstakes scams.
The charge was conspiring to divert PCSO operating funds to CIF for fictitious expenses, taking advantage of less restrictive controls for confidential funds. Justice Lucas Bersamin’s 48-page decision took pains to outline the minutiae in plain English.
Aleta Tolentino, chair of the PCSO board’s audit committee, outlined how then PCSO general manager Rosario Uriarte sent letter-requests for additional CIF to Arroyo, which she would write “OK” on.
The PCSO was then in severe deficit, in part due to huge additional CIF. Operational funds and CIF were commingled in one large account, making them difficult to distinguish. No detailed explanations on proposed CIF were presented to Arroyo. Uriarte both signed the checks and spent the money, contrary to basic controls.
Uriarte put up a mere P1.5 million fidelity bond, required to reimburse any misappropriation, despite the large amounts. There was insufficient documentation on how the money was actually spent. Finally, various Commission on Audit (COA) requirements were not met.
Beyond Tolentino’s testimony, various law enforcement agencies affirmed they had no operations with the PCSO, even though this was partly the justification for the huge CIF.
The actual issue, though, was whether sufficient evidence was presented to link Arroyo and Benigno Aguas, then PCSO budget and accounts manager, to this horror movie for auditors. The Sandiganbayan previously dismissed the charges against PCSO board members and the then COA chair for lack of such evidence. Uriarte herself is missing and Senate President Franklin Drilon called on the Ombudsman to find her.
The Supreme Court ruled that Arroyo’s writing “OK” on letters alone is not sufficient evidence of conspiracy, or even illegal. Command responsibility exists for military commanders in war crimes, but is not automatically applied to other fields of law.
Similarly, it ruled that Aguas’ signing certifications, in itself, despite the numbers and amounts of the transactions and the absence of required documents, was not sufficient to link him.
Bernabe’s 19-page separate opinion balances the issues. She acknowledges the countless irregularities highlighted in the decision, and even reproduced Uriarte’s actual letters to show that each, from 2008 to 2010, had near identical text.
She also disagrees with new legal doctrines created in the main decision, such as how prosecutors should name a specific mastermind in a conspiracy (this is relevant mainly where a mastermind coordinates various unrelated conspiracies) and should show that an accused personally benefited from corruption. Finally, Bernabe would continue with Aguas’ trial because he “evidently ignored his auditing duties.”
Nevertheless, she agrees with the decision’s main point and wrote: “I am hard-pressed to find that Arroyo’s periodic approvals of Uriarte’s multiple letter-requests for additional CIF funds—which was the sole justification behind the Sandiganbayan ruling—amount to sufficient evidence which would prove her complicity in the plunder of CIF funds.” No overt act was presented that established she knew her approvals facilitated corruption.
In contrast, the dissents of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Justice Marvic Leonen argue that Arroyo had to know there was corruption, given her repeated approvals for large amounts.
In the end, the Supreme Court dismissed charges against Arroyo and Aguas. One may disagree even with Bernabe’s narrower conclusion, but it seems difficult to argue this is legally baseless. The justices drew a line between possible gullibility and presumed criminal intent.
The takeaway is that any critique that does not address the sentence from Bernabe above is hot air and noise, and invites us to continue treating law as politics. Rule of law demands greater intellectual maturity from a democracy, even in prosecuting a former president.
* * *
React: [email protected], Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan
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.