MANILA, Philippines – The anti-graft court Sandiganbayan acquitted former Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office general manager Rosario Uriarte of plunder in the P366-million PCSO intelligence fund scam case.
Uriarte was the last accused in the plunder case. The Sandiganbayan earlier acquitted 6 of Uriarte's co-accused from 2015 to 2017, while the Supreme Court (SC) acquitted two in July 2016, including former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
Uriarte was supposed to be the "missing link" in the case. Hopes for answers were sparked when she surrendered to authorities in November 2016 after 4 years in hiding.
The Sandiganbayan's First Division acquitted Uriarte in a decision dated May 11, which was released to media on Thursday, May 17.
The Sandiganbayan's ruling heeds the SC's pronouncement on Uriarte when it acquitted Arroyo.
"Thus, as the High Tribunal categorically cleared Uriarte of culpability from the instant charge of plunder, it behooves this Court to acquit her," said the Sandiganbayan decision penned by Associate Justice Efren dela Cruz, with concurrences from Associate Justices Geraldine Faith Econg and Edgardo Caldona.
In its acquittal of Uriarte, the Sandiganbayan said: "The prosecution has not adduced any new or compelling evidence to warrant a finding different from what has already been rendered by the Supreme Court."
The intel fund scam
From 2008 to 2010, PCSO officials diverted a total of P365 million to the agency's intelligence fund. The use of intelligence funds is covered by less restrictions.
Uriarte, as then general manager, was the one who requested the additional intel funds from Arroyo, who gave her approval. This approval was supported by resolutions of board members, who were later charged and then acquitted.
Arroyo was implicated because she wrote "OK" on the margin of Uriarte's letter requests. The SC did not find "OK" as sufficient evidence to charge Arroyo with plunder, a decision slammed by dissenters which included former chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, and Associate Justices Estela Perlas Bernabe and Marvic Leonen.
Although the SC was only resolving Arroyo's case, it made a declaration in its ruling: "Uriarte's requests indicate their compliance with the Letter of Instruction (LOI) 1282."
Ombudsman prosecutors said Uriarte violated LOI 1282 when she made her request to Arroyo.
The SC said: "According to its terms, LOI 1282 did not detail any qualification as to how specific the requests should be made. Hence, we should not make any other pronouncement than to rule that Uriarte's requests were compliant with LOI 1282."
In its decision on Arroyo, the SC also introduced the requirement of identifying a main plunderer. The SC said that if the prosecutors couldn't produce physical evidence of the money going into a public official's personal funds, then there is no plunder.
In her dissenting opinion, Bernabe said that officials who pocketed plundered money "in great likelihood, had already hidden the money they stole through ingenious schemes and means."
Leonen said the SC diminishes the rule of law "when we deploy legal interpretation to obfuscate rather than to call out what is obvious."
Blow to Morales
The PCSO intelligence fund scam was a highlight in the term of Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales. Her charges kept Arroyo in jail, in line with the former administration's campaign against corruption.
Four PCSO board members were acquitted by the Sandiganbayan in April 2015. In July 2016, a month after President Rodrigo Duterte took office, the SC acquitted and freed Arroyo.
Morales, who is retiring on July 26, will be haunted by the major corruption cases that crumbled before her term ended – among them, the fertilizer fund scam.