Ex-Ombudsman hits 'gag order' on Garcia plea bargain

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 23 2010 12:23 PM | Updated as of Dec 23 2010 11:02 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Former Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo assailed on Thursday the Sandiganbayan's gag order on the Garcia plea bargain agreement, insisting that the deal should be made public since it has already been signed and submitted to the anti-graft court.

In an interview over dzMM, Marcelo said the gag order will aggravate the confusion over the "mysterious" plea bargaining agreement between former Major General Carlos F. Garcia and the Office of the Ombudsman, which ended the former military comptroller's 5-year-old plunder case.

"Medyo nakakapagtaka. Kaya nagkakaroon ng confusion of issues kasi shrouded in mystery and secrecy ang plea bargaining agreement na ito," Marcelo said.

More than 6 months ago, Marcelo said a few journalists whom he informed about the plea bargaining agreement tried to get copies from the Office of the Ombudsman and the Sandiganbayan, but they all failed.

When the plea bargaining agreement was finally revealed, he said that the two offices continued to snub their requests for copies of the agreement.

He said that this was unusual since a plea bargaining agreement becomes public record when it is signed and approved by the negotiating parties and submitted to a court of law, including the anti-graft court, Sandiganbayan.

"Nai-file na sa court eh. Tapos na ang negotiation, nagpirmahan na sila, na-file na sa court. So public record na iyan, kahit ordinary citizen can get a copy of that plea bargaining agreement. Ang bawal ay ang hindi ka magbibigay ng fair report on the agreement," Marcelo explained.

Curing the deal's defects

Marcelo said one possible reason for keeping the agreement secret is that the parties involved in the deal could be trying to cure its defects.

One possible defect, he said, is the person who signed it on behalf of the Ombudsman. He said that the agreement was approved without the consent of former Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio.

He said that the agreement was kept from the now retired Villa-Ignacio even if he was still serving in the Office of the Ombudsman. He said the signatory to the agreement on behalf of the Ombudsman is Villa-Ignacio's deputy.

"Hindi kinuha ang approval niya (Villa-Ignacio) eh siya ang head ng prosecution. Hindi siya sinabihan na may negotiation. Gagamutin nila iyan. Papalitan nila ng date," Marcelo said.

He added that the Office of the Ombudsman also failed to get the "consent of the offended party" on the agreement. He was referring to the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Before Garcia was charged with plunder, he was found guilty by a military court for amassing more than P300 million.

Marcelo said that before the Office of the Ombudsman signed the plea bargaining agreement, it should have sought the "conformity" of President Benigno Aquino III, who is the commander-in-chief of the military.

Upon Marcelo's advice, President Aquino ordered Solicitor General Jose Cadiz to oppose the plea bargaining agreement.

Marcelo said his group has pledged to help the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) void the agreement.

Sandiganbayan gag order

The Sandiganbayan on Wednesday restrained the parties in the Garcia plunder case amid the backlash caused by a recent action of the Office of the Ombudsman and its special prosecutors.

“It appearing that various unfounded comments have been made that only confuse issues and do not in any way serve the ends of justice, the parties, lawyers and representatives are hereby ordered to refrain from issuing press releases, granting press interviews, and making any comments…pending the promulgation [of the decision]," the order from Sandiganbayan 2nd Division says.

The gag order was read by Deputy Special Prosecutor Jesus Micael during a press conference at the Office of the Ombudsman.

Assistant Ombudsman Jose de Jesus said the office, together with the special prosecutors assigned to the case, will respect the gag order issued despite the criticisms hurled against them. De Jesus said they wanted to set things straight, but would rather respect the rule of law.

The Sandiganbayan postponed ruling on the plunder and money laundering cases against Garcia on Wednesday morning.

The anti-graft court was ready for the issuance of the ruling following the submission of the plea bargaining agreement that Garcia entered into with the Ombudsman.

Under the deal submitted on December 16, Garcia pleaded guilty to lesser offenses of direct bribery and violation of Section 4 (b) of the Anti-Money Laundering Act. Under the deal, he will reportedly get to keep P130 million of the P303 million he is accused of illegally amassing.

Marcelo had said in an earlier interview that the government was all set to win the plunder case, including forfeiture of the P303 million, given the strength of the evidence against Garcia.