Court upholds Garcia plea bargain deal

MANILA, Philippines - Voting 4-1, justices of the Sandiganbayan Special Second Division on Wednesday, April 10, affirmed the validity of the plea bargain agreement signed in February 2010 by former military comptroller retired Maj. Gen. Carlos F. Garcia and the Office of the Ombudsman.

The case against Garcia, whose sons were arrested in 2003 at a US airport for smuggling dollars, exposed systemic corruption in the miltary and eventually led to a restructuring of the institution's financial units.

The bargain deal allowed Garcia, his wife Clarita, and sons Ian Carl, Juan Paulo and Timothy Mark to walk away from plunder charges in exchange for his pleading guilty to lesser offenses of direct bribery and facilitating money laundering. 

It triggered ouster calls against then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, an appointee of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. She was impeached by the House of Representatives for hammering out an agreement that various sectors said betrayed public interest.

She quit in May 2011, a few days before the Senate was to start her impeachment trial.

President Benigno Aquino III also called for the nullification of the plea bargain deal, thus the move of the Office of the Solicitor Genera (OSG) to intervene in the case. Vice President Jejomar Binay, however, asked him to reconsider his position. (Read: Binay lobbied for general charged with plunder)

In its its 73-page Joint Resolution on Wednesday, the graft court junked with finality the petition of the OSG.

The resolution had to be submitted to a special division of five justices after the 3 regular members of the Second Division failed to reach unanimity as Associate Justice Oscar C. Herrera Jr. dissented from the majority opinion penned by Associate Justice Samuel R. Martires, which was concurred in by Associate Justice Teresita V. Diaz-Baldos.

As required under the Sandiganbayan rules, Associate Justices Roland B. Jurado and Alex L. Quiroz were appointed to sit with the regular members and both agreed with the majority opinion.

The court has not yet set a date for Garcia’s sentencing on the lesser charges. 

The decision came 7 days after the Supreme Court gave Garcia's predecessor - former military comptroller Jacinto Ligot - a reprieve as it lifted a 2005 freeze order on his assets amounting to P54-M. (Read: SC lifts freeze order on general's P54-M assets)

Weak evidence

In its ruling on the Garcia case, the Sandiganbayan said: “…(T)he evidence of the prosecution did not translate into proof beyond reasonable doubt that inescapably compelled the Court to ultimately give its imprimatur to the Plea Bargaining Agreement entered into between the Office of the Ombudsman and the accused Maj. Gen. Garcia."

Protesting “deprecatory remarks and malicious imputations” hurled against it after approving the plea bargain on May 9, 2011, the Second Division appealed to its critics to “open their minds” and understand that its decision was based solely on evidence submitted to it by the prosecution. 

“…Emphasis should be repeatedly made that even before the Court ordered the accused to convey his properties to the Government, it had already made the collective conclusion that the evidence offered by the prosecution was inefficient or inadequate to render a judgment of conviction for Plunder,” it added.

Based on the Feb 25, 2010 plea bargaining agreement, the Sandiganbayan ordered various banks, the Armed Forces and Police Savings and Loans Association Inc., municipal and city Registry of Deeds, and the Land Transportation Office to turn over all assets listed by Garcia amounting to P135.43 million.

The list included P52.51 million cash from various bank deposits; P21.27 million worth of real estate properties located in the country and the P43.15 million Trump condominium in New York, USA; 7 motor vehicles with a total assessed value of P4.42 million; and proceeds of two bank accounts in the US totaling P13.85 million.

Garcia then withdrew his Not Guilty to the plunder charge and pleaded guilty to lesser offenses of bribery and facilitating money laundering on Dec 16, 2010.

On May 9, 2011, the graft court approved the plea bargain deal, saying it was satisfied with Garcia’s compliance by the turnover of assets he has listed and overruled for lack of merit the request of OSG to intervene in the case and challenge the legality and propriety of Garcia’s deal with the Ombudsman.

The court said it could have upheld the Garcia deal when it was first submitted in February 2010 but decided to withhold approval to protect the interest of the State by first ensuring full compliance by the accused as to his commitments to surrender assets.

“…(T)he Court first saw to it that the conveyance of real and personal property be first made or completed before the plea bargaining agreement will be approved or before the accused will be allowed to change his plea,” it pointed out.

Explanation

Likewise, it clarified that the court thought it best to defer making pronouncements as to the strength or weakness of the prosecution evidence when it ordered Garcia’s assets returned to the government. This was to ensure that the details of the plea bargain would be observed to the letter.

The Sandiganbayan explained that had it made a determination on the insufficiency of the prosecution’s evidence at the time, Garcia could have withdrawn from the deal or his wife and children could have revoked the special powers of attorneys they earlier executed to allow him to enter into such deal.

The court noted that the bulk of the properties surrendered to the government were not in Garcia’s name but in the names of his wife and sons.

It stressed that Garcia could have opted to see the trial to its conclusion in which case he would have been acquitted and “walk(ed) free without the government recovering a piece of property from him.”

The deal set Garcia free - albeit temporarily.

It took Garcia's own organization, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, to put him back in jail in September 2011, because he violated a longstanding military rule. He was a US green card holder when he was still in active service, and he failed to declare all his assets.

Garcia is now serving time in the New Bilibid Prisons in Muntinlupa; it's a two-year jail term. - Rappler.com