Will trial finally start for Bong Revilla’s plunder case?

Lian Buan

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Will trial finally start for Bong Revilla’s plunder case?
Ahead of another new schedule, Bong Revilla's team lead by Estelito Mendoza files new pleadings before the anti-graft court

MANILA, Philippines – Former senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr’s trial for plunder in connection with the pork barrel scam was supposed to start last January, but the schedule has been deferred 4 times now, with his team still contesting evidence and testimonies offered by the prosecution.

The final date was originally calendared on March 30, but no court setting was scheduled on that day even though anti-graft court Sandiganbayan earlier said they would no longer allow cancelations. Media has since learned that the tentative date has been moved to Thursday, April 20.

Will the trial finally start this time?

It depends how the court’s First Division will act on the memoranda submitted by the prosecution and Revilla’s team now led by hotshot lawyer Estelito Mendoza.

After additional preliminary conferences in March, Revilla submitted on April 10 a memorandum asking the court to reject several evidence and testimonies. This is on top of a still pending motion for reconsideration filed by their camp after the court denied their motion to quash.

Ghost project evidence ‘irrelevant’

First, he wants the court to rule that any evidence to be presented on the alleged fictitious nature of livelihood projects sponsored by Janet Lim Napoles’ non government organizations (NGOs) is irrelevant.

His reason? Because the information charged against him only states that his crime is the “supposed act of amassing, acquiring or accumulating ill-gotten wealth in the amount of at least P224,512,500 or to the “purported scheme employed by the accused.”

Revilla argues that the issue of whether the projects were ghost projects or fictitious is no longer related to his supposed crime, but refers only to Napoles’ act of misappropriating priority development assistance fund (PDAF) funds for her personal gain.

It is notable that in this memorandum, Revilla refers to his crime as the “supposed act of amassing ill-gotten wealth” when his camp has been reiterating that the information against him only accuses him of endorsing projects through Napoles NGOs. The ‘endorsement’ argument has earlier been junked by the court, but Revilla’s camp already filed their appeal, pending a ruling.

Saying that the evidence pertaining to ghost projects is irrelevant, Revilla claims that to allow the prosecution to present them will violate his right to a speedy trial.

He said that to let 77 witnesses take the stand on something irrelevant would be too oppressive especially since he has been in jail for almost 3 years.

The prosecution, in their own memorandum, says they have reduced the number of witnesses from 77 to 48. The list includes local officials to testify that they did not benefit from any projects indicated on the PDAF allocation documents.

The prosecution maintains that the evidence is relevant because they form part of the modus that Revilla is supposedly part of, and is “indicative of the overall scheme or conspiracy to commit the crime of plunder.” (READ: Bong Revilla’s biggest battle)

Stipulation of facts

Revilla also contests the statement of admitted facts found in the draft pre-trial order. A pre-trial order is a document required to proceed to trial, this document will contain a setlist of evidence, facts and other materials. Ideally, neither the defense nor the prosecution can tackle anything in the trial not covered by the pre-trial order.

The prosecution has asked for more time to pre-mark and compare exhibits before the issuance of a pre-trial order.

Revilla’s team wants some facts excluded from that order. These facts have something to do with testimonies of whistleblowers led by Benhur Luy and representatives from the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) who was authorized to investigate into Revilla’s bank accounts. (READ: Was Revilla’s Senate staff truthful in SALN?)

Revilla says they should not be declared as “admitted facts” in the pre-trial order as that would be highly confusing. He argues that these are merely “stipulation regarding matters to be testified upon the witness.”

For the prosecution’s part, they say that because the admissions were already made by the same witnesses during Revilla’s bail hearing, they are already binding.

The prosecution’s memorandum also hints at a possible disagreement between Mendoza and Revilla’s former lawyers. The prosecution quotes an old Sandiganbayan ruling: “A new counsel cannot justify such withdrawal by the simple expedient of passing the blame on the previous counsel, who had supposedly not sufficiently discharged his duty to the client.”

Revilla’s lead counsel used to be Ramon Esguerra, whose signature does not appear on the memorandum, even though his name is there. All other co-counsels apart from Mendoza signed the document.

Revilla’s witnesses

Revilla also wants to make a surprise announcement of who his witnesses will be. 

In the reliefs prayed for listed in his memorandum, Revilla asks the court to “allow him to submit the list, schedule of presentation and purposes of testimonies of his witnesses within 10 days prior to the presentation of his evidence, and after the (prosecution) shall have rested its case.

Revilla’s former chief-of-staff, lawyer Richard Cambe, also submitted his own memorandum. Cambe is also detained and represents himself in the proceedings. He has earlier told the court that he has no financial resources to hire another lawyer.

Cambe wants the court to strike off the records some documents which are illegible or unauthenticated. In his 2-page memorandum, Cambe says the purpose of preliminary conferences is to make sure that the trial will be orderly. Therefore, he says, documents which are illegible “should not be existing anymore.” (READ: Will Cambe take the fall for his senator-boss Bong Revilla?)

The prosecution says they have produced clearer copies of the documents Cambe is pertaining to. They also maintain that under the rules of court, they are allowed to establish or prove the authenticity of these documents during the trial proper.

This trial is highly anticipated because for one, Revilla is the first among the 3 senators to be tried for plunder in connection to the pork barrel issue, the highest officials linked to the scam. It will also give the public a closer look to the biggest scam that hit the country.

Where will this story go? The casting of Estelito Mendoza might just make for interesting turns. (READ: Estelito Mendoza and his 2017 comeback in plunder cases) – Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.