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Looking at plunder in the PDAF cases

MANILA, Philippines – On September 12, 2007, former president Joseph Estrada made history in the country as he became the highest public official to be convicted of plunder.

It was a short-lived conviction, though, as he was pardoned more than a month after, and was even allowed to run in the 2013 elections.

Comparable to Estrada's former case are the cases now being heard before the Sandiganbayan in relation to the multi-billion-peso pork barrel scam courtesy of businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles.

Estrada’s plunder case draws a striking similarity to the case of Janet Lim Napoles involving the pork barrel scam. The similarities include the hiding of some co-accused and the granting of immunity to whistleblowers. (READ: No closure yet on Erap Estrada’s plunder case)

Now considered the biggest corruption case in recent Philippine history, the case has found a number of incumbent and former lawmakers to have misused their pork barrel funds for bogus non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

However, only 5 government officials have so far been charged with plunder before the Sandiganbayan:

Napoles also has 5 counts of plunder, as she was named co-accused of all these officials.

Plunder is a non-bailable crime and is punishable with reclusion perpetua (life imprisonment), forfeiture of ill-gotten wealth in favor of the government, and perpetual disqualification from public office. (READ: Plunder in the Philippines)

Aside from plunder, all these officials were also charged with graft due to the illegal diversion of their PDAF to fake NGOs.

No plunder for the rest

As for the other officials, only multiple counts of malversation and graft – both bailable – are now with the Sandiganbayan:

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima earlier explained that the other lawmakers implicated in the case will only face graft and malversation charges because the kickbacks they allegedly obtained from the scam did not reach the threshold for them to be punishable with plunder.

Republic Act 7080 states that a public official can be charged with plunder if the accused has accumulated wealth amounting to at least P50 million. (READ: What's the difference: Plunder, graft in PDAF issue?)

"Our theory is that they're all co-conspirators, varying roles, varying degrees of involvement or culpability. They may be different, not necessarily as principals by direct cooperation, but other levels like accomplices," de Lima said.

One more complaint

Apart from these lawmakers, Budget Secretary Florencio "Butch" Abad is also facing a plunder complaint in relation to the PDAF scam.

In July 2014, youth groups led by the Kabataan party-list group and Youth Act Now! filed the complaint before the Ombudsman based on the allegations of Napoles that she learned to use fake NGOs to get public funds through Abad.

The complaint, however, remains pending at the Ombudsman's Field Investigation Office (FIO).

Same fate?

The plunder case of Estrada – which took two years to be resolved – may provide a clue as to how long the PDAF cases will be tried.

The Department of Justice has already filed 3 batches of PDAF complaints before the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman, however, has so far filed before the Ombudsman cases against 8 officials – all part of the DOJ's first batch of complaints.

The Ombudsman reported in July that they had already found probable cause to file malversation and graft charges against the following former lawmakers: Rozzano Rufino Biazon (Muntinlupa City), Rodolfo Valencia (1st district of Oriental Mindoro), Marc Douglas Cagas IV (1st district of Davao del Sur), Arrel Olaño (1st district of Davao del Norte), and Arthur Pingoy Jr (2nd district of South Cotabato).

These names constitute the second batch of DOJ complaints to the Ombudsman.

Both the Sandiganbayan and the Ombudsman have criticized each other over the delay in each other's handling of cases.

Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang claims they are forced to dismiss some cases due to "inordinate delays" on the part of the Ombudsman. Meanwhile, former Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo claimed in a forum that it now takes the Sandiganbayan an average of 10.2 years to process cases against government officials.

These delays may put the prosecution at a disadvantage. –