By Czarina Nicole Ong
The Sandiganbayan Special First Division acquitted on Friday former Senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. of plunder in connection with the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scam.
His chief of staff Richard Cambe and businesswoman Janet Napoles were not as lucky as they were convicted on the same charge. Both were sentenced to suffer reclusion perpetua with perpetual absolute disqualification from holding any public office.
“For failure of the prosecution to establish beyond reasonable doubt that accused Revilla received, directly or indirectly, the rebates, commission, and kickbacks from his PDAF, the Court cannot hold him liable for the crime of plunder,” the dispositive portion of the decision read.
Upon hearing the verdict, Revilla heaved a sigh of relief while his wife, Bacoor Mayor Lani Mercado, leaned on the wall. His son Jolo was almost in tears.
“Maraming salamat sa hustisya. Maraming salamat sa mga kababayan ko. (Many thanks to justice. Many thanks to my countrymen),”Revilla said.
Return of P124.5 M ordered
But all three accused were “held solidarily and jointly liable” to return P124,500,000 to the national treasury pursuant to Article 100 of the Revised Penal Code.
The order holding Revilla and the two other accused of “solidarily and jointly liable” to return P124,500,000 puzzled lawmakers.
The 186-page decision did not, however, state who among them should pay, but according to the said law, only those who are criminally liable in the case should be held civilly liable. Since Revilla is not criminally liable, his lawyers claimed that he is not required to return anything.
Right after the promulgation, Revilla posted P480,000 bail for 16 counts of graft charges over the misuse of his PDAF, which he reportedly endorsed to the bogus non-governmental organizations (NGOs) owned by Napoles in exchange for kickbacks amounting to P224,512,500.He then proceeded to Camp Crame in order to finalize his release.
His lawyer, Estelito Mendoza, said Revilla’s acquittal is “God’s will.” He refused to comment on what convinced the judges to vote for Revilla’s acquittal, but in his personal opinion, “there is no evidence to indict him.”
Because of his acquittal and his posting of bail for the graft charges, Revilla will be released from the Philippine National Police Custodial Center in Camp Crame, where he had been detained for over four years already.
The First Division is comprised of Chairperson Efren Dela Cruz and Associate Justices Geraldine Faith Econg and Edgardo Caldona. All three of them have to reach the same conclusion for a decision to be promulgated.
Econg and Caldona voted for Revilla’s acquittal, while Dela Cruz dissented.
With this development, a special division was created with two special members from other divisions – Associate Justices Ma. Theresa Dolores Gomez-Estoesta and Georgina Dumpit-Hidalgo.
Dumpit-Hidalgo voted for acquittal, while Gomez-Estoesta dissented. This time, the majority vote won.
Bound by evidence
Econg, in an interview, said she hopes the public would understand how they came to their conclusion. She knows Revilla’s acquittal is an “unpopular decision,” but they have to go by the evidence.
“I would have loved to be a heroine, that I convicted him. But at the end of the day, we are bound by evidence of the prosecution and defense,” she said.
In the decision, the justices stated that they are “unanimous” in the conclusion that Cambe and Napoles are “guilty as charged.”
“However, the majority of us harbor serious doubts as to the culpability of Revilla beyond reasonable doubt,” the decision read.
What pinned Cambe and Napoles were the testimonies of witnesses BenhurLuy, Marlina Sula, Mary Arlene Baltazar, and MerlinaSuñas– all former employees of Napoles. They all testified how Cambe and Napoles participated in the release of Revilla’s PDAF.
It was established by all the witnesses that the NGOs of Napoles were all a sham. They testified that Cambe received sums of money from Napoles because of the PDAF scam, but he failed to rebut their claims.
“The foregoing indubitably shows that Cambe and Napoles had conspired with each other so that they will benefit from the Revilla PDAF,” the decision read.
No clear proof
In comparison, there is no clear proof establishing Revilla’s part in the conspiracy. Cambe’s participation was clear to the court, but whether or not he carried out the task for Revilla or upon Revilla’s orders was not sufficiently established.
The biggest and “most crucial” pieces of evidence that could have pinned Revilla down were the endorsement letters he allegedly signed to support Napoles’ NGOs.
But Revilla denied that he signed the endorsements himself. Supporting Revilla’s claim was document examiner Desiderio Pagui, who confirmed that the endorsement letters allegedly signed by Revilla are all forgeries. Sula, Suñas, and Baltazar even testified that it was Luy who authored the endorsement letters.
“The consequence of this factual finding that the purported signature of accused Revilla is a forgery constitutes as a great blow to the prosecution,” the decision stated.
The court added that Revilla’s alleged receipt of the money from Napoles is “just a mere possibility.” On the flip side, there is also a possibility that Cambe received the money but kept it for himself.
“In other words, all these possibilities pointed out are not inconsistent with all the facts that are proven by the prosecution. But, in order to negate the other possibilities, the prosecution should have presented another circumstantial evidence that will exclude the possibilities that will exculpate the accused,” the court ruled.
As for Revilla’s bank accounts, the court cannot draw a conclusion that the money deposited came from Napoles, through Cambe.
“In the presentation of evidence, the prosecution left so many gaps in the data that it should have plugged in order for us to reach a certain degree of certainty that the monies deposited in the account did not come from any other source but from Napoles through Cambe,” the court said.
Aside from Mayor Lani and Jolo, also with Revilla during the promulgation were son Bryan, ViktoriaGianna Bautista, FranzelLoudette Bautista, and Luigi Revilla.
His good friend, former Senator Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, who is also charged with plunder, was also present to give his support. He was seen clasping his hands after the decision was read.
Asked if Revilla’s acquittal would mean that his and former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile’s plunder charges would be cleared as well, Estrada simply answered: “I hope so.”
The prosecution team all wore black during the promulgation, as if anticipating defeat. Assistant Special Prosecutor MartierDelfin Santos expressed how “disappointed” they were, while Deputy Special Prosecutor Manuel Soriano said they will be studying their next move.
But Ombudsman Samuel Martires said in a statement that Revilla’s acquittal can no longer be appealed.
“It is an elementary doctrine in law that you cannot appeal a judgment of acquittal,” he explained. “The policy is based on double jeopardy or the prohibition ‘against being twice put in jeopardy.’ This doctrine has its roots in Roman law that an ‘issue once decided cannot be tried again’.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Gordon said that there is something wrong somewhere. He was referring to the order holding Revilla, along with Cambe and Napoles, “solidarily and jointly liable” to return P124,500,000.
Opposition Senator Francis N. Pangilinan, president of the Liberal Party (LP), said it is difficult for him to understand that Revilla was acquitted as a person who allegedly received more than P224 million as “bribe” for his pork barrel allocation from Napoles, who was found guilty.
“Mahirap unawain ang naging pasya(The court decision is difficult to comprehend),” he said. (With a report from Mario B. Casayuran)