GMA asks for more time to file answer to plunder rap

By Ina Reformina, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 11 2011 05:44 PM | Updated as of Jul 12 2011 01:44 AM

MANILA, Philippines - Former President and now Pampanga 2nd District Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo failed to submit her counter-affidavit during the hearing Monday of the plunder complaint filed against her and several others by former Solicitor General Francisco Chavez in connection with the alleged misuse of millions in Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) funds.

Arroyo's lawyer, Benjamin Santos, told the panel of prosecutors of the Department of Justice (DOJ) handling the preliminary investigation of the case that his client is still abroad and has yet to sign and personally subscribe to her counter-affidavit.

Santos said the counter-affidavit is ready for Arroyo's signature and subscription.

"It is not her intention to delay the proceedings. We are not taking advantage of the fact, but the fact is that there are still other respondents to file their counter-affidavits. She will be arriving this week, we will give her a couple of days to recover from the usual jet lag and we will have her sign before the panel or any representative the panel may be designating," Santos told the panel.

The panel, composed of Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Theodore Villanueva, chairman; Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Lilian Doris Alejo; and Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Elizabeth Intos-Santos, granted Arroyo's ex-parte motion for extension and gave her until July 22 to submit her counter-affidavit and supporting documents in her defense.

"This is the last time we are granting an extension, otherwise this panel will submit the case for resolution," Alejo warned Santos.

The complaint alleged that some P554.8-million in OWWA funds derived from contributions of overseas Filipino workers(OFW's) were misused by complainants, over P530-million of which was transferred from the OWWA Medicare Fund to the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (Philhealth/PHIC) in February 2004 to allegedly boost Arroyo's then presidential campaign.

Apart from Arroyo, those charged include former Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo, former Health Secretary now Civil Service Commission(CSC) chairman Francisco Duque III, former Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) administrator Virgilio Angelo, Patricia Sto. Tomas, former Labor Secretary and then OWWA Board chairperson; Rosalinda Baldoz, current Labor Secretary and then member of the OWWA Board of Trustees as Administrator of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA); Manuel Imson, then Labor Undersecretary and member of the OWWA Board of Trustees; Mina Figueroa, then OWWA Board of Trustees member as representative of the Finance Department; Caroline ROgge, then OWWA Board of Trustees member as representative of the Management Sector; Victorino Balais, then OWWA Board of Trustees member as representative of the Labor Sector; Virginia Pasalo, then OWWA Board of Trustees member as representative of the Women's Sector; and Gregorio Oca, current OWWA Board of Trustees member as representative of the Sea-based Sector.

'GMA delaying proceedings'

Atty. Andre de Jesus, counsel for complainant Chavez, lamented Arroyo's move to twice seek an extension for the filing of her counter-affidavit.

"It's either Arroyo is trivializing this complaint or she intends to delay the proceedings," de Jesus said.

Chavez could not be sought for his personal comment because he did not attend the hearing due to another engagement.

Complainants Duque and Sto. Tomas meantime appeared before the panel and subscribed to their counter-affidavits. Romulo swore to his counter-affidavit before a local prosecutor last June 22 and had his lawyers submit his counter-affidavit to the DOJ panel on his behalf.

Duque, in his counter-affidavit, said the transfer of OWWA funds to Philhealth was above-board since it had as basis Republic Act 7875 or the Philippine National Insurance Act of 1995 and DOJ Legal Opinion No. 25 issued in 1997 by then Secretary Teofisto Guingona, and supported by a Commission on Audit(COA) report in 2006.

Duque's counter-affidavit said the authorized transfer of the OWWA Medicare functions to the PHIC "entailed the corresponding transfer of corresponding OWWA Medicare funds to the PHIC."

"The Medicare funds transferred from the OWWA to the PHIC were used for the specific, exclusive and direct benefit of OFW's," Duque's counter-affidavit read.

Duque debunked Chavez's claims that the transfer of funds was intended to pour in funds into Arroyo's campaign kitty.

"[T]he OWWA Medicare funds were released to the PHIC in the year 2005, almost a year after the election it purportedly benefitted occurred, thus belying this charge," Duque's counter-affidavit read.

"How can you use OWWA Medicare funds that was transferred in 2005 in the 2004 elections?" Duque stressed in an interview with reporters.

Duque also pointed out that the alleged offense on violations of the Omnibus Election Code charged against respondents had already prescribed.

"BP Blg. 881 provides that election offenses shall prescribe after five (5) years from the date of commission," his counter-affidavit read.

'COA cleared us'

Apart from plunder, respondents were also charged for Malversation and/or Illegal use of Overseas Workers Welfare Administration(OWWA) Fund, Graft and Corruption, Violations of the Omnibus Election Code and Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials, and Qualified Theft in Chavez's complaint.

Meantime, Sto. Tomas said the charges against them were a waste of time.

"This is a silly charge, a waste of time and people's money. COA wouldn't have cleared us if it weren't above-board. COA is an independent constitutional body. If we did something wrong, we would have been in jail a long time ago," she said.

In her counter-affidavit, Sto. Tomas also pointed out that while Chavez cited OWWA Board Resolution Number 5 or 005 as the "culprit" for the transfer of OWWA funds to PHIC, it was in fact, Resolution No. 002 "adopted over a year later on February 24, 2005, that said transfer was finally effected."

The panel set the next hearing on the case on July 22.