MANILA (UPDATE) — The Supreme Court has acquitted former Agriculture secretary Arthur Yap of graft charges after finding that the Office of the Ombudsman has violated his right to speedy disposition of cases when it took more than 3 years to conclude its preliminary investigation.
In a 14-page ruling dated January 18, 2023, but made public only recently, the SC Third Division granted his petition and ordered the dismissal of charges against him.
In a statement, Yap expressed his gratitude to the Supreme Court for upholding his rights.
"I wish to thank the Supreme Court for upholding my rights. May others similarly placed be benefitted by the ruling as well," he said.
Yap was facing graft charges stemming from a car plan program of the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) for its employees.
As then-Agriculture secretary, he attended a PhilRice board of trustees meeting in November 2008 where the board approved the car plan program.
But it was only in January 2009 when an administrative order was signed by the then-executive director. The order detailed the rules for the implementation of the project.
Yap was no longer present in a subsequent meeting in June 2009 where the board determined the terms for financing the program — the car was to be mortgaged for 3 years to the Philippine National Bank which entered into a contract with PhilRice and its employees until full settlement of the selling price and interest.
The Ombudsman Field Investigation Office found that the approval of the program led to a “grossly and manifestly disadvantageous” scheme to the government because the hold out agreements (HDOs) allegedly constrained PhilRice to maintain its deposit account or keep a sufficient amount with PNB to guarantee the HDOs.
In September 2016, the Office of the Ombudsman found probable cause to charge Yap and several others with violation of sec. 3(e) and 3(g) of RA No. 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.
Sec. 3(e) penalizes causing injury to any party, including the Philippine government or giving unwarranted benefits to any private party through manifest partiality, evident bad faith or gross inexcusable negligence.
Sec. 3(g) on the other hand punishes entering, on behalf of the government, into a contract or transaction “manifestly and grossly disadvantageous” to the government.
The criminal cases were filed with the Sandiganbayan in September 2017.
Yap moved to quash the information raising, among others, the violation of his right to speedy disposition of cases but the anti-graft court denied it in 2018, prompting him to bring the case to the Supreme Court.
In acquitting Yap, the high court did not find the need to discuss the merits of the case.
Instead, the whole discussion centered on how Yap’s constitutional right to speedy disposition of cases was violated.
“It is readily apparent that the time taken by the Ombudsman to terminate the preliminary investigation in this case, i.e., three years, six months, and two days, substantially failed to meet the periods set by the Rules,” the court ruled, in a decision penned by SC Associate Justice Japar Dimaampao.
“The pronouncements of respondent Sandiganbayan (Sixth Division), as well as the OSP's [Office of the Special Prosecutor] own admission that such a period already excludes the time spent on fact-finding investigation speak volumes. Apart from averring that the period was reasonable considering that it allowed the investigating prosecutor to carefully evaluate the complaint and supporting documents, it is quite palpable that the prosecution miserably fell short of discharging its burden to justify the delay in contravention of the guidelines set in Cagang,” it explained.
Cagang is a 2018 SC case which laid down the parameters for determining “inordinate delay” in right to speedy disposition or right to speedy trial cases.
- The period for fact-finding investigations are not included in determining delay. The case starts from the filing of a formal complaint.
- If the right is invoked within the period for the Ombudsman to issue a ruling, the burden is proof is on party invoking the right. Beyond that, the prosecution has the burden of justifying the delay.
- Context should be considered in determining the length of delay as it is not a mechanical act.
- The rights should be timely raised.
Aside from finding the 3-year period for terminating the Ombudsman’s preliminary investigation too long, the high court found Yap “invoked his right to speedy disposition of cases at the earliest opportunity.”
“Although delay is not to be determined solely from the length of time taken for the conduct of the preliminary investigation, a long delay is inordinate unless the Office of the Ombudsman suitably justifies it. The courts must take unusually long periods into careful consideration when determining whether inordinate delay exists for otherwise, the Constitutionally guaranteed right to speedy disposition of cases would be reduced to nothing but an illusory promise,” it said.
Dimaampao’s fellow justices at the Third Division — Associate Justices Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa, Henri Jean Paul Inting, Samuel Gaerlan, and Maria Filomena Singh — concurred with the ruling.
The dismissal of the graft charges against Yap due to a violation of the right to speedy disposition of cases follows the dismissal of graft charges against chief presidential legal counsel Juan Ponce Enrile on the same ground in January 16 this year.
Enrile’s graft case stemmed from the 1983 coco levy fund arbitration ruling.
The SC First Division ruled 8 years is too long for a preliminary investigation in a case that has lasted more than 30 years.