Maria Ressa pleads not guilty to 5th tax case

Embattled journalist Rappler CEO Maria Ressa pleaded not guilty to her 5th tax case during an arraignment hearing at the Pasig Regional Trial Court (RTC) on Wednesday, July 22.

Ressa was arraigned by Pasig RTC Branch 157 Judge Ana Teresa Cornejo-Tomacruz on Wednesday morning, still in a court pandemic setting where only one lawyer for the accused was allowed to enter the courtroom.

This case is for alleged violation of Section 255 of the tax code or failure to supply correct information related to Rappler's VAT return for the 2nd quarter of 2015. It involves an amount of P294,258.58, which is why it is the only tax case against Ressa and Rappler not handled by the Court of Tax Appeals (CTA). LIST: Cases vs Maria Ressa, Rappler directors, staff since 2018)

There's a general rule in the CTA, which the previous Pasig judge upheld, that says the tax court has jurisdiction over cases that involve a minimum of P1 million only.

Judge Tomacruz was appointed presiding Judge hence she took over Branch 157 of former pairing Judge Yson.

The other 4 tax cases against Rappler and Ressa are on trial at the CTA.

The tax cases stem from the root case involving Rappler's Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDR). The working theory of the prosecution is that the issuance of PDRs by RHC is subject to income tax and VAT.

At the CTA, Rappler and Ressa face 3 more counts of violations of Section 255 for the Income Tax Return (ITR) in 2015, and VAT returns for the 3rd and 4th quarters of 2015. The 4th case at the CTA is for tax evasion.

Rappler has repeatedly argued that PDRs are not taxable income, and that charges do not hold water since Rappler has not been proven to be a dealer in securities – an assertion that the Department of Justice (DOJ) anchors its case on.

These legal arguments had been raised before with Judge Yson who denied the motion to quash on March 16.

Amended charge sheet

According to Ressa, the charge sheet was amended during the hearing to include Rappler Holdings Corporation as her co-accused, calling it a "formal amendment." She still pleaded not guilty.

The information that was filed in October 2018 included Ressa only, according to the veteran journalist.

Ressa's counsel objected to the last minute amendment and argued that adding an accused to the information was substantial – and not a mere formal amendment – and affects due process for accused Ressa and RHC. But the court disagreed and ruled it is merely a formal finding and that RHC participated in the preliminary investigation before the justice department.

Ressa’s counsel also questioned the timing of the amendment as this was done just right before her arraignment.

"I was arraigned on an information that included someone else, it's almost like if I'm being charged of child abuse, and the prosecution said let me include someone else. It's weird, I'm not a lawyer, but it just seems strange," said Ressa.

In a recent speech, President Rodrigo Duterte called Ressa a "fraud" and said he was "compiling" information against the journalist.

Ressa said she will face those threats as she has faced her list of charges.

"If I don't get justice now, I'll get it later, these charges are politically-motivated, they are meant to harass, intimidate, to try to make us afraid to keep reporting. The best response to it is to keep reporting," Ressa said.

Other cases

The 6th and 7th cases against Ressa are for alleged violations of the securities code and anti-dummy law, which are still based on the PDR theory. The two charges, which include members of Rappler's 2016 board aside from Ressa, have been halted because a Pasig judge wanted prosecutors to reinvestigate the violation of due process.

The 8th criminal complaint against Ressa is another one for cyber libel filed by Wilfredo Keng at the Makati RTC, involving a tweet on the same Rappler article that got her and former researcher writer Reynaldo Santos Jr convicted.

Ressa and Santos have filed a partial motion for reconsideration for their cyber libel conviction before the Manila RTC.

The mother case, an administrative case on Rappler's PDR, is still pending review by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). SEC's previous shutdown order against Rappler is still hanging in the balance. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

image