MANILA - The Court of Appeals (CA) has ordered the reinstatement of Ombudsman Special Prosecutor Wendell Barreras-Sulit who was sacked in 2013 by Malacañang for entering into a plea bargaining agreement (Plebara) with discharged Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia, former comptroller of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
In a 29-page decision by its Special 10th Division, dated July 22, 2016 and penned by Associate Justice Zenaida Galapate-Laguilles, the appellate court ordered Sulit's reinstatement as it ruled that the Office of the President committed an error in dismissing her.
"We grant the instant petition for review. The decision dated July 18, 2013 and resolution dated December 6, 2013 of the Office of the President (OP), dismissing Petitioner Wendell Barreras-Sulit from the service, are hereby Reversed and Set Aside," the ruling, concurred by Associate Justices Marlene Sison and Mario Lopez, read.
Garcia faced plunder raps after a lifestyle check revealed millions of pesos and properties in his name, including a unit at the Trump Plaza Condominium in New York. He was also slapped with a money laundering case and his and the rest of his family's assets were ordered frozen.
Sulit, in her capacity as Acting Deputy Special Prosecutor and officer-in-charge of the Office of the Special Prosecutor, signed the plea bargaining agreement with Garcia.
The plea bargain deal reduced Garcia's cases to direct bribery and facilitating money laundering; he admitted guilt to the lesser offenses and surrendered to the state P150 million in cash, real estate properties, and motor vehicles.
Sulit argued that "government stood to lose everything if the Plebara was not entered into" since the evidence against Garcia during the trial did not include the identity of the giver(s) of commissions, gifts, shares, percentages, kickbacks or other pecuniary benefits. This would lead to Garcia's eventual acquittal by the anti-graft court, according to Sulit.
In an administrative case against Sulit, which accused her of deliberately impairing the prosecution of Garcia, the OP found her guilty of betrayal of public trust and committing acts and/or omissions constituting graft and corruption.
The CA, however, ruled that the Plebara was lawful, contrary to Malacañang's finding that it was unlawfully executed, because Sulit's actions were under the direct supervision of then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and the deal was approved by the Sandiganbayan, Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) and the Office of the Solicitor General.
"The Plebara does not violate existing rules and jurisprudence. Plea bargaining in criminal cases is a process whereby the accused and the prosecution work out a mutually satisfactory disposition of the case subject to court approval... In our jurisdiction, Section 2, Rule 116 of the revised Rules of Court allows the accused to plea bargain provided the requisites stated therein are complied with," the decision read.
The appellate court also agreed with Sulit and the Ombudsman's position that the anti-graft office may enter into a plea bargain deal as provided for under Section 11 of the Ombudsman Act of 1989. The CA ruled that "[a]s the protector of the people, Sulit, with the approval of then Ombudsman Gutierrez, was the rightful person to give consent thereto not only in her capacity as the Special Prosecutor but also as a representative of the people."
"[C]onsidering that the Sandiganbayan approved the Plebara, the same demonstrates the said court's belief that the evidence of the people against [Garcia] is not sufficiently strong to convict... We believe that the Plebara was the outcome of a prudent, reasonable and practical evaluation of the cases against Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia, a solution that would best serve the interest of the nation and its people," the CA said.