Ombudsman under fire for Garcia plea bargain

By David Dizon,

Posted at Dec 20 2010 03:03 PM | Updated as of Dec 21 2010 03:33 AM

MANILA, Philippines - Expect more corruption cases against high ranking officials to fizzle out as long as the present Ombudsman, Merceditas Gutierrez, stays in office, a party-list lawmaker warned Monday.

Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello issued this warning after government prosecutors forged a plea bargaining agreement with former military comptroller Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia, who is accused of plundering more than P300 million from the military's coffers.

"This is the problem. We have an Ombudsman in the person of Merceditas Gutierrez who is promoting all of these illegal agreements. We really need to move on corruption. As long as we have the present Ombudsman, it's very hard. Now the people can see the reason why the majority in the House of Representatives is moving to impeach the Ombudsman," he said in an interview on ABS-CBN's "Umagang Kay Ganda."

Bello called the plea bargaining agreement a "mockery of justice" after it allowed Garcia to plead guilty to only the lower offenses of direct bribery and money laundering instead of plunder. The former military comptroller walked free last Saturday after posting a P60,000 bail.

Bello said the government should investigate how Garcia was able to enter into a plea bargain despite strong evidence from the prosecution.

"You have to find out how something like this (happens) where suddenly a non-bailable offense almost at the end of the trial someone is allowed to plea bargain on lesser, bailable offenses. This is really highly irregular.  After a capital offense, you can go free for P60,000? It's a mockery of justice," he said.

Plea bargain still allowed?

For his part, lawyer Noel Malaya said there is Supreme Court jurisprudence that allows prosecutors to enter into a plea bargain even after they have rested their case.

"Normally, plea bargaining is done in the arraignment portion or the pre-trial. However there have been decisions by the Supreme Court where the plea bargain can be done even after the prosecution has presented its evidence. It can be done even after the prosecution has rested its case," he said.

Malaya declined to say if the plea bargain was fair for the government since the money allegedly being returned by Garcia is lower than the P300 million he allegedly stole. He noted that the prosecution will not agree to a plea bargain to a lesser offense "unless they knew that the evidence was very strong."

Malaya said the Ombudsman is not solely to blame for the plea bargain deal since the Sandiganbayan will also have to determine if the deal will be allowed.

Bello said that while no one can exonerate the Sandiganbayan for approving the deal, the government should also look at the other actors in the case.

"The Ombudsman handles the prosecution...Malakas naman ang influence of the Ombudsman on the prosecutors," he said.

He added that the plea bargain actually encourages corrupt officials to continue what they are doing since they can always  go for a plea bargain and return only part of the loot.

"It's more than just a money question. This is a case wherein you really need to put big-time crooks in jail. if you do not have the full brunt of the law brought on cases like this, a lot of crooks will think - 'Oh my god, we can get away with it.' Napakalakas ang power of example, dapat ngayon," he said.