The law distinguishes no color and political affiliations. Therefore it must be applied equally to everyone and should not be used as a tool to persecute those from the opposite political fence.
The Aquino government’s continued refusal to allow a house arrest for former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo despite her fragile health and debilitating medical condition has affirmed the belief by many observers of the vindictive nature of this administration.
Also, the continuing detention of opposition Senators Jinggoy Estrada, Bong Revilla and former Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile highlights the inequality on how justice is dispensed in this country.
Therefore, the recent decision by the Office of the Ombudsman to dismiss from the service five officials of the Department of Agriculture (DA) in Western Visayas was both instructional and an eye opener.
Ordered dismissed from the service were Larry Nacionales, Candelaria Martinez, Mira Talabong, Mae Nones and Roger Salcedo of DA Regional Field Unit VI.
They were all found guilty of gross misconduct, for misusing P20.5 million of the Priority Development Assistance Fund or pork barrel of Sen. Jinggoy Estrada in 2007.
In addition, the Ombudsman ordered their retirement benefits forfeited and barred them from holding public office ever again.
In an interview, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales said all the accused committed “gross inexcusable negligence” when they signed documents pertaining to the “Diversified Farm Assistance for Negros Occidental Agri-Producers”, without conducting necessary rigid and periodic monitoring and evaluation of the project which was implemented by the JCB Foundation.
Legal experts opined that the Ombudsman’s decision was an eye opener as it clearly supported the argument of the camps of the detained lawmakers that it was ministerial on their part when they signed documents pertaining to their pork barrel allocations.
It was the duty of the concerned implementing agencies to rigidly check the background as well as the veracity of the papers submitted by NGOs that were seeking their assistance.
There is nothing irregular with endorsing projects especially the ones that were recommended by those assigned on the field, but trouble comes when unscrupulous individuals and officials connive and exploit the process and the system.
That they continued to be detained despite the fact that the evidence presented against them were less than convincing surely deserves a closer scrutiny.
In fact, their lawyers argued that the least that the anti-graft court could do is to grant them bail, so as not to deprive the millions of people who voted them into office of the service that they want from them.
The accused lawmakers, especially Revilla had maintained that the documents submitted as proof against him contained his forged signatures.
His camp argued that he acted in good faith when he endorsed the projects and had reasons to believe that they were implemented but some people who had devious schemes forged his signatures to make it appear that they came from his office.
All the accused senators especially Jinggoy and Bong have expressed time and again that the charges slapped against them were politically motivated, claiming that their enemies were out to discredit them to prevent them from running in 2016 presidential elections.
The fact that only the leading opposition lawmakers are now behind bars despite a Commission on Audit (COA) report that there were also administration allies involved in the alleged scam, indicated that the administration is engaged in the practice of selective justice.
On August 16, 2013, COA released the results of a three-year investigation into the use of legislators' PDAF and other discretionary funds during the last three years of the Arroyo administration.
According to the report, between 2007 and 2009, ₱6.156 billion in PDAF funds coming from 12 senators and 180 representatives were disbursed to fund 772 projects found to be implemented in ways that were "not proper and highly irregular".
Of the 82 NGOs implementing those projects, ten are linked to Napoles therefore there were at least 72 more bogus NGOs where lawmakers from the administration could have connived that are yet to be investigated.
In the said COA report, among administration lawmakers who were named as those involved in the scam were Niel Tupas Jr., Joel Villanueva, Edgardo Angara, Ruffy Biazon, Neptali Gonzales II , and many others but no legal actions were taken against them.
Among the highlights of the COA report were "questionable" transactions made using the PDAF: ₱1.054 billion went to NGOs which were either unregistered, used multiple Tax Identification Numbers (TIN), or issued questionable receipts; while ₱1.289 billion in PDAF disbursements spent were not compliant with the Government Procurement Reform Act of 2003.
Despite growing calls from various groups especially well-known political leaders for the government to allow a house arrest for former President Arroyo, the government has been steadfast in its refusal to grant the same.
Those supporting her house arrest contend that it is not a form of special treatment because the courts in the past have recognized and granted custodial arrangements to a number of detainees which included former President Joseph Estrada and former Senate President Jovito Salonga.
Her lawyer, Lawrence Arroyo, pointed out that the 68 year old former President is not a flight risk and that she is sick and frail.
Arroyo explained that his client has undergone three spinal surgeries, remains frail and thin and, to this day, “enjoys the presumption of innocence”.
He added that the Equal Protection Clause should not be invoked to deny her house arrest but on the contrary, it should be invoked to grant it.
That the government prosecutors are opposing house arrest for GMA and even Enrile is cold and callous and would reinforce the belief that government is vindictive and out to punish its political enemies.
The ailing 91-year-old Enrile is under detention at the Philippine National Police (PNP) General Hospital, while GMA is confined at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center (VMMC).
Punish the Real Culprits
Some two weeks ago, Revilla’s request to allow him to attend the graduation of his daughter Loudette was denied by the court despite his pleas for “compassion and understanding” as it was his child who requested his presence in the momentous occasion.
It was truly a devastating blow on Revilla’s part especially since he is convinced that the charges against him were weak and he should in fact be given a chance to post bail.
But the court saw otherwise as it ruled that allowing Revilla would make a mockery of the justice system, especially since Revilla had been denied bail from plunder due to strong evidence of guilt.
“The Court is not inclined at this time to treat as exceptional circumstance the commencement exercises of his daughter in Muntinlupa. To the mind of this court, allowing accused Revilla to attend the graduation of his daughter will not only set a bad precedent, but will likewise be regarded as a mockery of the administration of justice,” the court’s resolution said.
Estrada on the other hand was luckier as the 5th Division trying his case allowed him to attend his son’s graduation because “the child may be traumatized due to the absence of his father. “We’re not doing this for Senator Estrada. We’re doing this for the child,” Fifth Division chair Associate Justice Roland Jurado has said.
Be that as it may, many legal experts are convinced that somewhere, somehow, something is wrong especially on the cases involving GMA and the three senators.
They stressed that the courts should be more discerning because an injustice is actually happening because the said accused are made to suffer for the crimes that they deny doing, while those who actually admitted committing the crime are scot-free and could even be laughing their way to the bank.
For example, star witness Benhur Luy admitted that they were the ones who forged the names and signatures of the supposed beneficiaries and also the lawmakers when they collected money from the government in exchange for “ghost projects”.
He added that they established fake foundations and NGOs under the wing of the JLN Group of Companies, the holding company of Janet Lim-Napoles, with Napoles' employees—even a nanny—named as incorporators or directors.
Napoles, who specialized in trading agricultural products, frequently used the procurement of agricultural inputs in the propagation of the scam.
They would then write to legislators requesting for funds for the implementation of a particular project (e.g. farm inputs or products).
Once received, this is forwarded to the DBM, which would then issue a Special Allotment Release Order (SARO) indicating the amount deducted from the legislator's PDAF allocation, and later a Notice of Cash Allocation (NCA) given to the recipient agency.
The NCA would then be deposited in one of the foundation's accounts, and the funds withdrawn in favor of the JLN Group of Companies.
In short, it was Luy and his fellow witnesses under the instructions from Napoles , who engineered and subsequently benefited from the scam but except for their boss , all the others who opted to be government witnesses are now out of jail.
Unfortunately despite the insistence of the lawmakers, who all claim to have no knowledge of the illicit activities, they are now the ones who are behind bars as unwitting participants.
Going back to the ruling of Ombudsman, it was indeed an eye opener as it has put the responsibility on the heads of the implementing agencies in making sure that the money spent for a particular project indeed went to its intended purpose.
Translated, it should be the responsible heads of agencies who should be behind bars and not the lawmakers!