By Jonathan de Santos, Jill Beltran/Kathrina Alvarez
THE Senate Blue Ribbon Committee recommended having Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez impeached after her office entered a plea bargain deal that allowed a general accused of stealing millions to skirt a non-bailable offense.
Senator Teofisto Guingona III, committee chairman, presented a partial committee report that said Gutierrez “betrayed” the public trust when she entered into a plea bargain agreement with dismissed general Carlos Garcia.
Accused of plunder — a non-bailable offense, Garcia was able to gain temporary freedom after the Ombudsman let him plead to lesser charges of direct bribery and facilitation of money laundering.
The committee found probable cause to impeach Gutierrez for “nonfeasance” and “lack of prosecutorial zeal,” Guingona said, adding her special prosecutors should face administrative and criminal charges.
The report noted that the Ombudsman entered the plea bargain agreement with Garcia without consent from the Office of the Solicitor-General, the agency that acts as the government’s lawyer, or the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
Without consent, the agreement was void from the start, he said.
Special prosecutors who handled the case argued that they had to resort to the plea bargain because the evidence against Garcia was weak.
Guingona said the prosecutors changed their positions regarding the case, adding they opposed a petition for bail in January 2010 on the basis of strong evidence against the accused.
But in March 2010, prosecutors said evidence was weak when they entered the plea bargain, reversing their position three days later on another bail petition.
Guingona added evidence “is weak because they deliberately made it so.”
He said the Ombudsman and the special prosecutors under her did not try to strengthen the case against Garcia.
They did not seek the help of the AFP to get evidence against Garcia, nor did they give the testimony of former government auditor Heidi Mendoza, he said.
The Ombudsman also failed to include the estimated P128 million that Garcia was able to withdraw in the plea bargain agreement.
Under the agreement, Garcia would be allowed to plead guilty to lesser crimes in exchange for P135 million of around P300 million that he has been accused of stealing.
Guingona added that Gutierrez and the Office of the Special Prosecutor have “made prosecutorial misconduct a custom” by failing to file charges against another former AFP comptroller, Jacinto Ligot.
Ligot is facing a civil forfeiture case but no graft or plunder cases were filed against him for the more than P740 million he allegedly accumulated while AFP comptroller.
Senators signed with reservation
Although 14 senators signed the report of the Blue Ribbon Committee, not all of them agreed that Gutierrez should be impeached.
In a statement attached to the report, Minority Leader Alan Peter
Cayetano agreed with the report with recommended remedial legislation but kept his hands off the impeachment issue.
Finding basis to impeach Gutierrez should be done by the House so “a senator will not be placed in a compromising position if and when the articles of impeachment [are] finally transmitted to the Senate.”
His sister, Senator Pia Cayetano, took the same position as did Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri.
Senator Loren Legarda also expressed reservations, saying it would affect her role as a senator-judge.
Senator Franklin Drilon, meanwhile, wrote that he “expressed no opinion” on the portion of the report regarding the Ombudsman’s impeachment. He agreed that the Garcia plea bargain agreement should be voided and has filed a bill to regulate plea bargains.
Senator Ralph Recto, a Liberal Party member like Drilon and committee chairman Teofisto Guingona III, signed the report but had reservations.
Senators Joker Arroyo, Ramon Revilla Jr., and Manuel Villar Jr. pointed out that they did not take part in the hearings so they could not make judgments.
The committee, meanwhile, recommended immediate passage of the Freedom of Information Bill to prevent a repeat of the plea bargain.
Future plea bargains should require approval from the Solicitor General, the committee report said.
Senator Franklin Drilon has already filed a bill setting guidelines for future plea bargain agreements.
The Anti-Money Laundering Act should, meanwhile, be reviewed and the Anti-Money Laundering Council must be given more power to investigate and freeze accounts.
The committee also recommended giving the Department of Justice authority to investigate and prosecute employees of the Office of the Special Prosecutor.
That Office should be separated from the Office of the Ombudsman, Guingona said.
The government should proceed to prosecute Garcia for the P300 million that he has been accused of stealing from the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
The partial committee report ends the Senate probe on the Garcia plea bargain but the committee will still investigate corruption in the military, Guingona said.
Palace official calls for Gutierrez’s resignation
In Malacañang, a Palace official called on Ombudsman Gutierrez to resign, saying the move would save the country from undergoing a tedious impeachment process.
“If she would have to resign it will spare the national trauma of having to go through a painful impeachment process,” Presidential Strategic Planning Secretary Ricky Carandang said at a press briefing in Malacañang.
Carandang cited the resignation of then United States President Richard Nixon, saying it avoided dragging his country to a very contentious impeachment process.
“That (resignation) would certainly be much less painful for the country than an impeachment,” added Carandang.
But at the same time, he said Malacañang would respect the decision of Gutierrez regarding the impeachment process.
In Singapore, President Benigno Aquino III vowed to use the power vested upon him to make Gutierrez accountable for her supposed shortcomings as Ombudsman.
The President expressed frustration over the alleged inaction of Gutierrez on the case of Rolando Mendoza, who held hostage a bus-load of tourists from Hong Kong in August last year. The incident led to a botched police rescue operation that killed tourists.
The Ombudsman should also be held responsible for the botched hostage crisis due to her failure to act on Mendoza’s appeal to rescind his dismissal from service.
Included in impeach raps
At the House of Representatives, justice committee chair and Iloilo Representative Niel Tupas Jr. told reporters on Thursday that the alleged illegal plea bargain agreements entered into by the Ombudsman are already contained in the impeachment complaint filed by former Akbayan Representative Risa Hontiveros.
“It’s a general allegation of incompetence and low conviction rate and if you just read the complaint, it [Garcia plea bargain] should be part of it. However, we’re still studying that option. It will reflect in the articles of impeachment if the legal team will recommend to include that,” Tupas explained.
The legal team refers to the prosecution team tasked to draft the articles of impeachment to be transmitted to the Senate.
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte has yet to fill-in the three slots left in the prosecution team of 11, days before the House plenary will receive the report of the justice committee.
Among the members of the team are Tupas, Deputy Speakers Erin Tanada and Raul Daza, and Representatives Rodolfo Farinas (Ilocos Norte), Reynaldo Umali (Oriental Mindoro), Elpido Barzaga (Cavite), Neri Colmenares (Bayan Muna), and Kaka Bag-ao (Gabriela).
Tupas said that even without the Garcia plea bargain case, the impeachment cases alleging that Gutierrez betrayed public trust is already strong considering that some of the six allegations were already investigated in the proper Senate committees.
“You only need one ground…The Fertilizer Fund Scam is more than enough to impeach and convict the Ombudsman in the Senate,” he added.
Farinas, vice-chair of the justice committee added: “Two of the charges against her are her failure to act on the Fertilizer Fund Scam and Euro Generals, where three Senate committees had strongly recommended to her to file plunder cases, among others, against certain individuals. Now, the Senate will judge her on those failures. As if those were not enough, came the Garcia plea bargain.”
Minority Leader Edcel Lagman, however, believes that the complaints against Ombudsman Gutierrez are weak, prompting the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee to propose the inclusion of the Garcia plea bargain deal in the impeachment raps against her.
“It is a virtual admission that the present complaints are weak and could not legally prosper so much so that there is need to supplement the pending complaints or file a new one,” he said in a statement. (Jonathan de Santos, Jill Beltran/Kathrina Alvarez/Sunnex)