By Aurea Calica and Michael Punongbayan
The Philippine Star
MANILA, Philippines – Backed by Malacañang, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) asked the Sandiganbayan yesterday to intervene in the case of former military comptroller Carlos Garcia to revoke the bail and plea bargaining agreement he struck with the special prosecutors.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the evidence presented to the Sandiganbayan was based on court records that showed that there was a good chance of proving the allegations of plunder against Garcia, thus there was no need for a plea bargaining agreement.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte made a PowerPoint presentation on how Garcia’s wealth supposedly grew at the time he was comptroller of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
Though his office was not directly involved in the case, Solicitor General Jose Anselmo Cadiz stressed before a press briefing in Malacañang the need to intervene to protect the interest of the people.
Based on two grounds alone, Cadiz argued the Sandiganbayan should not have allowed the plea bargaining agreement.
One argument, Cadiz pointed out, was the indirect admissions of Garcia’s wife Clarita on the activities of her husband and how he made money from his office.
The PowerPoint presentation showed how Garcia allegedly pocketed funds from the United Nations peacekeeping reimbursements, the US and the Philippines’ Balikatan
military exercises, procurements and inter-agency seminars and meetings.
There was also evidence that Garcia issued checks to suppliers, who turned out to be his wife and relatives.
The second strong argument, Cadiz added, was that the offended parties such as the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) were not consulted before the plea bargaining agreement was made.
Cadiz also noted that the petition for bail filed by Garcia’s lawyer was railroaded, since it was put on the agenda and resolved on the same day.
He said there is a three-day rule to set the motion for hearing and allow the concerned parties to make comment.
Cadiz filed a 17-page motion for leave to intervene and a 35-page omnibus motion to nullify the plea-bargaining deal before the Sandiganbayan.
Cadiz asserted the right of the OSG to represent the AFP as the offended party in the P303-million plunder case against Garcia.
Cadiz said he could not understand why the Sandiganbayan denied Garcia’s petition for bail on Jan. 7 last year on the ground that the evidence was strong, and then in February, the special prosecutors hatched a plea bargaining agreement that became final in May.
Based on the records of the case, the plea bargaining agreement was signed on Feb. 25, 2010 and eventually approved on May 4, 2010 through the grant of a joint motion for approval filed by the prosecution and Garcia’s camp on March 16, 2010.
After Garcia was allowed to plead guilty to lesser offenses on Dec. 16, 2010 that led to his release on P60,000 bail two days later, the OSG said the Judge Advocate General’s Office (JAGO) of the AFP sought for help in a letter dated Dec. 22, 2010.
The AFP said they are “in the course of studying certain remedies that may be available,” which is why they are asking the OSG for guidance on any legal or procedural action that may be pursued to challenge the legality and validity of the deal.
The AFP said they were not even notified of the plea bargaining agreement.
Cadiz though would not comment on the possibility that “something fishy” occurred, but noted the deal was “irregular” and “not right.”
In the motion to intervene filed by Cadiz, the OSG claimed “the blatant irregularities in the execution of the plea bargaining agreement and its approval of the Honorable Court without complying with the strictures laid down by the Supreme Court (SC) for the validity of said approval stare the OSG straight in the eye.”
“If it allowed this to hold sway, it would amount to a sheer dereliction of duty which it is not wont to do; hence, this proposed intervention in the faithful discharge of such duty consistent with the welfare of the people and as dictated by the ends of justice,” the OSG said.
Cadiz told the press briefing in Malacañang that the SC had ruled that evidence must not be “sufficiently strong” for a plea bargain to be considered.
Because of alleged irregularities, an administrative case against the justices of the Sandiganbayan could be filed before the SC while an impeachment complaint could be filed against the Ombudsman for approving the deal, Cadiz said.
He said the SC could “impose the sanctions” if indeed there were irregularities committed in striking the deal with Garcia.
It was not clear how the special prosecutors who drafted the agreement could be punished if they committed any wrongdoing.
Cadiz said they decided to intervene in the case although belatedly, so as not to be accused by people that the government is allowing the agreement between Garcia and the special prosecutors to push through when the money he allegedly misused consisted of public funds.
He said they would also see if they could ask the justices handling the case to inhibit themselves in the interest of fairness.
“We cannot just abandon the interests of our people, the Republic of the Philippines and the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” Cadiz said.
In the motion filed before the Sandiganbayan, Cadiz argued the Rules of Court stated that the consent of the offended party is needed in entering into a plea bargain deal.
This means the AFP should have been informed because the funds allegedly misused by Garcia belonged to the military organization, which was upheld by the Sandiganbayan itself when it denied the petition for bail on Jan. 7, 2010.
The OSG said the Republic of the Philippines, specifically the AFP, is the offended party “whose consent is indispensable to the validity of the plea bargain agreement.”
The OSG said the very approval of the plea bargaining agreement “is devoid of legal basis” because the court “did not make any assessment or evaluation of the evidence presented by the prosecution as basis for its approval.”
This means that acceptance of the deal is “improper and irregular” based on the SC ruling in the case of People vs. Villarama, Cadiz pointed out.
The OSG explained that the plea bargaining agreement was allowed even as there was a standing ruling by the Sandiganbayan of strong evidence against Garcia based on its decision to deny the bail petition.
While it is true that a deal can be made even after the prosecution already presented evidence during the trial, Cadiz said this is allowed only “when the prosecution does not have sufficient evidence to establish guilt of the accused of the crime charged,” citing the SC decision on People vs. Mamarion.
The OSG pointed out the government lawyers themselves “essentially argued that the evidence of guilt is strong” when they opposed Garcia’s motion for reconsideration of the anti-graft court’s ruling denying bail.
“Indeed, the plea bargaining agreement is effectively a compromise agreement for the convenience of the accused Garcia. It accorded him the benefit of not just a lighter sentence, but also the eventual dismissal of all the other cases against him,” the OSG motion said.
Cadiz stressed the cases against Garcia and his family before the Sandiganbayan are important because once dismissed, they could use this decision to dismiss the complaints filed against them in the US.
He said Garcia would already be free if only the charges of indirect bribery and violation of the Anti-Money Laundering Law would be considered because the former general had been in jail for six years already, or the amount of time he would serve if convicted of these two lesser offenses.
“How can this be explained to the people? The people will be enraged,” Cadiz said.
‘Not the biggest fish’
President Aquino vowed to exert all effort to stop Garcia from walking away from the charges against him and his family.
Garcia, his wife Clarita, and three sons are facing criminal charges, including plunder, for supposedly amassing about P300 million while in service as AFP comptroller.
Two of Garcia’s sons, Juan Paulo and Ian Carl, were also charged with bulk cash smuggling for allegedly trying to sneak in $100,000 into the US. The brothers allegedly hid the money in their luggage and made false statements to US customs officers.
In 2005, Garcia was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labor by a military court-martial with dishonorable discharge from the service.
The Ombudsman has accepted a plea bargain agreement offered by Garcia wherein he would plead guilty to the lesser offenses of direct bribery and money laundering.
The agreement also allowed Garcia to return only P135 million of the P303 million he allegedly stole from state coffers.
Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV said Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez should be blamed for accepting the plea bargain agreement.
“The problem with what happened in the plea bargain is the Ombudsman and we need to look at that matter,” Trillanes said.
Senate Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano suggested the buck might not stop with Garcia.
He said Garcia is the key in identifying the other people involved in the plunder of AFP funds.
“I don’t believe that he could have amassed P300 million or thereabouts without giving some of the money to the higher ups,” Cayetano said.
“Let’s not look at him as if he is the big fish. He’s quite a big fish but he’s not the biggest fish. Let him identify the others who collected money,” he added.
Cayetano said the probe into the alleged plunder should not end with Garcia and his move to enter into a plea bargaining agreement with in order to avoid being convicted of plunder.
Cayetano said he would file a resolution in the Senate calling for an inquiry into how the plea bargaining agreement came about.
“I am in favor that one of the Senate committees, be it the Blue Ribbon committee or the committee on defense, to take a look into what happened. This will not be covered by the gag order because this will be in aid of legislation. If ever there was a need for legislation it is now,” Cayetano said.
He said the plea bargaining process is a relatively new method in criminal procedure.
Cayetano said the people must know if the process was followed and if any laws were violated when the agreement was made.
“What we have to see is the legality, the morality, the process, the system of plea bargaining in our country,” he said. – With Alexis Romero, Marvin Sy