After 15 years, businessman Jaime Dichaves will finally be prosecuted for plunder in connection with the controversial "Jose Velarde" account during the impeachment trial of former President Joseph Estrada and the irregular purchase, aided by insider trading, of shares of stocks of a private corporation by government financial institutions, which both prompted Estrada's downfall.
This, as the Supreme Court (SC) gave the green light for Dichaves'
trial before the Sandiganbayan in the plunder case where Estrada was a co-accused.
In a 24-page decision penned by Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, the high court junked Dichaves' petition which challenged the Office of the Ombudsman's finding of probable cause in the plunder case, and its subsequent filing before the Sandiganbayan.
The high court ordered Dichaves' arraignment and trial, as it also lifted a temporary restraining order (TRO) it issued in July 2013 which halted the trial.
In its decision, the SC said the Ombudsman did not commit grave abuse of discretion and that "[g]iven the supporting evidence it has on hand, the Ombudsman's exercise of prerogative to charge petitioner with plunder was not whimsical, capricious, or arbitrary."
The SC stressed that it "does not interfere with the Office of the Ombudsman's exercise of its constitutional mandate" and since the anti-graft body is armed with the power to investigate, it is "in a better position to assess the strengths or weaknesses of the evidence on hand needed to make a finding of probable cause."
"[I]t must be emphasized that only opinion and reasonable belief are sufficient at this stage. Thus, petitioner's 'other defense contesting the finding of probable cause that is highly factual in nature must be threshed out in a full-blown trial, and not in a special civil action for certiorari before this court (SC)."
"This court finds no reason to violate the policy of non-interference in the exercise of the Ombudsman's constitutionally mandated powers," the decision read.
Dichaves sought the annulment of the March 14, 2012 joint resolution and February 4, 2013 order of the Ombudsman involving two complaints filed against him in April 2001, alleging the following:
(1) he was not given the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses;
(2) the Ombudsman considered pieces of evidence not presented during the preliminary investigation; and
(3) there is no probable cause to charge him with plunder.
The high court ruled that a preliminary investigation is intended merely to present evidence that "may engender a well-grounded belief that an offense has been committed and that the [respondent] is probably guilty thereof."
Dichaves' failure to cross-examine the witnesses was his own fault since he slipped out of the Philippines following Estrada's impeachment in 2000, the high court pointed out.
Both complaints, which were consolidated into one, trace their roots to the contents of the sealed second envelope involving the so-called "Jose Velarde" account during Estrada's impeachment trial, and the purchase by the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) and Social Security System (SSS) of the combined shares of stocks of 681,733 for P1.85-billion of Belle Corporation, a leisure estate and gaming company listed on the Philippine Stock Exchange (PSE).
The plunder case against Estrada and Dichaves involved ill-gotten wealth amounting to P4.10-billion.
This aggregate amount involved "commissions, gifts, shares, percentages, kickbacks, or any form of pecuniary benefits," including proceeds of illegal gambling, deposited under the "Jose Velarde account at Equitable-PCI Bank.
In its decision on September 12, 2007 in Estrada's plunder trial, the Sandiganbayan ruled that Estrada is the "real and beneficial owner" of the "Jose Velarde" account.