No need for special courts to hear pork scam cases

Aries Rufo
No need for special courts to hear pork scam cases
Justices of the anti-graft court agree there is no need to create special divisions for the plunder cases to disabuse the mind of the public they are rushing resolution of the cases for political reasons

MANILA, Philippines – Barring any last minute restraints, the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan is expected to proceed on Friday, June 13, with the raffle of the plunder cases filed against 3 senators and other personalities in connection with the misuse and abuse of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel.

On Wednesday, June 11, the court composed of 15 justices held a meeting to settle two major issues: proceeding with the regular raffle of the plunder case and the creation of special divisions for the trial.

The issues were prompted by the request of Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales for the Supreme Court to create two special divisions in the Sandiganbayan to “exclusively try and conduct continuous trial” for the cases related to the multi-billion-peso fund scandal.   

A Sandiganbayan justice, in an interview, said the court had decided to conduct the raffle to determine which regular division will handle the plunder case trial, “considering there is no injunction from the High Court.” The Sandiganbayan has 5 divisions, consisting of 3 justices each.

They also agreed, although not unanimously, that there is no need to create special divisions for the plunder cases to disabuse the mind of the public that justices are rushing resolution of the cases for political reasons, the anti-graft court justice said.

“We will write the SC that there is no need to create two special divisions. We want to avoid public perception that there is a special treatment to the cases,” the magistrate said. “We did not talk anything political, but what is practical,” the justice added.

The presiding justice of the Sandiganbayan is an appointee of President Benigno Aquino III, former Assistant Solicitor General Amparo Cabotaje-Tang.

On Tuesday, June 10, SC Spokesman Theodore Te said the High Court wanted to hear the side of both the Sandiganbayan and the accused in the PDAF scam before it decides on whether the special courts are needed. The High Tribunal gave them 3 days from notice to file their comments. (READ: SC seeks Sandigan’s side on PDAF special courts)

Plunder charges have been filed by the Ombudsman against Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr, alleged scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles and some of her family members, and the lawmakers’ respective staff. (READ: 3 PH senators charged with plunder over PDAF scam)

Graft charges were also separately filed against the 3 senators and officials in government agencies used as conduits in the misuse of the PDAF. (READ: JPE, Estrada, Revilla charged with graft)

Baseless connection

Meanwhile, lawyer Alexander Gironella, counsel of Justice Gregory Ong in his administrative case before the High Tribunal, took exception to the Rappler report that said Ong’s name was among those that appeared in principal whistleblower Benhur Luy’s digital files. An entry made specific reference to a 2004 transaction involving a “narra wood parquet-bulletin board.” (READ: Anti-graft court justice in pork scam files)

Ong is facing an administrative case before the High Court  after Luy mentioned during the Senate blue ribbon committee probe that the justice went to Napoles’ JLN office in Discovery Suites in Ortigas.

“The conclusion you wanted to convey to your readers is unmistakable – that Justice Ong has had personal  relationship with Mrs Napoles as early as 2004 when the Kevlar case was pending in his division at the Sandiganbayan,” Gironella said.

“Your attempt to connect Justice Gregory S. Ong to this transaction is baseless, to say the least. On or about that time in 2004, Justice Ong had not known Mrs Napoles on a personal level, nor did he have any personal relationship with her, and, therefore, it was impossible for him or Mrs Napoles to have entered into any kind of transaction. This has been proven time and again,” he added.

Luy’s entry, dated November 2004, showed a supposed transaction involving a “narra wood parquet-bulletin board” with a corresponding amount of P12,000. At the time, the graft case involving Napoles in connection with the sub-standard procurement of Kevlar helmets for the Marines was still being tried in the 4th Division chaired by Ong. The case was decided in October 2010, with Napoles getting acquitted. Her brother Reynald Lim however was convicted. 

Gironella also pointed out that Marina Sula, one of the whistleblowers, had clarified in her affidavit “that she saw Ong only once, and adding, much later, sometime in 2012.” Ong was not a “frequent guest” as stated in the story, Gironella said.

In a separate phone interview, Gironella also said it is possible that Ong’s name was just used in relation to the purported November 2004 disbursement entry in Luy’s digital file. 

Meeting with Ong on Thursday, June 12, Gironella said the justice strongly denied the supposed transaction. “Mukhang binukulan siya as you journalists would often say. (It appears one got the better of him as you journalists would often say.) Why would the justice need a narra wood parquet bulletin board?”

Ong to inhibit

To be sure, the 4th Division of the Sandiganbayan, composed of senior justice Gregory Ong and associate justices Jose Hernandez and Ma. Cristina Cornejo as members, won’t be the division that will handle the pork barrel case.

During the en banc meeting of the anti-graft justices, Ong expressed his intention to inhibit from the case, according to the Sandiganbayan justice who was also present in that meeting. “He also did not participate in the voting,” the source said.

With Ong as chair of the 4th division inhibiting, it automatically follows that the 4th division will not handle the plunder cases. “It is in our internal rules,” the justice explained.

Rule III, Section 6 of the Revised Internal Rules of the Sandiganbayan states that “Should the Chairman of a Division inhibit himself or is disqualified from participating in a case, it shall be transferred to any of the four (4) other Divisions by raffle.”

Ong, the most senior member of the anti-graft court, was appointed by former president Joseph Estrada in 1998. An undated  photo obtained by Rappler showed him partying with Napoles and Senator Jinggoy Estrada.

In a previous interview, he told Rappler that he was actually closer to the former president than to his son Jinggoy. – Rappler.com

Clock image via Shutterstock

Prison cell image via Shutterstock

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