The Sandiganbayan’s Special Third Division has thumbed down a plea of former Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile and of his former aide Jessica Lucila “Gigi” Reyes that Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang inhibit herself from a plunder case filed against them and several others in connection with the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel scam.
In a resolution promulgated on September 14, the court denied the respective motions filed by Enrile and Reyes “for utter lack of merit.”
The ruling said in part that “the accused-movants merely point to adverse and alleged erroneous resolutions penned by the chairperson. As earlier discussed, these do not constitute a valid or just ground for a voluntary inhibition.”
“Insofar as the accused-movants’ insinuation that the chairperson may be partial because she was an appointee of former President [Benigno] Aquino [3rd], the same is sheer speculation, which miserably falls short of the required ‘clear and convincing evidence’ to warrant the grant of a motion for voluntary inhibition predicated on bias and prejudice,” it added.
“Indeed, if all members of the bench were to be compelled to recuse themselves on the ground that unconscious powers residing beneath them could probably hold sway, then nobody would be sitting on any bench in any court right at this very moment,” it said in part.
Tang, who was appointed as the Sandiganbayan’s presiding justice in 2013, concurrently leads the court’s Third Division where the case is pending.
Enrile’s camp had claimed that there was “extraordinary speed” in the conduct of proceedings during his arraignment and the hearing on his plea for a bill of particulars.
But the court said that except for claiming such, he “has not presented clear and convincing evidence that the court acted with bias or prejudice when it denied his motion for a bill of particulars, his motion for reconsideration thereof and his motion to suspend arraignment in one setting.”
Meanwhile, Reyes earlier filed a manifestation and motion saying that she was adopting Enrile’s plea for Tang’s voluntary inhibition.
Reyes’s camp alleged that Tang allowed her “to be prejudiced in a proceeding in which she did not participate and was not heard at all, in violation of the fundamental tenets of due process of law,” when specific findings of culpability were made against her in a March 2, 2016 resolution wherein the court denied Napoles’ plea to reconsider the denial of her bail petition.
Napoles is Janet Lim-Napoles, alleged architect of the pork barrel scam.
The camp argued that Tang “grievously erred” in applying to Reyes the part of the 2015 Supreme Court (SC) decision — wherein the SC granted Enrile’s plea for a bill of particulars — regarding the validity of the charge sheet, while “prohibiting” Reyes from invoking and availing herself of the benefits of the SC’s order in the same decision for the prosecution to provide a bill of particulars and from questioning the bill of particulars that provided details on the charge.
But the court said that “[t]o begin with, while the afore-cited resolutions were written by the chairperson, the same were decided by the court as a collegial body.”
“Moreover, the argument that the court’s resolutions are erroneous does not constitute a just and valid ground for the inhibition of the chairperson. To be sure, an erroneous ruling can be remedied and corrected,” it added.
The court agreed with the prosecution that the proper remedy, if Reyes firmly believed that the rulings were erroneous, is to question the rulings before the SC.
It said it expressly said in its ruling that it was not passing judgment on the defendant’s culpability or non-culpability in resolving Napoles’ plea to reconsider the denial of Reyes’ bail petition.
“Clearly, there was no prejudgment of accused Reyes’s guilt. She will have the opportunity to present her defense and cross-examine the prosecution witnesses during trial at which time, their credibility would be put to the crucible,” the court added.
Enrile is one of three former senators namely, Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. and Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, whom the Office of the Ombudsman charged along with Napoles and several other individuals in 2014 in connection with the PDAF scam.
Both Revilla and Estrada are detained at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center in Camp Crame in Quezon City, while Enrile is out on bail after the Supreme Court granted his bail petition on humanitarian grounds.
Enrile’s co-accused Napoles and Reyes are detained at a Bureau of Jail Management and Penology facility in Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City.
Two other respondents, Napoles’s employee John Raymund de Asis and nephew Ronald John Lim, remain at large.