MANILA, Philippines – Ombudsman prosecutors were confident they had the evidence to convict former senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr of plunder in the pork barrel scam, but a handwriting expert who said the signatures of the senator were forged demolished all the paper trail.
Revilla was acquitted of plunder on Friday, December 7, while his former staff Richard Cambe and Janet Lim Napoles were found guilty.
Star witness Benhur Luy said he never personally transacted with Revilla, but claimed he was sure that the millions-of-pesos' worth of kickbacks he handed over to Cambe still made their way to the senator.
Prosecutors thought they got Revilla when they secured letters signed by him which endorsed to Implementing Agencies (IAs) the bogus non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of Napoles.
Prosecutors also obtained from the Commission on Audit (COA) a letter signed by Revilla confirming an earlier letter to auditors that the projects from his pork barrel were to be implemented by the Napoles NGOs.
During the bail hearings, Desiderio Pagui, a handwriting expert examined the documents in open court and concluded that the signatures were forged.
The majority decision, which is 186 pages long, dedicated 18 pages to explaining why this expert testimony must stand.
Beyond the examination of Pagui, the ponente said Supreme Court decisions authorize trial court judges to assess for themselves if the signatures are forged, given that signatures “are not as highly technical as questions pertaining to quantum physics, topology and molecular biology.”
“A comparison between the questioned document and the standard signatures would show that there are significant differences between the standard signatures and the questioned signatures as found in the endorsement letters,” said the decision penned by Associate Justice Geraldine Faith Econg.
Associate Justices Edgardo Caldona and Georgina Hidalgo concurred.
“Another consequence of finding of forgery of signature of Revilla including the July 20, 2011 letter to Assistant Commissioner Cuenco Jr is that there is now nothing on record any evidence, direct or circumstantial, to establish that Atty Cambe is an authorized representative of Revilla in the implementation of his PDAF projects,” said the ponente.
Bank officials also testified that there were daily deposits that exceeded P500,000, which later became subject of a suspicious transaction report. They also said that some of the accounts were closed in 2013 after the scandal broke.
The majority 3 justices did not find these sufficient, ruling they are mere circumstantial evidence.
“The fact that these sums received by Cambe for Revilla was received by the latter is just a mere possibility. On the other hand, the opposite scenario that the monies received by Cambe was not given to Revilla but was kept by him is also a possibility. In other words, all these possibilities pointed out are not inconsistent with the facts that are proven by the prosecution,” said the decision.
This means Cambe is left to fall in this elaborate pork barrel scam involving Napoles. The Sandiganbayan ordered the return of P124.5 million to the national treasury, but Revilla's lawyers are asserting their client is excluded from this civil liability.
The two dissenting justices slammed the decision, saying the majority failed to be more circumspect.
“One need only turn a discerning eye, and not look the other way,” said Associate Justice Ma. Theresa Dolores Gomez-Estoesta in her dissenting opinion.
Estoesta said the conclusion that the forgery dealt “a great blow to the prosecution came as rather swift.”
On the AMLC report that the majority downplayed, “Revilla never even attempted to debunk the findings of the AMLC in his own defense,” she said.
Revilla’s team did not present documentary evidence during trial. Instead, the defense only presented the senator as witness and two former employees of Napoles who said Luy forged signatures.
“Revilla simply wallowed in his own defense of denial and forgery. Why should the majority opinion now take cudgels for him?” Estoesta asked.
For division chairman Associate Justice Efren Dela Cruz, there was no room for doubt that Cambe and Napoles could not have executed an elaborate scam without the help of the lawmaker Revilla.
“For Napoles and Cambe to infiltrate the money, they needed Revilla. It is ludicrous that Revilla would casually exercise a lofty power gratis, while leaving Napoles and Cambe [with] whom he has no blood relation or other filiation of equally strong degree, to reap the benefits alone,” Dela Cruz said.
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