Arroyo, 9 others charged with plunder

MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) - The Ombudsman on Monday, July 16, filed a P366-M plunder suit against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in connection with the alleged misuse of Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) intelligence funds during the latter years of her administration.

A source in the Office of the Ombudsman told Rappler that the case, signed by Assistant Ombudsman Weomark Ryan Layson, was filed against Mrs Arroyo and 9 other former government officials with the Sandiganbayan. The filing of the suit was approved by Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales last July 12.

This is the first plunder case against the former president and incumbent Pampanga Representative. It is a non-bailable offense, and was filed a week before President Benigno Aquino III is scheduled to deliver his State of the Nation Address (SONA).

Arroyo slammed the suit, saying it is "devoid of merit."

Nine former PCSO and Commission on Audit officials were likewise charged with plunder. They are Sergio Valencia, former PCSO chairman of the board; Rosario Uriarte, former PCSO general manager; Manuel Morato, Jose Taruc V, Raymundo Roquero, and Ma Fatima Valdes, former members of the PCSO board; Benigno Aguas, former PCSO budget officer; Reynaldo Villar, former chairman of the Commission on Audit; and Nilda Plaras, former COA officer.

A statement from the Office of the Ombudsman said the case was based on two separate complaints – one dated Jul 25, 2011 filed by Jaime Regalario, Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel and Danilo Lim, for plunder, malversation and violation of Republic Act (RA) No. 3019; and another complaint dated Nov 29, 2011 by the PCSO itself represented by Eduardo Araullo, for plunder and violation of RA 3019.

The Ombudsman's suit alleged that Mrs Arroyo approved the alleged diversion of PCSO's intelligence funds for purposes not related to the core work of the agency, which is to help indigents and sectors working with them.

It noted that the PCSO's intelligence fund ballooned from P10-M in 2000 to P103-M in 2008. And then it continued to request for more CIF in 2009 (P90-M) and 2010 (P150-M).

The Ombudsman questioned why an agency that helps the poor should enjoy huge "intelligence" funds.

According to the suit, the repeated identically-worded one-page requests for additional CIF did not have a specific plan, project, program or undertaking of intelligence activity, and that the requests made for 2008 and 2010 even preceded the approval of PCSO’s corporate operating budget.

Ermita cleared

The Ombudsman, however, cleared former Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, who was charged in the original complaints lodged with the Ombudsman.

In clearing Ermita, the Ombudsman said "he simply performed a duty to implement a presidential directive when he wrote the letter and even added the notation 'subject to pertinent budgetary, accounting and auditing rules and regulations.'”    

In 2011, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee investigated allegations that Malacañang diverted PCSO funds for election purposes.

In January 2012, it recommended plunder and technical malversation charges against Mrs Arroyo and Uriarte for the disbursement of P325-M in confidential intelligence funds from 2008 until the months leading to the 2010 elections. In its 124-page report, the committee said Uriarte on several occasions approached Arroyo directly in Malacañang to ask for the release of “special funds” to help the agency conduct intelligence operations related to “bomb threat, kidnapping, destabilization and terrorism.”

The committee questioned this, saying the PCSO's core services were the distribution of free medicines to indigent patients and providing medical assistance to poor sectors.

The Senate committee also noted that Mrs Arroyo’s signature appeared on the margins of Uriarte’s disbursement request letters, an indication of her approval of the release of hefty sums that ranged from P25 million to P150 million that Uriarte asked in early 2010. The committee said Uriarte could not produce receipts and other liquidation documents that would justify the use of at least P244 million of the funds released to her.

In his 2011 SONA, President Aquino vowed to go after top officials linked to corruption.

Mrs Arroyo is facing another non-bailable offense before a Pasay court -- charges of election sabotage -- but various sectors have raised fears that due to weak evidence the court might in the end grant her bail. The former president is under hospital arrest at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center.

The Ombudsman previously cleared Mrs Arroyo of plunder charges in connection with the botched NBN-ZTE deal. She was only slapped graft charges in that case. But government officials at the time said they were confident that she could be pinned down in the PCSO case. - Rappler.com