Getting away with plunder

The acquittal last week of former Senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla, Jr., and his alleged accomplices’ being found guilty and sentenced to the mandatory penalty for plunder of reclusion perpetua (20 to 30 years’ imprisonment) has understandably raised doubts over the justice of the decision. Two of the five associate justices of the Sandiganbayan’s First Division that tried the case are even questioning the majority opinion.

Among the questions that have been raised is why, if Revilla is indeed innocent, he is being ordered to return at least part of the P124.5 million in pork barrel funds pocketed by his alleged accomplices, and if his former chief of staff who has been convicted of the offense could have done it on his own and without Revilla’s approval and even instigation.

But what is more at issue is what the outcome of this case — and of others like it — says about how ineffective the law has been, and why. This is specially relevant today, when a selected few so handily escape prosecution — or, even when already convicted, elude arrest and punishment. In sharp contrast, government critics are routinely arrested and detained on the most ludicrous charges based on planted evidence and the scripted testimonies of “witnesses.”

The Philippine plunder law, Republic Act 7080, mandates reclusion perpetua to death for those convicted of plunder, plus permanent disqualification from holding public office. It defines plunder as an act or combination of acts by a public officer and the members of his family, his relatives, business associates, subordinates, friends or other persons through which he “amasses or acquires ill-gotten wealth” from the misuse of public funds amounting to at least P50 million.

Signed into law in 1991 by then President Corazon Aquino, its enactment was driven by her administration’s realization that the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act (RA 3019) and similar laws were not enough to prevent a repetition of the immense corruption that put the Marcos regime in the Guinness Book of World Records for committing the “Greatest Robbery of Government.” (The 1986 civilian and military mutiny known as EDSA 1 had overthrown that kleptocracy only five years earlier.) Consolidated later into RA 7080, the Senate version of the plunder bill was filed by the late Senator Jovito Salonga, while Congresswoman Lorna Yap filed the House version.

The filing of the first plunder charge was somewhat encouraging, but as the years passed, the results lent validity to the view that there is a double standard of justice at work in these isles of gross inequality and worse injustice.

In the first case of its kind, a cashier of the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) and six of her co-workers were accused of diverting to their private accounts some P260 million in taxes. The cashier and four of her accomplices were found guilty, and sentenced to reclusion perpetua, with the cashier being meted out two consecutive terms. The cashier is still serving her sentence.

At about the same time in 2001, the plunder charge against ousted President Joseph Estrada and seven others including his son Jinggoy raised hopes that a justice system truly blind to social class, power, and wealth had come into being, or was at least in the process of developing. Those hopes were soon dashed to pieces by subsequent developments.

It took six years for Estrada to be convicted in September 2007 of pocketing the equivalent of $80 million while he was President, and sentenced to the mandatory 20 to 30 years in prison. But barely a month later, he was pardoned by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, his erstwhile rival who had replaced him as President in 2001. Despite the accessory prohibition in his plunder conviction against his ever serving in government, he ran again for President of the Republic in 2010, and later, in 2013, for Mayor of Manila, a post he won, still holds, and will again contest in 2019.

In 2012, Arroyo became the second Philippine President to be accused of plunder. Together with seven Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) and two Commission on Audit (CoA) officials, she was accused of misusing P366 million in PCSO funds. But Arroyo was acquitted by the Supreme Court in 2016. Making a miraculous recovery from an array of illnesses she claimed she was suffering from during the pendency of her case, she has since become a congresswoman and Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Revilla has been acquitted, but two other former senators are still facing plunder charges in connection with the pork barrel scandal of 2013: Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada and Juan Ponce Enrile. Enrile is out on bail and running again for senator, while Estrada has expressed confidence that, like Revilla, he too will be acquitted.

RA 7080’s record so far in stopping and preventing corruption is not encouraging. It invites comparisons with the way other seemingly well-intentioned laws and government issuances have been as ineffective, and in some instances have even enhanced and encouraged the very practices they were supposed to stop or prevent.

The acquittals, pardons and dismissals of plunder cases have hardened the prevalent culture of impunity, in which wrong-doers who are powerful, wealthy, and well-connected escape punishment. The law is hardly convincing as a deterrent to the corruption that has metastasized throughout government.

Among the laws that have generated outcomes contrary to their intentions is the Party List Act (RA 7941). Meant to correct the non-representation of marginalized groups in a government that has always been dominated by a few families, it has been so perverted in practice that it has become just another means for the dynasts, local despots, and warlords in control of long-established political parties to harden their dominance in Congress.

Although not a law but a Duterte Executive Order, the Freedom of Information Program of July 2016 is another example among many. It has become another means for government offices under the executive branch to restrict the release of information they hold. Some Police Districts, for example, now require the filing of applications before journalists can look at police blotters, thus making even such government-held information that is usually publicly available difficult to access.

Among the key questions that must be asked about Philippine laws and even executive orders are, for example, why the plunder law has become a means of getting away with plunder, why many of the party-list groups in Congress represent vested interests, and why Executive Order No. 2 has become another form of restricting access to information rather than making it easier.

The answer lies in the character of the political oligarchy — the bureaucrat capitalists — that rule this rumored democracy. Focused entirely on keeping and enhancing their power for no purpose worthier than self-aggrandizement, they are the first to claim they are for change but are actually the least committed to that imperative. (Even Ferdinand Marcos claimed he wanted to “save the Republic and reform society” while he was destroying both.)

Because they have the power themselves as well as indirectly through their surrogates and captives in the civilian and military bureaucracy, it is they who ultimately decide how laws are interpreted and implemented. They are the true enemies of the very State to whose protection they pretend to be dedicated, and on behalf of which they steal and lie and kill with impunity.

The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

Published in Business World
Dec. 13, 2018 

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