The Supreme Court (SC) has cleared former Agriculture undersecretary Jocelyn “Jocjoc” Bolante and other respondents of money laundering charges in connection with the P728 million fertilizer fund scam.
Before this, the Court of Appeals (CA) denied the government’s application to extend the freeze order issued in 2009 on Bolante’s bank deposits and investments. The government then petitioned the SC to nullify the CA resolution. The High Court dismissed the said petition.
In a decision dated April 17, 2017 penned by Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Aranal-Sereno, the SC’s First Division denied the petition for certiorari challenging the resolution and the order issued by the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Makati City, Branch 59 denying the government’s move for an inquiry into the bank deposits and investments of Bolante and his co-respondents.
The ruling was concurred in by Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, Mariano del Castillo, Estela Perlas-Bernabe and Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa.
Aside from Bolante, named respondents were Owen Vincent Bolante and Ma. Carol Bolante, Alejo Lamera, Carmen Lamera, Karen Constantino, Ariel Panganiban, Katherine Bombeo, Samuel Bombeo and several others from the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in the fertilizer fund projects.
In April 2005, the Philippine National Bank (PNB) submitted to the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) a series of suspicious transaction reports involving the accounts of Livelihood Corporation (Livecor), Molugan Foundation (Molugan) and Assembly of Gracious Samaritans, Inc. (AGS).
Based on the reports, Livecor transferred to Molugan P172.6 million from 2004 to 2005. On April 30, 2004, Livecor transferred P40 million to AGS, which received another P38 million from Molugan on the same day.
Curiously, AGS returned the P38 million to Molugan also on the same day.
The transactions were reported as “suspicious” because they had no underlying legal or trade obligation, purpose or economic justification.
Molugan president Samuel S. Bombeo was the lone signatory to the account.
In March 2006, the Senate furnished the AMLC a copy of the report prepared by the Committee on Agriculture and Food and the Committee on Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations.
It narrated that Bolante asked the Department of Budget to release to the Department of Agriculture P728 million for the purchase of farm inputs under the Ginintuang Masaganang Ani Program. The money was used to purchase liquid fertilizers from Freshan Philippines, Inc., which were then distributed to local government units and congressional districts beginning January 2004.
The AMLC authorized the filing of a petition for the issuance of an order allowing an inquiry into the six accounts of Livecor, Molugan, AGS, Bombeo and Panganiban.
The AMLC also required all covered institutions to submit reports of suspicious transactions of these entities and individuals, including all the related web of accounts.
In November 2006, the trial court found probable cause and allowed the AMLC to inquire into and examine the six bank deposits or investments and the related web of accounts.
The AMLC found that 70 bank accounts or investments were part of the web of accounts involved in the fertilizer fund scam.
The CA issued a freeze order on the accounts for 20 days.
The RTC, however, found no probable cause to believe that the deposits and investments of the respondents were related to an unlawful activity.
The High Court upheld the lower court’s ruling.
“The RTC’s finding that there was no probable cause for the issuance of a bank inquiry order was not tainted with grave abuse of discretion. For the trial court to issue a bank inquiry order, it is necessary for the AMLC to be able to show specific facts and circumstances that provide a link between an unlawful activity or a money laundering offense, on the one hand, and the account or monetary instrument or property sought to be examined on the other hand,” it said.
The SC said the evidence relied upon by the AMLC in 2006 was still “the same evidence it used to apply for a bank inquiry order in 2008.”