THE DECISION of an overwhelming majority of Supreme Court (SC) justices that acquitted former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of plunder insisted that she is innocent and there is no evidence that she pocketed money from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO).
In the 48-page decision penned by Associate Justice Lucas Bersamin, the SC ruled that Arroyo could not be convicted as she did not commit the act of raiding the national coffers, a predicate to the crime of plunder.
Moreover, the Sandiganbayan ignored the lack of evidence to establish that Arroyo had engaged in a conspiracy with PCSO officials to amass ill-gotten wealth of at least P50 million, the minimum amount required to establish plunder.
On Tuesday, with a vote of 11 against 4, the criminal charges against Arroyo were thrown out by the high court via a “demurrer to evidence” that in effect found the prosecution’s case to be weak.
The full text of the decision was released on Thursday.
The high court said the Sandiganbayan, which denied Arroyo’s demurrer last year, abused its discretion and exceeded its jurisdiction.
“[The] Sandiganbayan completely ignored the failure of the information to sufficiently charge conspiracy to commit plunder against the petitioners,” the majority decision said.
Arroyo was accused by the Office of the Ombudsman in 2012 of allegedly embezzling P366 million in PCSO confidential and intelligence funds from 2008 to 2010.
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales failed to prove where the money went and that Arroyo and her co-accused, former PCSO budget and accounts officer Benigno Aguas, benefited from it.
Besides Arroyo and Aguas, also charged with plunder before the Sandiganbayan were PCSO General Manager and Vice Chairman Rosario Uriarte; directors Manuel Morato, Jose Taruc, Raymundo Roquero and Ma. Fatima Valdes; Commission on Audit (COA) Chairman Reynaldo Villar; and former COA intelligence fund fraud audit head Nilda Plaras.
Not the mastermind
The Ombudsman also failed to prove that Arroyo masterminded acts constituting plunder, the ruling said.
What the Ombudsman sought to show was an implied conspiracy to commit plunder among all of the accused on the basis of their collective actions prior to, during and after the implied agreement, it said.
Moreover, making marginal notes as Arroyo did to PCSO officials involving the release of intelligence funds is common practice and cannot be construed as constituting plunder.
The SC also ruled that the Sandiganbayan was incorrect when it held that to prove the predicate act of raids of the public treasury, “the prosecution need not establish that the public officer had benefited from such act; and that what was necessary was proving that the public officer had raided the public coffers.”
Not only did the Ombudsman fail to show where the money went but, more importantly, Arroyo and Aguas had personally benefited from the same. Hence, the Ombudsman “did not prove the predicate act of raids on the public treasury beyond reasonable doubt.”
Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, who authored the dissenting opinion, argued that Arroyo was “highly intelligent” to know how to steal public funds.
“Having had an extraordinary term of nine (9) years as President of the Philippines, she had the experience to make her wise to many, if not all, of the schemes perpetrated within the government bureaucracy that allowed the pilferage of public coffers especially if these were repeated acts in ever-increasing amounts reaching millions of pesos. As President, it was her duty to stop – not abet or participate-in such schemes,” wrote Leonen.
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Aranal-Sereno, in her separate dissenting opinion, blasted her colleagues for rewriting the law and introducing two additional elements to the crime of plunder, the need for a main plunderer and personal benefit.
“Nearly P366 million of the People’s money is missing. Direct documentary evidence whereby petitioner Aguas states that a large part of this, or P244.5 million to be exact, was diverted to the Office of the President under petitioner Arroyo, was considered sufficient by the Sandiganbayan to require both petitioners herein to proceed with the presentation of their defense evidence,” Sereno wrote.
“This cogent conclusion by the constitutionally-mandated court” (Sandiganbayan) “that has tried the prosecution’s evidence on plunder cannot be overridden willy-nilly by this Court,” she added.