The Court of Appeals on Wednesday ordered the reinstatement of the Office of the Ombudsman’s chief special prosecutor after she was sacked by the Aquino administration in connection with a plea-bargaining agreement entered into with a retired military official charged with plunder.
A 29-page decision of the CA Special 10th Division, dated July 22, 2016 and penned by Associate Justice Zenaida Galapate-Laguilles, ordered the reinstatement of chief special prosecutor Wendell Barreras-Sulit.
The CA ruled that Malacañang, during the stint of President Benigno Aquino 3rd and Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., committed an error and usurped the authority of the courts with an order dismissing Sulit from her post as top prosecutor of the Office of the Ombudsman.
The decision dated July 18, 2013 and resolution dated December 6, 2013 of the Office of the President, dismissing petitioner Wendell Barreras-Sulit from the service, are hereby reversed and set aside,” said the ruling, which was concurred in by Associate Justices Marlene Sison and Mario Lopez.
Through a plea bargain, retired major general Carlos Garcia got away from a plunder charge filed by the Office of the Ombudsman
A lifestyle check had shown millions of pesos and pieces of property under Garcia’s name and members of his family, including a Trump Plaza condominium in New York.
He was also charged with money laundering, and the Anti-Money Laundering Council even moved to freeze assets of the Garcias.
The appellate court did not agree with the findings of Malacañang that the plea-bargaining deal with Garcia, which allowed the general to plead to a lesser offense, was unlawfully executed.
It said the plea-bargaining agreement was lawful because Sulit executed the same under direct supervision of then Ombudsman Marceditas Gutierrez.
Gutierrez and Sulit entered into the bargaining agreement with Garcia, asking to return assets to the Philippine government and allowing his plunder case to be downgraded to direct bribery charges.
Garcia returned P135,433,387.84 to the government under the agreement.
Gutierrez and Sulit said the plea-bargaining agreement was most advantageous to the government because it would be impossible to sustain a conviction.
The case filed by then Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo and Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio for plunder was allegedly weak.
This finding was upheld by the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan.
When Aquino assumed the presidency, however, he forced Gutierrez to resign from her post to be able to appoint a new Ombudsman, and then dismissed Sulit.
But the Court of Appeals stated that the plea-bargaining agreement was also approved by the Sandiganbayan, which makes the agreement aboveboard and within the process mandated by law.
The three-man court ruled that Malacañang then had no authority to determine whether the evidence presented before the Sandiganbayan was strong enough to sustain a conviction.
“The act of the OP (Office of the President) in determining the probative value of the evidence presented in the cases of plunder and money laundering in these administrative proceedings is not only misplaced and uncalled for but also constitutes an encroachment of judicial power. The authority rests solely upon the appropriate court—the Sandiganbayan in this case,” the ruling stated.
“We find it unfair to accuse petitioner Sulit of gross inexcusable negligence and bad faith in the performance of her function as Special Prosecutor as there was no substantial evidence that she was remiss in protecting the interest of the State. We believe that the [bargaining agreement]was the outcome of a prudent, reasonable and practical evaluation of the cases against Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia, a solution that would best serve the interest of the nation and its people,” the decision said.