MANILA — (UPDATED) The Supreme Court First Division has junked graft charges against Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Juan Ponce Enrile and several others in connection with a 1983 coco levy fund arbitration ruling.
In a decision promulgated by the court on January 16, 2023 but was released on Wednesday, the court said there was a delay in the investigation, and thus, there was a violation of their right to speedy disposition of cases.
Enrile, along with Jose Concepcion, Rolando Dela Cuesta, Narciso Pineda and Danilo Ursua were board members of the United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB) who allegedly allowed a March 1983 decision of a board of arbitrators to lapse.
This supposedly resulted to the siphoning off of P840 million to a company owned by Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, Jr.
In its decision, the SC First Division said there was a delay in the Ombudsman's preliminary investigation, which lasted for 8 years from February 12, 1990 when the complaint was filed, to October 9, 1998.
The court noted the Ombudsman exceeded the period for preliminary investigations, whether under Administrative Order No. 1, series of 2020, which sets the limit for the conduct of preliminary investigations to 12 months for simple cases and 24 months for complex cases or under previous cases decided by the Supreme Court limiting the period to 10 days.
“Consequently, the burden of proof shifted to petitioner Republic. However, petitioner Republic failed to discharge this burden, as petitioner Republic did not establish the delay was reasonable and justified. In particular, petitioner Republic did not prove that: (1) it followed the prescribed procedure in the conduct of preliminary examination and the prosecution of the case; (2) the complexity of the issues and the volume of evidence made the delay inevitable; and (3) no prejudice was suffered by the accused as a result of the delay,” it said.
While not one of the respondents invoked the right to speedy disposition of cases before the Ombudsman during the preliminary investigation stage, SC said “mere inaction” on the part of the accused “does not qualify as an intelligent waiver of their constitutionally guaranteed right to the speedy disposition of cases.”
“With this case pending for over 30 years and possibly more without the assurance of its resolution, the Court recognizes that the tactical disadvantages carried by the passage of time should be weighed against petitioner Republic and in favor of the respondents,” it said.
It added that if case were to be remanded for further proceedings, it would drag on and affect the accused’s ability to mount an effective defense: "Memories fade, documents and other exhibits can be lost and vulnerability of those who are tasked to decide increases with the passing of years."
BACKGROUND OF RULING
The criminal charges against Eduardo Cojuangco, Jr., Jose Eleazar, Jr., Maria Clara Lobregat and Augusto Orosa were however dismissed due to their deaths, as death extinguishes criminal liability, although the court left room separate civil actions to survive.
The complaint had accused Cojuangco of taking advantage of his close ties with then-President Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. by obtaining favorable decrees which benefited his personal and business interests.
In particular, the memorandum of agreement between Cojuangco’s private company, Agricultural Investors, Inc. (AII), was supposedly one-sided against the National Investment and Development Corporation (NIDC) because NIDC was obligated to promptly pay AII from the Coconut Industry Development Fund (CIDF) while AII was only required to exert best efforts to produce a target number of seednuts.
NIDC was also obligated to draw from the CIDF if it fails to perform its obligations.
After a series of changes to the administration of the funds, the CIDF was depleted and UCPB, as then-administrator, had to terminate its memorandum of agreeent with AII.
AII sued and won an arbitration ruling, which Cojuangco, Enrile and the others allegedly allowed to “lapse with finality,” which became the basis for the graft charges.
GIGI REYES RULING
The ruling dismissing the graft charges against Enrile and others was rendered by the same division which granted temporary liberty to his former aide Gigi Reyes by granting her writ of habeas corpus petition due to violation of her right to speedy trial.
Associate Justice Ramon Paul Hernando penned the Enrile ruling, with associate justices Rodil Zalameda, Mario Lopez, Ricardo Rosario and Jose Midas Marquez concurring.
The Reyes ruling, meanwhile, was only a resolution signed by a division clerk of court.
At a recent event, Hernando defended the Reyes ruling against allegations the Supreme Court created a new rule on habeas corpus, which was previously not available to petitioners who already have pending cases in court.
“It’s not actually a novel ruling at all because we relied on a 1924 case, actually Conde v. Rivera, where the then-SC held that the writ of habeas corpus can be resorted to for purposes of seeking provisional liberty where a person’s right to speedy trial has been violated,” he said.
“So it’s not really, nothing new in our statutes or jurisprudential books but is something that we developed because we set guidelines for granting the petition of Mrs. Reyes and among others, we ruled, that there should be, on the part of the accused, a consistent effort to invoke her right to a speedy trial. And in the case of Gigi she did that as early as 2017. She was detained in 2014,” he added.
Unlike the Reyes ruling however which only granted temporary freedom, Enrile’s case was ordered dismissed by the high court.