MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) - The Office of the Ombudsman has ordered the filing of plunder charges against former Agriculture Secretary Luis 'Cito' Lorenzo and former Agriculture Undersecretary Jocelyn "Jocjoc" Bolante in connection with the P728 million fertilizer fund scam.
In the 134-page joint resolution, the Office of the Ombudsman said “there exists probable cause” to pursue the criminal cases against the officials who are “probably guilty of the crimes charged.”
The criminal raps came 6 years after the fund scam was discovered and 3 weeks before Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez prepares to face an impeachment trial at the Senate in May.
Her alleged inaction on the fertilizer fund scam is one of the impeachment complaints.
Sorsogon Rep. Niel Tupas Jr., head of the House prosecution team, shrugged off the Ombudsman's filing of plunder charges. He said the impeachment case against Gutierrez remains strong.
"Sinadya yan. Akala nila magagamit na depensa sa trial yun ang gusto nila gawin depensa na may aksyon naman siyang ginawa," he told ABS-CBN News. "Walang epekto yan sa kaso kasi nangyari yun 2004 pa (iyan). Bakit ngayon lang? Bakit three weeks bago mag impeachment?"
"It's been 6 years since it was discovered. At this point, too little too late," said Deputy Presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte.
"Seven years after the fact and 6 years after it came to light. Why did they wait so long?" said Presidential Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang in a text message to reporters.
Bolante, then an undersecretary at the agriculture department, allegedly diverted the fertilizer funds to the 2004 election campaign of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Lorenzo was then the boss of Bolante.
ABS-CBN sought Bolante for comments but he declined to give any.
Lorenzo's lawyer, Mario Bautista, said they were caught by surprise by the filing of plunder charges.
"We are shocked that inuna pa ang media dahil hanggang ngayon wala pa kaming kopya. We are surprised we are being charged with plunder because the complaints that were filed were only for malversation, graft and falsification," he said.
Last year, upon Lorenzo's return to the country, the Ombudsman said their fact-finding team recommended the lesser offense of graft and malversation raps against Lorenzo and Bolante.
The Ombudsman eventually filed the plunder cases, which is punishable by life imprisonment and disqualifies the public official from holding any public office, as the impending impeachment trial against Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez is about to commence in a few weeks.
Gutierrez is charged with betrayal of public trust for failing to act on, among other things, the fertilizer fund scam. The Aquino government has considered the Ombudsman a stumbling block in efforts to go after alleged wrongdoings of the Arroyo government.
The Ombudsman first conducted preliminary investigation on the fertilizer fund scam on October 27, 2008. It was Senator Panfilo Lacson who exposed the scam in 2004, prompting a Senate probe.
The Ombudsman filed the plunder charges based on several complaints based on the findings of the Commission on Audit on the P728 million "GMA Farm Input Fund."
Aside from Lorenzo and Bolante, former Department of Agriculture (DA) Assistant Secretary Ibarra Poliquit and private respondents Jaime Eonzon Puale, Marilyn Araos, Joselito Flordeliza, Maritess Aytoina, Jose Barredo and Leonica Marco-Llarena will also face plunder charges.
Graft charges were also recommended against Quezon City Rep. Nanette Daza and 33 other incumbent and former government officers and private individuals in line with the fertilizer fund scam.
Charged with malversation of public funds are several regional directors.
On the other hand, the complaints against DA Assistant Secretary Belinda Gonzales, Emma Gonzales, private respondents Deonilla Misola-Gregorio, among others, were dismissed for insufficiency of evidence.
Bolante requested for the P728 million budget in September 23. After the budget department gave its go-signal in March 2004, months before the May polls, Lorenzo authorized Bolante to release the funds and oversee agreements between agriculture officials in different regions and local government units.
Of the 92 local government units that had fund allocations, 76 did not receive the funds, 18 who were not on the list received funds, 2 recipients received less than the allocation, and 3 proponents received more than what was allocated to them, the joint resolution said.
The COA report also noted more irregular transactions, including purchases of equipment that were either not included in the list or more expensive that those available from other suppliers.
"In totality, as revealed from the entire investigation on all the cases subject herein, TF Abono avers that on 03 February 2004, the National Agricultural and Fisheries Council (NAFC) and the 16 regions received an aggregate amount of P723M. Out of the same, only the sum of P666,357,069.55 was liquidated, leaving an unliquidated balance of P56,642,930.45, thereby defrauding the government in the said amount," the joint resolution stressed.
Lorenzo countered that he passed on all accountabilities regarding the fund to Bolante.
Bolante said he was a mere "good father in the execution" of the agreements among the players, and that all fund allotments were "done in accordance with existing government accounting procedures."