Auditor steals show in House hearing on military corruption

By RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 01 2011 08:51 PM | Updated as of Feb 02 2011 03:32 PM

MANILA, Philippines - This time, other people were absent.

Both Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and former military comptroller Carlos Garcia finally showed up at the House of Representatives Justice Committee probe into the latter’s controversial plea bargain agreement.

However, former military chiefs of staff Angelo Reyes, Diomedio Villanueva and Roy Cimatu snubbed the hearing, which had already branched off into an investigation on the alleged payola among top military brass.

Yet it was the testimony of former state auditor Heidi Mendoza who stole the show and dominated the proceedings.

Holding back her emotions, Mendoza narrated how she labored on building up the case against Garcia, painstakingly researching the paper trail of funds of the military.

In her statement before the committee, Mendoza recalled how she was first assigned to the military by the Commission on Audit (COA) in 2004.

"Former Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo requested [then] chair of COA [Guillermo] Carague to create a financial investigation team that would assist the Ombudsman," she said.

Mendoza was back then assigned to the office of the presidential chief of staff tasked with lifestyle checks of government officials.

Warning from bosses

Mendoza said she was warned by her boss at the COA to go slow on the probe. Her boss, Commissioner Emmanuel Galman, said they were being watched by the Palace in 2004.

Auditor steals show in House hearing on military corruption 1"[He said] 'Heidi, you will head the financial investigation, kaya lang dahan-dahan lang tayo.' I trusted him na nung sinabi niya dahan-dahan lang. [He said,] 'National security ito, it could create certain disorders'," she recalled.

Mendoza said she walked into the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) storage room for records and found it to be with “no systematic filing. I spent half a day looking for checks signed.”

While she was doing her audit, Mendoza said she would be offered gasoline vouchers which she could encash, but she declined them.

Mendoza said she was made to review 4 funds under the AFP: the detention fund;  United Nations (UN) fund;  Balikatan fund, and the AFP modernization fund .

After the report was completed, Mendoza said her COA boss said they weren’t interested in the report. Instead, she was told to submit it to the Ombudsman.

Carague offers foreign post

Auditor steals show in House hearing on military corruption 2However, after Marcelo resigned for health reasons in 2005, she was told that even her office in the Ombudsman was being converted into a library.

She was told by then COA chair Guillermo Carague to just return all the documents she recovered. “[He said] 'Wag ka na sumulat ng  report nag-resign naman na si Ombudsman [Marcelo]',” she said.

Carague later offered to name her to a foreign post after she manifested she wanted to resign.

She was also asked to audit the AFP’s UN fund, but she wasn’t authorized. After that, she resigned.

After leaving the COA, she was told by the Office of the Special Prosecutor that there is no evidence against then General Garcia. She was asked to testify. She agreed despite the obvious risks to her security.

Risky, lonely fight

“In all those hearings, there will be tensions because I'm testifying against a general, and everyone said
I’m risking my family,” she said.

Mendoza said it was a lonely fight. “There was no media there, no civil society, no one but the prosecution, the defense lawyer, me and my husband.”

Mendoza recalled one of the prosecutors was even hit by Garcia in one incident.

But Mendoza remained steadfast, confident of her testimony. She told the prosecutors in one occasion: “Pag nadismiss ang kaso kay Garcia, maglalakad ako ng hubad mula Sandigan[bayan] hanggang Welcome [Rotonda]."

Plea bargain deal

Shortly after that, prosecutor Jun Balmeo offered to give her a copy of the proposed plea bargain agreement. She declined the offer as she is not a lawyer.

Later on, she got in touch with Marcelo about the plea bargain agreement, and the former Ombudsman said it was illegal.

Balmeo then called her up asking for her commitment to affirm that the evidence against Garcia was weak.
She quoted Balmeo: “Gusto ng office ang commitment mo. Sabi ko, commitment on what? Ano yun? Mahina naman ebdiensya at wala tayong nakuhang supplier, sinong office nakuha mo?"

Last Christmas, as news of the plea bargaining agreement broke, she was called by the current chairman of COA Rey Villar.

“Tinatanong po [niya] sino nag-testify, [at] pinapahanap ng court yung auditor. Ang [criminal] information ay hindi plunder, walang P50 million, P35 million. Sabi ko, I was the only auditor who testified except for the resident auditor...I said plunder, it's not P35 million. Sabi niya sakin, 'Can we call you again?'”

It was then that she decided to resign from her new job back then at the Asian Development Bank.

“There were so many lies. There have been a lot of sources of hopelessness…I did it dahil hindi lahat ng Pilipino corrupt, hindi lahat naghahanapbuhay lang ng walang paninindigan," Mendoza said.

Pressure from the Palace?

Auditor steals show in House hearing on military corruption 3Later on, Mendoza clarified that the instruction to go slow on the case was allegedly from Malacañan.

“Kasi minomonitor tayo ng Palasyo. Hindi ko na po matandaan. Sakin po, this is just an instruction, parang from the Office of the Executive Secretary, pero di po ako sigurado,” she said.

This is a charge then Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita would deny.

“Categorically, I can say that having been executive secretary, it was during that period she said. Chairman, your honor, I have no knowledge of the statement given by Mendoza," Ermita told the committee.

Bank accounts

Mendoza continued to talk about what she uncovered about Garcia.

Auditor steals show in House hearing on military corruption 4She found a P200-million voucher signed by the former military comptroller. This was supposedly transferred from a Land Bank account which contains the AFP trust fund.

She said that account did not have a clear paper trail of where its funding came from. It was only seen to be funneling money to other accounts.

“Sakin, so many red flags ang nakita ko sa cheke. The date was Nov. 28, 2002, it was debited Nov. 28 2002, and part of the P50 million check was credited sa Alfaro [Branch] UCPB on the same day, pero P50 million lang and krinedit. Pag tingin ko sa likod, supposedly, dun mo makikita saan napunta."

She also saw 2 passbooks, one had P100 million, another had P50 million. She also found a deposit slip worth P50 million but no passbook.

When she asked the UCPB manager, she was told there was no record for the second P50 million. The bank manager also tried to retrieve the passbook for P50 million from her.

“Di ko po binigay sa kanila. The UCPB passbook was evidence dahil may passbook at validly issued pirmado ng branch managers," she said.

The passbook was then submitted to the Ombudsman and Saniganbayan as evidence.

Mendoza said she was bothered that the P200 million was chopped off into different accounts in different banks.

The Office of the Special Prosecutor told the panel that all documents are now with the Sandiganbayan.

Misuse of UN funds

Mendoza also disclosed that a US$5 million used check for UN funds was not credited to the AFP accounts. Instead, it was picked up in the US by an unidentified AFP officer.

“The check was personally picked up by an officer of the AFP. Di po pinangalanan sakin sino pumikup ng cheke," she said.

Later on, she would learn that the check was cleared in 2 accounts in Iloilo and General Santos City (Gensan). 

Garcia coincidentally had an account in Iloilo while former comptroller Jacinto Ligot had an account in Gensan.

The justice committee will request the UN to help investigate this.

Gutierrez breaks silence on plea bargain deal

Auditor steals show in House hearing on military corruption 5Later on in the hearing, lawmakers debated with Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez  on how the Mendoza testimony impacts the plea bargaining agreement.

Gutierrez had stood by the decision, saying there was not enough evidence to convict Garcia.

“Mr. Chairman, I act under the recommendation of prosecutors who act whether there's strong evidence or not," she said.

Gutierrez said they had rather agree to the plea bargain agreement and get some of the ill-gotten wealth than have him escape conviction altogether.

“So, we bargained and decided...we opted to get all properties since we believe there is no evidence to convict," she said.

Pre-Rabusa, pre-Mendoza

Auditor steals show in House hearing on military corruption 6This drew the ire of lawmakers who felt that Gutierrez was ignoring Mendoza’s latest testimony, as well as the testimony of former military budget officer George Rabusa.

Gutierrez eventually relented.

“We still have to look at documents that corroborate Mendoza. I cannot say we have the opposition to the plea bargain agreement which is pending at the Sandiganbayan. We’re open to study and review whatever documents we will get from committee," she said.

Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez said the “arguments of the Ombudsman are valid pre-Rabusa and pre-Heidi.”

Mendoza said she was never able to discuss her findings with Gutierrez.

Still not enough, says Ombudsman

But this early, Gutierrez said Mendoza’s testimony and findings may not be enough.

“That investigation she made alone only pointed to AFP transactions without linking to Garcia," she said.

Gutierrez said they will look into Rabusa’s testimony.

“Dun naman po sa testimony ni Col. Rabusa, it's still a statement. Kung kami prosecutor, we still have to find out what documents does he have for us to change our position, so I created a panel to investigate Rabusa's testimony.”

Marcelo: Evidence is strong

Auditor steals show in House hearing on military corruption 7Gutierrez’s predecessor, Marcelo, however, maintained that the Garcia plunder case, which he filed was strong, citing the letter of Garcia’s wife, Clarita, which supposedly shows the conspiracy by the couple to amass ill-gotten wealth.

The Sandiganbayan already ruled these are already admissible.

Marcelo said this letter was not covered by spousal privilege since Clarita wasn’t testifying against her husband. She wrote the letter for her sons who were charged in the US.

“That's a good indication of conspiracy. Admission is one of strongest evidence. Umamin na eh, ano pa kailangan mo?" Marcelo said.

Gutierrez flatly denied any irregularity in her accord with the plea bargain agreement.

“We can swear to God, kung may kumita dito, tamaan ng kidlat at mamatay na ngayon din,” she said.

Gutierrez also lashed out at her predecessor and former Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio whom she blamed for the weak case.

Crush on Gutierrez

House Justice Committee Vice Chair Rodolfo Fariñas insisted there are rules on plea bargaining agreements.

Auditor steals show in House hearing on military corruption 8Farinas jokingly told Gutierrez she was his crush in law school, prompting laughter.

Gutierrez seized the opportunity to say: “Since crush niyo ako, may I say something? You know, this issue of plea bargaining came out in the open because of the letter sent out by the 2 gentlemen [Marcelo, Villa-Ignacio]. There are 2 misrepresentations, according to the gentlemen. There was a demurrer to evidence and even quoted a ruling of the Sandiganbayan. There is such thing. I can give you a certification from the Sandiganbayan na walang demurrer to evidence. Ano ba naman itong ginagawang ito na pagma-muddle ng issue? Wala pong ayusan at perahan dito.”

Marcelo and Villa-Ignacio, however, rebutted her.

Marcelo said they investigated Garcia’s properties in the US. Villa-Ignacio maintained the plea bargain agreement was inked after he retired.

Golez later on asked the Ombudsman if they can delay a decision on the plea bargain agreement.