Ball starts rolling at last for PDAF scam plunder trials

Lian Buan

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Ball starts rolling at last for PDAF scam plunder trials
After Bong Revilla's plunder trial, Jinggoy Estrada is next, to be followed by former representative Edgar Valdez

MANILA, Philippines – After getting stuck for 3 long years in the mills of the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan, a plunder trial for the multi-billion-peso pork barrel scam finally got going on Thursday, June 22.

Former senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr exerted earnest efforts to delay it, even trying to have it dismissed through the help of his veteran lawyer, former solicitor general Estelito Mendoza.

Six months’ worth of legal maneuvers from their camp, however, still brought them to Thursday, where details of the widespread corruption scheme will finally be threshed out in open hearings at the anti-graft court’s First Division.

Revilla’s camp is set to present 69 witnesses, while the prosecution has 50 witnesses lined up, the bulk of whom are the supposed beneficiaries of the projects. (READ: Bong Revilla’s biggest battle)

Cross examination

On the first day, Ombudsman prosecutors brought 3 witnesses from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), Department of Agriculture (DA), and Bureau of Treasury. They testified on the existence of special allotment release orders (SAROs) pertaining to Revilla’s Priority Development Assistance Fund or PDAF.

Revilla had two very experienced lawyers doing the cross examination for him – Mendoza and former justice undersecretary Ramon Esguerra.

In his cross examination of Marissa Santos, DBM’s chief records administrator, Esguerra pointed out that Santos was assigned to the post only in 2015. But the subject SAROS are from a much earlier period in 2006.

Esguerra also said Santos was merely testifying on the certification of SAROS, which he said, is being done too late.

“The certifications came after so many years. At the preliminary investigation, at the level of he Field Investigation Office (FIO), they should have secured the certification. The certification is simply to cure the very objectionable feature of the documents and violation of the best evidence rule,” Esguerra said.

Mendoza, who uses a hearing aid and needs a transcriber in court, also took his turn cross-examining Santos. 

Santos was used by the prosecution to establish Revilla’s links to the release of the allegedly misused funds.

But Mendoza said there can be no direct link which will be established by the witness, because there is no provision in the General Appropriations Act (GAA) that says PDAF can be released only through the endorsement of a lawmaker.

“DA is the one to implement the disbursement or expenditure of the fund. So Senator Revilla has nothing to do with the disbursement or expenditure of the funds?” Mendoza asked Santos, to which the witness answered she doesn’t have the knowledge.

It was Mendoza’s effort to cast doubt on the competence of the witness in directly linking Revilla to the SAROs.

Witnesses’ competence 

In the afternoon session, Glenn Erlano, a supervising administrative officer from the DA, and Avelina Sumaraga, chief treasury operations officer of the Bureau of Treasury’s accounting division, took the stand.

They testified that the original SAROs came from their department. When DBM releases a SARO to an agency, the original goes to the agency while DBM only retains a copy.

But just like with Santos, the Revilla camp emphasized that they were appointed to their relevant positions long after the subject years of the scam.

Janet Lim Napoles’ lawyer Dennis Buenaventura pursued that path in his cross examination of the witnesses, repeatedly saying they were incompetent witnesses. (READ:  How will Sandigan justices handle plunder cases?)

“So far there is nothing to show that the good senator received anything from the government,” Esguerra said in an interview with reporters after the hearing.

But lead prosecutor Joefferson Toribio remained confident: “Of course the witness will not know whether the amount, any amount of that went to Senator Revilla. Hindi nila malalaman ‘yun, but the fact is, ni-request niya ‘yun, ni-release niya ‘yun, ang nag-trigger ‘nun si Senator Revilla.”

(They will not know that, but the fact is, he requested it, he released it, the one who triggered it is Senator Revilla.)

Revilla is among the 5 plunder defendants in the pork barrel scam. The trial for detained former senator Jinggoy Estrada was supposed to start on Monday, June 19, but it was canceled because there was no quorum in the court. Former senator Juan Ponce Enrile’s plunder case is still at the pre-trial stage.

Former APEC partylist representative Edgar Valdez’s plunder trial was reset to July 26, while that of former Masbate representative Riza Seachon-Lanete is still at the pre-trial stage. Valdez and Lanete have both been granted bail. (READ: The justices behind the pork barrel cases)

No show

Revilla did not show up on Thursday as he turned out to have been confined since Tuesday for hypertension at the St Luke’s hospital. Revilla was at St Luke’s visiting his father when he had high blood pressure and had to be confined. 

There was no court resolution for the confinement and it appears the court was not properly informed. 

Revilla’s lawyer Rean Balisi said the explanation should come from Philippine National Police (PNP) custodial center, who was with Revilla during the medical emergency and the Sandiganbayan sheriff who was also there at the hospital.

First Division Associate Justice Geraldine Faith Econg said during the morning hearing that it was “highly irregular”, but in the afternoon, Division Chair Associate Justice Efren dela Cruz said a letter had already been sent to the court by the jail officer of Revilla. The letter, however, was sent only on Thursday.

Toribio, who questioned the hospitalization during the morning hearing, no longer wanted to comment in the afternoon. 

The next hearing is scheduled on June 29. –

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Lian Buan

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