THE recent decision of the Supreme Court (SC) acquitting former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of plunder charges over the alleged misuse of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) intelligence funds has erased one of the last vestiges of the “daang matuwid” administration from our political system.
We recall how during his administration, former President Benigno Aquino 3rd kept harping on the success of his administration’s anti-corruption campaign, frequently citing the hospital arrest of his predecessor. Obviously, Aquino relished Arroyo’s incarceration as a major achievement of his “daang matuwid” government.
With the past administration making Arroyo the poster child for all the ills that befell our country, the SC’s junking of the only remaining plunder charge against her is a slap on the face of Aquino. It also confirms what many have suspected all along—that Arroyo had been illegally and hastily detained on trumped-up charges.
First off, the SC noted in its ruling that all of the alleged conspirators (except for Arroyo and PCSO Budget Officer Benigno Aguas) have been granted bail by the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan after finding that the evidence of guilt against them was not strong.
The SC also said: “To start with, its conclusion that GMA [Gloria Macapagal Arroyo] had been the mastermind of plunder was plainly conjectural and outrightly unfounded considering that the Information [i.e., charge sheet] did not aver at all that she had been the mastermind… The law on plunder requires that a particular public officer must be identified as the one who amassed, acquired or accumulated ill-gotten wealth.”
The SC stated that “the (plunder) law requires in the [Information] for plunder against several individuals that there must be a main plunderer and her co-conspirators … but that fact must be properly alleged and duly proven by the Prosecution”—which they never did.
Since 10 persons have been accused of amassing, accumulating and/or acquiring ill-gotten wealth aggregating P365,997,915, the SC explained that “it would be improbable that the crime charged was plunder if none of them was alleged to be the main plunderer [since]each of the 10 accused would account for the aliquot amount of only P36,599,791.50, or exactly [one-tenth] of the alleged aggregate ill-gotten wealth, which is far below the [P50-million] threshold value of ill-gotten wealth required for plunder.”
As expected, Arroyo’s acquittal didn’t go down well with ex-President Aquino.
“Reviewing RA 1169 [i.e., the PCSO Charter] and the actions approved by Mrs. Arroyo, one may wonder: were such acts allowable under the law? To answer this question, we can actually glean the spirit of the law in the same Charter, which has penalties for those who utilize PCSO funds beyond what is enumerated,” Aquino said.
“Section 8 of the PCSO Charter states: “The following shall be punished by imprisonment of not less than one month and not more than three years… Any officer or employee of a hospital or other charitable or hygienic institution or organization who uses funds obtained from the Office under this Act for purposes other than those herein authorized,” Aquino added.
But following Aquino’s line of reasoning, the worst offense that can be imputed against Arroyo would be the “unauthorized use of funds” under the PCSO Charter, which carries a penalty of just one month to three years imprisonment. That’s a far cry from the non-bailable plunder charges that Aquino’s allies brought against Arroyo.
Aquino’s response also seems to indicate that he knew very well that the plunder charge against Arroyo would not stick but he nonetheless used the vast powers and influence of his office to ensure that Arroyo would be jailed during his term, by hook or by crook.
“Now I ask: by ordering the release and exoneration of Mrs. Arroyo, what is the Supreme Court saying: that nothing anomalous transpired? That no crime happened? That no one should be held to account? That the funds were used properly?” Aquino argued in his press statement.
Apparently, Aquino and his advisers don’t get the point.
What the SC ruling merely said was that the evidence that the prosecution (i.e., the Ombudsman) had produced was not sufficient to establish the guilt of Arroyo for the crime of plunder. This is based on the principle in criminal law that the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt lies with the prosecution, and they must establish that fact beyond a reasonable doubt. In fact, the defendant does not even have to present any evidence to prove his or her innocence.
The truth is Aquino has nobody to blame for the outcome of the PCSO plunder case but himself. In his overzealousness to put his arch nemesis behind bars, Aquino tolerated, if not encouraged, the indiscriminate filing of several non-bailable cases against Arroyo, no matter how flimsy, inadequate or flawed the evidence may be. And despite having all the resources of government behind him, Aquino never bothered to look for the one key player—PCSO General Manager Rosario Uriarte.
Many of our countrymen are now hoping that those filing cases (this time) against Aquino and his allies can do a much better job.