Senator Bong Revilla has been cleared of all criminal cases related to the plunder of P124.5 million worth of his discretionary pork barrel funds, as the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan acquitted the movie actor of the remaining 16 counts of graft.
The Sandiganbayan Special First Division voted 3-2 to acquit Revilla of 16 counts of graft. The decision was promulgated July 1, and released on Monday, July 5.
It was a granted demurrer to evidence, which meant Revilla no longer presented his evidence in court. The Sandiganbayan denied the demurrer to evidence of Janet Lim Napoles, who was earlier convicted in the plunder aspect of the case.
Associate Justices Geraldine Faith Econg, Edgardo Caldona and Rafael Lagos concurred. Associate Justices Efren dela Cruz and Bayani Jacinto dissented.
But because the demurrer was filed with leave or permission of the court, Napoles’ graft cases would continue to her presentation of evidence. A demurrer is a pleading you file after the prosecution’s presentation of evidence. It seeks to convince the court that the prosecution’s evidence is weak enough to junk cases midway in the hearing.
The graft cases against Revilla’s Senate staff, Richard Cambe, were dismissed on account of his death. Cambe, who was convicted of plunder alongside Napoles, was among the high-profile convicts inside the New Bilibid Prison who died during the pandemic.
“Revilla’s endorsement of the Napoles associated non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were merely recommendatory,” said the majority ruling.
“The tenor of these endorsement letters are clear – these are merely recommendatory. It does not command nor compel implementing agencies to whom these are addressed to award the project to the recommended NGO. The choice of the NGO to implement the project still rests with the implementing agency,” said the ruling.
Revilla’s acquittal of plunder on the findings that his signatures were forged were cited in the graft acquittal. The unexplained wealth uncovered by the Office of the Ombudsman and the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) was not enough, said the majority.
“The prosecution failed to establish that Revilla’s wife, Jesusa Victoria Bautista aka Lani, did not have her own independent source of income. The prosecution, too, did not present evidence that Revilla did not have any other source of income from the years 2006-2009 aside from his work,” said the ruling.
The majority of three also faulted the Ombudsman prosecutors for not charging Revilla of violation of the SALN or Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) law. Deposits were found in Revilla bank accounts, and these were not reflected in the senator’s SALNs for those years.
“Neither did the prosecution present any proof that Revilla is charged of violation of the SALN law, perjury or forfeiture or ill-gotten wealth,” said the ruling.
The majority of 3 also ruled that graft is a predicate act of plunder, simply saying that the senator’s plunder acquittal must result in his graft acquittal.
“Considering the charge of plunder against Revilla and Cambe is based on the predicate acts, which also constitutes violation of the graft law, the accused’s liability could no longer be determined in the cases as these offenses were already included in the plunder case for which they were already prosecuted for,” said the ruling.
The dissenters slammed this part of the ruling, criticizing the majority’s use of dissenting opinions in the Supreme Court as basis for its reasoning. As the dissenters pointed out, dissenting opinions are obiter dictum or remarks by a judge or a justice that do not form precedent.
Who must return the money
The question of who must return the P124.5 million plundered funds, as ordered in the plunder decision in 2018, hangs in the air.
The Office of the Ombudsman had filed a motion arguing that Revilla be included in the civil liability. But it’s an issue attached to the plunder case which is on appeal, as far as the convicted is concerned. Thus the contention is it’s an issue separate from this graft decision.
The graft acquittal did not discuss the return of the money.
The graft acquittal has a similar 3-2 voting as what happened in the plunder case. Econg is still ponente, and Dela Cruz the division chairman is still dissenting opinion. Econg was member-in-charge for the graft case, as opposed to the plunder case where it was Dela Cruz in charge but his opinion lost and he was relegated to a dissent.
Again, the two special members were split, Lagos concurred, and Jacinto dissented. In the plunder case it was the same, Associate Justice Georgina Hidalgo concurred, and Associate Justice Ma. Theresa Dolores Gomez-Estoesta dissented.
Cases filed before 2015 have to be decided unanimously among the three members of the division. In the event of an impasse, two special members are picked via raffle, then majority wins. Lagos chairs the Fifth Division that handles the Jinggoy Estrada case.
Lagos dissented in the bail grant to Estrada, but concurred in the acquittal of Revilla.
Econg and Lagos were earlier shortlisted to the Supreme Court. They were vying for the vacancy created when Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo was promoted to top magistrate.
Meanwhile, a statement released by Revilla’s office said: “The Sandiganbayan, by granting our demurrer to evidence and dismissing all the charges against me, validates what we have known from the very beginning – that all the accusations against me have no basis and any leg to stand on.”