MANILA, Philippines (2ND UPDATE) - Former Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo and a reform group criticized state prosecutors for entering into a plea bargaining agreement with ex-military comptroller Major Gen. Carlos Garcia who was facing plunder and money laundering charges.
Marcelo said the plea bargaining agreement is "illegal" and "anomalous" since it goes against the interests of the Philippine government, which already stands to win back Garcia's alleged P303 million-worth of illegally acquired assets.
The agreement allowed Garcia to enter guilty pleas for the lesser--and bailable--offenses of direct bribery and violation of Section 4-B of the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA).
“Under the rules of court, a plea bargaining agreement may only be entered if the prosecution has not yet started the presentation of evidence. In this case, the prosecution has already completed it. Further, the court has already ruled that the prosecution has presented sufficient evidence to convict Garcia," he said in a text message.
The group Pagbabago! People's Movement for Change, meanwhile, said the plea bargain deal is a toleration of military corruption. The group slammed prosecutors' "distorted logic" for claiming that the agreement "saves the government from unnecessary expenditures" and allows it to immediately recover P135 million.
"In the first place, the issue should not be measured in narrow financial terms alone because corruption is a moral and governance issue," the group said.
It also added that it could not see how the government can benefit from the plea bargaining deal when Garcia is being made to account for P303 million in ill-gotten assets and not only P135 million.
"I found this (plea bargaining agreement) very anomalous," Marcelo said during an interview on ANC's Top Story on Friday afternoon.
"There is already a ruling by the Sandiganbayan that the prosecution has presented sufficient evidence to convict Garcia beyond reasonable doubt. There is also a pending forfeiture case against him. In other words, 99% panalo na [ang government]," he added.
Marcelo was confident that a forfeiture case, which imposed a levy on Garcia's assets, including an apartment in the US worth million, would have sealed not just legal but also financial victory for the government.
After all, he pointed out that Garcia would not be able to present a rebuttal evidence to refute the prosecutors evidence.
"How can he prove he acquired all those money with his meager income as a member of the military? Besides, the wife admitted that all these money came from bribes. That admission is binding on him," the former Ombudsman stressed.
By entering into a plea bargaining agreement with Garcia, the state prosecutors essentially "bungled" the case, Marcelo said.
The state has lost because the properties, which were subject to forfeiture, are worth over P300 million. We had already levied on those properties. So the moment we win, we can get them already. no need to look for them."
By not proceeding with the forfeiture case, which is anchored on the withdrawn plunder case, about half will be returned to Garcia.
"What are we saying, that crime pays? You stay in jail for 6 years and you earn P165 million?"
The cases against Garcia, his wife and 3 sons were filed when Marcelo was still the Ombudsman.
Garcia was jailed in 2004.
"This is a very sad story," Marcelo shared.
For Marcelo, the only justifiable reason for the plea bargaining agreement is this: "If Garcia has agreed to provide testimony and evidence to prosecute officials more senior than him."
Garcia and his other family members were originally charged with plunder and violation of Section 4-A of AMLA.
Plunder is punishable by reclusion perpetua while Section 4-A, which refers to direct transaction of laundered money, carries 7 to 14 years imprisonment and P3 to 6 million in fines. Section 4-B refers to the act of allowing money laundering to happen.
Pagbabago! expressed fear that the government prosecutors' mishandling of the Garcia case indicates how the Aquino government will treat other corruption cases involving officials of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP).
It noted that President Aquino has even promoted one of the high ranking PNP officers implicated in the so-called "Euro Generals" scam.
Last September, Sr. Supt. Thomas Rentoy III has been promoted by Aquino to Chief Superintendent, making him a one-star general, despite graft charges filed against Rentoy and other police officials who were stopped at the Moscow airport in 2008 for carrying undeclared cash in excess of the permissible limit.
AFP respects Sandiganbayan decision
The Armed Forces on Friday said it is respecting the decision of the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan on the case of former military comptroller Garcia but added that it was expecting a “good judgment” on his case.
“The case of general Garcia is with the court. It's in the jurisdiction of the court so whatever the court decides, that will be followed. That’s part of, you know, our judicial system…Of course, we respect whatever is the decision of the court,” said AFP vice chief Lt. Gen. Reynaldo Mapagu.
On Thursday, Garcia pleaded guilty to the lower charge of bribery and violation of the Anti-Money Laundering Act in exchange for the dropping of the graver offense of plunder involving over P300 million under a plea bargaining agreement.
Garcia, who reportedly amassed the wealth while he was the AFP deputy chief of staff for comptrollership, was allowed by the Sandiganbayan to post bail, pending court ruling on the charges which he pleaded guilty to.
“He pleaded guilty to a lesser offense which is actually bailable. We cannot really do away with our justice system. If it’s the law, it’s the law really,” Mapagu said.
Plunder is punishable by life imprisonment. On the other hand, the punishment for direct bribery is about four years while violation of AMLA is punishable by 4-7 years in prison.
Nevertheless, Mapagu said there is still no closure to the story of Garcia, who was convicted by a military court several years ago for conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman and conduct prejudicial to good order and military and sentenced him to two years in prison with hard labor and dishonorable discharge from the service.
“That’s not over yet really. He just posted bail. He still has cases…That is not yet final, meaning he just posted bail because he pleaded guilty to a lesser offense that is bailable,” said Mapagu.
When asked what result did the military expect on the Garcia case, Mapagu said: “We expect(ed) that the court will, on the basis of evidence and all that, plus testimonies, will come up with a good judgment on this case.”
“If he indeed committed a crime, for example if his case is plunder, then he should be punished accordingly, in accordance with what is stated in the revised penal code. Now, if the court finds him not guilty of the grave offense of plunder but guilty on a lesser offense, then they should also be meted appropriate punishment,” he said. With a report from RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News