‘Plea bargain was best option in Garcia case’


Posted at Jan 12 2011 12:13 AM | Updated as of Jan 13 2011 01:25 AM

MANILA, Philippines - Special Prosecutor Wendell Barreras-Sulit defended on Tuesday the decision of the Office of the Ombudsman to enter into a plea bargaining agreement in the plunder case against retired Major General Carlos F. Garcia, saying it was the best option for the government.

Her statement corroborates the submission made in open court on Jan 11 by assistant special prosecutor Joseph Capistrano that their evidence is not sufficient to prove Garcia’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

Speaking to reporters hours after the Sandiganbayan Second Division lifted the gag order it issued last December 22, Sulit said chances of securing a conviction in the plunder case against Garcia, his wife and 3 children was “bleak at best” due to lack of a crucial piece of evidence to pin the former military official.

 “We had to be realistic. There was a real chance that the principal accused could walk away with an acquittal. At least with this agreement, the people got to recover part of the money and the accused is found guilty of a crime,” Sulit explained.

 She said members of the prosecution panel tried to talk to military suppliers and contractors but not one agreed to testify for the government against Garcia.

 “They were understandably scared. We banked on the promise of the former Ombudsman (Simeon Marcelo) that he can produce a supplier or contractor but he failed to deliver. What can we do?” Sulit said.

According to her, the value of assets surrendered by Garcia was substantially more than P135 million that she said was a “conservative computation based on acquisition costs” of the real estate properties thrown into the bargain.

 She said a lot of the real estate properties were acquired by the defendants between 1993 and 2004 hence their values have appreciated a lot over the intervening years.

Garcias to keep 128 million 

Sulit admitted that under the deal, the Garcias get to keep P128 million that they were able to withdraw from various bank accounts and investments in a 4-day span from October 5 to 8, 2004 when they tried to beat a freeze order from the courts after Marcelo started inquiring into the records of the former Armed Forces comptroller.

“That P128 million is now beyond our reach. That money was gone. The wife and the children successfully beat the freeze orders so there’s nothing more we can do about it. It’s like trying to freeze air,” she explained.

Sulit said the Garcias were tipped off about the freeze order by reports in the media of an impending investigation by the Ombudsman.

The OSP chief claimed Prosecutors Jose Balmeo and Capistrano tried to haggle for a bigger amount that the government will get from the plea bargain but realized they could not push too far because of the “weak case.”

“Had we pushed too hard for a bigger amount, we risked losing any chance of recovering anything at all if Gen. Garcia would decide to see the trial to its conclusion. Acquittal was a real danger. Those were difficult choices we had to make,” she lamented.

She described as an “exaggeration” the statements of the former Tanodbayan and former Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio that the recovery of the Garcia family’s bank deposits and properties garnished in relation to the forfeiture case pending before the Fourth Division was almost certain.

In their letter dated December 10 to President Benigno Aquino III, Marcelo and Villa-Ignacio said assets offered by Garcia in the plea bargain deal were properties he and his family were already bound to lose after having been declared in default by the graft court in the forfeiture case.  

“That’s not true it’s far from a ‘sure win’. Remember the Sandiganbayan never acquired jurisdiction over the persons of Clarita Garcia and the Garcia children. That was based on the ruling of the Supreme Court. The order of default was only on Gen. Garcia, that’s why the forfeiture case is not moving,” Sulit said, noting that Garcia’s wife and their sons Ian Carl, Juan Paulo, and Timothy Mark are American citizens, which makes extradition efforts difficult for the government.

Need for secrecy

The special prosecutor acknowledged that the Office of the Ombudsman intentionally tried to keep the progress of the plea bargain deal away from media attention but said it was simply out of respect for the processes of the court.

 “We were not sure that the court would approve the agreement. We had to observe the sub judice rule. We are officers of the court and we are bound by legal ethics,” Sulit stressed.

 She bewailed the negative public reaction and the pronouncements of Malacañang about the Garcia plea bargain deal saying the prosecution and the court were unfairly portrayed as villains.

 However, she said they can only hope that the public will eventually see reason and accept the validity of their decision to endorse the plea bargain.

 “Perhaps the President was fed the wrong information. I am appealing to the media to be fair and to persons concerned to stop feeding lies,” Sulit said.

 Not over yet

She challenged the stand of the Office of the Solicitor General that the plea bargain was irregular and illegal.

 “The deal is subject to court consideration. If the justices will disapprove it, the case will go back to ‘status quo ante’. We will have to return all those assets to Gen. Garcia and the government will have to take its chances that the accused will be acquitted. Perhaps we should hand the case over to the OSG if they think they can do a better job,” Sulit said. 

 Executive clerk of court and Sandiganbayan spokesman Renato Bocar clarified that despite perception that the Garcia family is getting off lightly, the outcome of the plea bargain still rests with the graft court.

“The case is not over yet. The court is not be bound by the terms of the agreement. The dismissal of the charges against the wife and children (of Gen. Garcia) is still subject to the jurisdiction of the Court,” he cautioned.

On the unfavorable reactions of the public and President Aquino about the plea bargain deal and the developments in the plunder case against Gen. Garcia, Bocar said the justices should be spared from external pressures.

“The court will decide the case based only on evidence, laws and jurisprudence – not by any other extraneous factors. The justices are not concerned by the adverse public reaction against the plea bargaining agreement entered into between the Ombudsman and Gen. Garcia, as long as their conscience is clear,” he said.