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How Jinggoy got away in his first plunder charge

MANILA, Philippines – It’s his second time to be charged for plunder, a non-bailable offense, and Senator Jinggoy Estrada can say he's been there, done that. He even got away the first time.

The new witness presented by the Deparment of Justice, Estrada’s close friend Ruby Tuason, will have to back up her testimony with evidence to make a strong case against the senator and his colleague Senator Juan Ponce Enrile. 

At best, the testimony of the self-confessed pork barrel conduit is good enough to establish probable cause to indict the two senators and Enrile’s resigned chief of staff, Jessica Lucila "Gigi" Reyes, for alleged complicity with Janet Lim Napoles in the misuse of their pork barrel allocations.

Former Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio, who successfully prosecuted former President Estrada for plunder in the Sandiganbayan, said that Tuason, “as an eyewitness to the whole scam, is a believable witness” who strengthens the case against the lawmakers.

“She’s part of the scheme, and that makes her statements all the more authentic,” Villa-Ignacio said, making his own assessment.

The now retired Villa-Ignacio observed that Tuason’s testimony provides the missing link to principal whistleblower Benhur Luy’s testimony as far as the involvement of Estrada, Enrile and Reyes is concerned. “She is like Chavit (Singson). She’s an insider who could put all the missing pieces together.”

But lessons learned from the first plunder charge that involved Jinggoy Estrada and his father, former president Joseph Estrada, show it takes more than anecdotal evidence to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

Singson was the principal witness in the plunder charge against the Estradas, testifying that he delivered millions of pesos from jueteng operations to the deposed president. At the time, Singson was governor of Ilocos Sur.

Like Luy, Singson maintained a ledger for the jueteng transactions, detailing how much the former president got from the illegal numbers game. Other witnesses backed up his claim but they still fell short of securing a conviction for the younger Estrada.

Will Jinggoy get away again the second time? The Sandiganbayan ruling on Estrada’s plunder case may provide a clue.

Array of witnesses

In the plunder charge, Estrada was accused of conspiring with his son and others to acquire hidden wealth in the total amount of P4 billion from jueteng operations, kickbacks from tobacco excise taxes, stock manipulation, and the use of a fictitious account to hide ill-gotten wealth.

After 6 years of trial which the Special Sandiganbayan described as “the first of its kind to be filed” for which “the resolution of this case shall set significant and historical precedents,” Estrada was found guilty beyond reasonable doubt for two of the 4 predicate crimes of plunder.

His son, however, was acquitted despite the array of witnesses lined up against him by the prosecution.

What went wrong? There are at least 3 basic reasons:

Singson tagged Jinggoy, who was then San Juan City mayor, as the supposed collector of jueteng proceeds in Bulacan. In his ledger, a certain "Jing," supposedly Jinggoy’s codename, collected P3 million in protection money from a certain Jessie Viceo, the jueteng operator in Bulacan.

Under the set-up, Jinggoy would retain P1 million from the proceeds and give the rest to Singson, who, in turn, would remit the jueteng money to Estrada.

The ledger however contained only a single entry for Jinggoy after the elder Estrada found out and forbade his son from keeping a portion of the proceeds. While his codename no longer appeared in the ledger, Singson said Jinggoy continued to secretly receive kickbacks given by jueteng operations to appease him.

To back up Singson’s claims, the prosecution presented Singson’s liaison officer Emma Lim, accountant Maria Carmencita Itchon, Singson’s bodyguard Vicente Amistad, and personal aide Jamis Singson as witnesses versus Jinggoy himself.

All 4 witnesses testified that upon instructions of Singson, they collected jueteng proceeds from Jinggoy on several instances.

Lim testified that Jinggoy, in one instance, issued her a personalized United Overseas Bank (UOB) check with his photo in the background.

Itchon for her part, presented a summary of cellphone calls made by Yolanda Ricaforte (the erstwhile auditor and accountant of former president Estrada) to Jinggoy to follow up jueteng collections. She said the billing statement of Ricaforte’s calls were under her name since it was she who applied for the phone line used by Ricaforte.

Amistad and Jamis Singson separately testified that they collected jueteng proceeds from Jinggoy either at his San Juan municipal office or his residence in San Juan. One time, Amistad said, he was scolded by Singson when the money he got from Jinggoy appeared to be short.

Gaps in Singson’s testimony

Expectedly, Jinggoy denied all the allegations but it was not his alibi that saved his neck. It was the sloppy prosecutorial strategy and the testimony of one bank official that created doubt in the minds of Sandiganbayan justices.

To rebut the allegations of the prosecution witnesses, the defense panel simply presented a UOB San Juan branch official who testified that the bank had not issued any customized check as alleged by Lim. The bank executive also said that neither Jinggoy nor the San Juan municipal government maintained any account with UOB. The Court gave more weight to this testimony.

The Court castigated the prosecution for not charging Jessie Viceo as a supposed co-conspirator given Singson’s testimony that it was he who controlled jueteng operations in Bulacan. Besides, Singson’s testimony suffered from gaps that the prosecution failed to address, the Court said.

The Court pointed out that while Singson and his aides claimed they collected jueteng proceeds from Jinggoy, “there was no testimony to the effect that they saw Jinggoy Estrada subtracted his share from jueteng collections, or in any other way received a share from jueteng collections. This Court further found it difficult to believe that Jinggoy Estrada, who was not even a resident of Bulacan, was the collector for Bulacan,” the Court said.

“Gov Singson associates Jinggoy with Viceo allegedly from Bulacan. Who is Viceo? Why was Viceo not charged if it was true that jueteng collections from Bulacan came from him before they passed the hands of Jinggoy? There was no evidence at all that the money Jinggoy Estrada turned over to Gov Singson or the latter’s representatives was part of the jueteng protection money collected from Bulacan,” the Court added.

What hurt the prosecution more was that they failed to contest the testimony and documentary evidence of the bank official regarding Jinggoy’s bank account. “The certification disproved the testimony of Emma Lim that the deposit slip in the amount of P1 million said to be part of jueteng money was turned over to her by Jinggoy in the form of personalized check with his photograph, from his account at UOB. The gaps in the prosecution’s evidence as to Jinggoy Estrada created uncertainty in the mind of the Court as to the participation of Jinggoy in the collection and receipt of jueteng money,” the Court stressed.

As for Ricaforte’s supposed phone calls to Jinggoy, the Court reiterated its earlier ruling that the prosecution’s reliance on these was “highly speculative.”

Trial proper

Levito Baligod, counsel for the pork barrel whistleblowers, said that Tuason’s testimony can be described as “admission against self-interest” and therefore should be given more weight by the court. “She’s part of the scam and that should make her a credible witness.”

Told that her testimony might be found inadequate by the Court, Baligod said that additional evidence – circumstantial and documentary – will surface during the trial proper.

Tuason said she delivered kickbacks to Estrada, Enrile and Reyes on separate occasions as conduit in the pork barrel scam. This echoed the testimony of Luy that she was the one remitting the rebates of senators and Reyes. – Rappler.com