MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) - The appointment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno could bring new hope to a coalition of coconut farmers pushing for the reopening of the coco levy case against businessman Danding Cojuangco involving his shares in San Miguel Corporation worth an estimated P80 billion.
Marco Sardillo, former executive director of the Presidential Commission on Good Government and now a volunteer lawyer for the farmers' coalition, said the group plans to file a motion to reopen the case before the Supreme Court on September 10.
"We are fighting for the 20 percent awarded to Cojuangco. The Supreme Court said the decision is final and executory this year but with the appointment of Sereno, and her earlier dissent she hinted that perhaps with newly discovered evidence or other justifiable reason, there might be another opportunity to revisit this ruling and in fact honor history," he told ANC's "Headstart."
The SMC shares were originally acquired by Cojuangco when he was still head of the state-owned United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB) in 1983.
The PCGG earlier said Cojuangco used UCPB funds to purchase the SMC shares, in violation of fiduciary trust.
In April 2011, the Supreme Court voted 7-4-4 awarding 20% of San Miguel shares to Cojuangco. The SC also ruled there was no definition of ill-gotten wealth by citing Section 3 of the PCGG rules and regulations, and that the close association between former president Ferdinand Marcos and Danding Cojuangco had to be proven in order to establish a case for ill-gotten wealth.
Then Associate Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno dissented from the majority, saying the SMC shares should belong to the government.
"I vote to grant the Motions for Reconsideration and find the Cojuangco block of SMC shares to have been acquired with public funds and thus, public assets that are forfeited in favor of the government," she said in her dissenting opinion.
Last January 2012, the SC affirmed a Sandiganbayan ruling awarding 24% of SMC shares to the government.
Joke of the century
Sardillo said the 20% block of SMC shares awarded to Cojuangco is now worth an estimated P80 billion to P100 billion.
He said Cojuangco's claim is that he merely got a private loan from a private bank, referring to the UCPB, when he bought the SMC shares.
"He said that the role of a private borrower is to repay the loan. That was the decision last year. However, with the decision this year, the SC is telling us that the UCPB is not a private bank but a public corporation. In which case, Mr. Cojuangco at the time was a public officer. That changes the entire thing and it is I think one of the justifiable reasons that will call to question and pull the rug from that decision," he said.
Sardillo said the April 2011 decision granting the 20% bloc to Cojuangco said there is no definition of ill-gotten wealth. However, the same court would later grant the 24% SMC bloc to the government by defining ill-gotten wealth based on the same PCGG rules.
The lawyer said then Associate Justice Conchita Carpio Morales had described the SC decision on the Danding shares as the "joke of the century" since ill-gotten wealth is already described in Executive Order No. 2 of President Cory Aquino.
"When the Supreme Court overlooked that there is a real definition of ill-gotten wealth, they made up a definition of their own. Their definition is that now we have to even prove cronyship, and that is not true. I said if we let this decision stand, we can expect all of those other ill-gotten wealth cases dismissed. True enough, the ill-gotten wealth case against Lucio Tan was dismissed," he said.
Rush to expunge gov't pleading
Sardillo said Sereno's appointment as Chief Justice brings new hope to farmers who have questioned the SC decision on the SMC shares.
He noted that Sereno's dissenting opinion was not even attached to the original SC resolution when it was issued in June 2011. He said the dissenting opinion was only attached to the decision later.
The lawyer said the SC's decision to expunge the government's pleadings last August 16, 2011 also shows the danger of rushing to a decision on the coco levy case.
"I must point out - the decision on April 2011 was very tight. It was 7-4-4. Of all the days they could take a vote, August 16 was the time when 2 justices were on leave and there were 2 vacancies in the court. August 16 was also the date when Justice Bienvenido Reyes was appointed to the SC. Before he could even assume office, the Supreme Court decided to take a vote. Exactly one month later, Justice Estela Perlas-Bernabe was also appointed to the court," he said.
SC rewriting history
Sardillo said the 2nd motion for reconsideration would have allowed the PCGG to present more evidence such as the Marcos diaries that showed Cojuangco was a crony. He said the SC took a stand that a 2nd motion for reconsideration is a prohibited pleading.
Sardillo said one challenge faced by lawyers fighting for justice for coco farmers is that many people do not understand or simply do not care about the issue.
"With this decision, the Supreme Court has effectively, with due respect, rewritten history because Mr. Cojuangco is apparently not even a crony or a close associate of Mr. Marcos based on that decision of April 2011," he said.
In her dissenting opinion, then SC justice Carpio Morales maintained that saying that Cojuangco was not a subordinate or close associate of the Marcoses is "the biggest joke to hit the century" especially with Cojuangco's own personal admission that he left the Philippines with Marcos and family on February 25, 1986 on the Marcoses' way to their exile in the United States following the first EDSA people power revolt.
"Clearly, the intimate relationship between Cojuangco and Marcos equates or exceeds that of a family member or cabinet member, since not all of Marcos's relatives or high government ministers went with him in exile on that fateful date. If this will not prove the more than close association between Cojuangco and Marcos, the Court does not know what will," the opinion read.
Cojuangco previously served as Governor of Tarlac, representative of the then First District of Tarlac, Ambassador-at-Large and Director of the Philippine Coconut Authority(PCA).
He also held key positions in private corporations as member of the United Coconut Oil Mills, Inc. Board of Directors; president and member of the Board of Directors of the UCPB, United Coconut Planters Life Assurance Corporation, and United Coconut Chemicals, Inc.; chairman and chief executive officer of SMC.
Sardillo said the farmers' move is less about Sereno swaying the other justices but about the SC being asked if they will stand with the 3.5 million farmers affected by the decision. He said the case is not just about money but a moral crusade between 3.5 million coconut farmers and "one lucky individual."
"Are they going to stand by their error or are they going to stand with the 3.5 million farmers?" he said.