Palace says pork cases not bungled

MANILA — State prosecutors did not bungle the plunder and graft cases against Senators Bong Revilla, Jinggoy Estrada and Juan Ponce Enrile, but the setback they suffered in court last week will prolong their trial, Malacañang and members of the House said on Saturday.

All is not lost despite the government prosecutors’ bungled attempt to picture the three senators as the real masterminds of the P10-billion pork barrel scam and not businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, the House members said.

Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda does not agree that the government is losing the pork barrel scam cases even before the trial could start.

Lacierda said that the junking of the amended information against Revilla on Thursday and the prosecution’s withdrawal of an amended complaint against Estrada on Friday were merely “procedural” and did not weaken the cases against the two senators.

And contrary to public perception, he said, the amendments were not intended to picture Napoles as not the guiltiest and use her as a state witness.

Lacierda said the Department of Justice (DOJ) never recommended Napoles as a state witness.

At the very least, 1BAP Rep. Silvestre Bello said, the government can expect longer court battles.

Bello, a former secretary of justice, said the plunder cases against Revilla and Estrada would still rise or fall depending on the evidence the prosecutors would present in court.

The prosecutors had hoped to clarify that Revilla and Estrada used Napoles and her bogus nongovernment organizations to embezzle hundreds of millions of pesos from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) over a period of 10 years.

In the original information, Napoles, who is charged with plunder although she is an ordinary citizen, appears to be the central figure in the pork barrel scam, with Revilla, Estrada and Enrile merely receiving kickbacks from her pork barrel-funded, phantom development projects.

Under the law, only public officials can be charged with plunder, a nonbailable offense.

Failed motions

The Sandiganbayan’s First Division, which handles the plunder and graft cases against Revilla, and Fifth Division, which handles the same cases against Estrada, rejected the amendments as these would alter the courts’ findings of probable cause to make the two senators stand trial and lead to orders to release them from detention.

Despite being beaten back, the prosecutors plan to introduce amendments to the plunder and graft cases against Enrile in the Third Division on Tuesday.

Revilla, who plans to run for president in 2016, is accused of pocketing P224.5 million in kickbacks from Napoles; Estrada, P183.7 million; and Enrile, P172 million. They are also accused of graft along with Napoles and 50 others in the biggest corruption scandal in the Philippines in 10 years.

Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares said that by trying to change the main theory of their plunder cases, the prosecutors gave the senators’ defense teams the ammunition to question the cases and prolong the trial, and to boost their claim that the filing of charges was rushed in order to harass them.

But Bello said it was too early to say that the cases are lost because the outcome would depend on the evidence.

“In the end, what matters is the evidence they were able to present. That is what is important here, to prove the accused took advantage of the PDAF and were able to obtain illegally the amount beyond P50 million,” Bello said in a phone interview.

Bello said, however, that the attempt to amend the information gave the impression that the charges filed by the prosecutors were wrong in the first place, although he noted that making substantial changes is fairly normal if there is new evidence that can affect the nature of the case.

“The impression is, they made a mistake. In the first round, the defense got the upper hand. So [the prosecutors] have to recover,” Bello said.

He also noted that the prosecutors, when asked by the Sandiganbayan justices, maintained that the cases could stand even without the amendments.

‘It doesn’t look good’

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. also believes the cases remain strong even if things do not look good for the prosecution at present.

“I really don’t know what they were trying to do. But certainly it didn’t look good insofar as public perception of their ability is concerned. I think the merits of the case and evidence are unchanged,” Belmonte said in a text message.

In a telephone interview, Colmenares said he was baffled by the prosecutors’ move to amend the charges shortly before the senators’ arraignment, especially because it took a while before the cases were filed in court, leading people to believe these were being meticulously prepared.

The prosecutors withdrew the amendments when these were questioned in court, but their move will have an adverse impact on the cases because the accused will use it to their advantage, Colmenares said.

“The trial will be prolonged … As it is, they have to pass through the plunder law and the antigraft law. With this development, the trial will probably take longer to finish because objections will be raised along the way,” he said.

The proposed amendments were substantial and it was not as if these were based on newly discovered evidence, he added.

Case weakened

“Did it weaken the case? Yes, it gave the defense a lot of ground for objections. You expose the weakness of the information and it’s so substantial. This is a big thing because they were even forced to move for the amendment and the basis for it is the theory [of the case],” he said.

The defense will also use the prosecutors’ move to claim that the filing of the cases was intended to harass the senators, he said.

“How can you make that mistake, which will jibe with the theory of the defense that the cases were rushed to get them?” he said.

Still, Colmenares said the outcome of the cases would depend on what would happen in the trial, and on what evidence would be brought up.

What the prosecutors can do is to prepare for the attacks of the defense on their cases, he said.

“They should try their best to argue it well … The best thing is to anticipate the questions to be raised by the defense and to be ready with their answers,” he said.

The prosecutors should also expect the cases to be challenged in the Supreme Court, he said.

For Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate, the prosecutors should have insisted on the amendments if they really believed the changes were needed to strengthen the cases.

Cases vulnerable

Zarate also said the prosecution’s attempt to change the theory of the cases exposed the vulnerability of the cases, wittingly or unwittingly.

To ensure a better handling of the cases, he said the Ombudsman and justice officials should assign them to full-time special investigators and prosecutors.

But Lacierda said the government did not believe the prosecutors were mishandling the cases.

“They have more than enough evidence, in the form of Saros (special allotment release orders), and testimonies of whistle-blowers to identify the culpability of the accused,” he said in a telephone interview.

Lacierda said the justice department was confident about the strength and sufficiency of evidence that it submitted to the Ombudsman, which eventually filed the charges against the senators in the Sandiganbayan.

“These matters are procedural … and do not in any way diminish the strength of the case, or the evidence against the accused,” he said.

Puzzled at rejection

Lacierda, a lawyer and law professor, admitted that he was just as puzzled as Justice Secretary Leila de Lima as to why the Sandiganbayan rejected the amendments.

“It’s a matter of right,” he said, pointing out that the prosecutors could amend the information before arraignment. “I share her puzzlement. But in fairness to the Sandiganbayan, I have not seen the reason for the denial.”

He said that as far as he knew, the prosecutors only wanted to “clarify the allegations” in the information by filing amendments.

“It doesn’t lessen the strength of the case in any event. The documents and testimonies will buttress the allegations in the information,” he said.

He also said claims that the denial of the amendments could lead to the grant of bail for the three senators and even Napoles were a “publicity stunt” by the defense.

“It’s a matter of PR for the lawyers to say what is good for their clients. Ultimately, it will be the Sandiganbayan who will decide on whether that is true or not,” he said.

Asked if the prosecutors were attempting to make Napoles a state witness to bolster the cases against the senators, Lacierda said: “The DOJ didn’t recommend Napoles to be a state witness.”

He said, however, that using Napoles as a state witness is a matter for the Sandiganbayan to decide if the question is brought up in court.