The PCSO case: so brazen, so ruthless

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The charges against former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo involving Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office funds represent the most ruthless move of President Benigno Aquino III to persecute his predecessor, one that brazenly mocks our justice system.

Given that Mrs. Arroyo’s health has deteriorated drastically in the past months that an attending doctor diagnosed her condition as life-threatening, the arrest warrant recently issued against her points to a diabolical plot: a murderous one. Have we come to this?

Consider the sequence of events. The plunder case was first filed early this year by Red Party legal-arena cadres Neri Colmenares and Teodoro Casiño as well as by Aquino’s agitprop operatives, Akbayan’s flood queen Risa Hontiveros and former coup plotter and now customs official Danilo Lim. The basis of their allegations? The unproven, playing-to-the-gallery allegations made in the 2011 Senate hearings. The complainants’ sole “corroborative” witness is in fact Antonina Barros, head of the Senate’s records and archives division.

The Ombudsman’s panel of investigators initially concluded that the charge cannot be plunder but only violation of the Anti-Graft Law (which is “bailable”) because the complainants did not even note, much less provided any evidence, that at least P50 million—the minimum amount required by the plunder law—was stolen by the accused. (The plunder law’s requirement, which was complied with in former President Joseph Estrada’s case, is that the accused is proven not only to have stolen government money but also that the funds ended up in his possession, i.e., bank accounts.)

The P366 million the complainants alleged were “plundered” simply made up the amount reported in PCSO books—and audited by the Commission on Audit—from 2008 to 2010 as the agency’s “Confidential/Intelligence Funds,” a specific type of budget allocation nearly all government entities have, and authorized by numerous administrative orders, COA circulars, and budget department memoranda. In the PCSO’s case, these were used for such diverse activities as countering sweepstakes scams and jueteng operations as well as for expenses for the emergency medical needs of indigents. The complainants did not even dare to claim how much of that was illegally diverted by the accused.

But the republic’s Chief Executive has become both prosecutor and judge. When Arroyo in July was freed on bail on a clearly trumped-up electoral sabotage case, he angrily told the press: “But there is a pending case for plunder, and plunder is not bailable.”  A few weeks later Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales—who had shamelessly distorted bank data in the impeachment trial to falsely claim that the then chief justice had $10 million in bank accounts—toed Aquino’s line and reversed her own panel’s recommendation, and ordered instead the filing of the nonbailable plunder charge.

When the Sandiganbayan this week issued the arrest warrants, Aquino immediately became a judge, saying that the cases were “strong and took time to prepare.” Did he really read the complaints?

What also makes the charge such a brazen disregard for our rule of law is the inclusion of former COA chair Reynaldo Villar and his auditor in charge of the PCSO, Nilda Plaras. Why were they included in the case, which will put them in jail until it is resolved, which will probably take years? Because they did not find anything wrong not only with Arroyo’s authorization of the release of the PCSO intelligence funds but also with the funds’ disbursement. But the Ombudsman did not even provide an iota of evidence that the COA officials had connived with the accused PCSO officials in clearing their use of the confidential funds.

The COA is one of the three independent constitutional commissions, and it is tasked by the Constitution as the sole authority that determines the accuracy and legality of government expenditures. There has never been a case in which the findings of the COA have been questioned or reversed. The Ombudsman and the Sandiganbayan have in effect disregarded this constitutional provision.

I cannot imagine how Morales, Hontiveros, Lim, Casiño and Colmenares can sleep at night knowing that they are putting in jail innocent people, several of whom are nearing their late 60s, including an ailing ex-President.

The case against her? That she approved the funds’ release, which she is authorized to do, even as the funds’ actual disposition is obviously beyond her responsibilities. Going by the Ombudsman’s logic, Aquino and other past Philippine presidents, department heads, police and military chiefs are all liable for plunder if ever a peso of such funds they approve to be released is proven to have been pocketed by anyone.

We cannot usher in an era of good governance through immoral, cruel shortcuts and by trampling on our values of justice and fairness. It is such a sad, sad commentary on us as a people that we have been mesmerized by the Yellow Cult that we are not shocked at this modern version of the medieval burning at the stake of the persecuted.

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The black square replacing my photo represents my protest against Aquino’s cybercrime law, which I hope my editors will maintain until the Supreme Court finally rules it unconstitutional. I hope my opinion-writing colleagues will join me in this protest form.

Someone who identified himself as “Darwin” had earlier alerted me on the impact of the cybercrime law, but who, I am convinced, is with Malacañang’s cyber prop unit. “Darwin” posted in the “Feedback” section of my Sept. 27 column: “Tiglao’s articles are libelous. According to the new Cyber Bill Law, the government could sue him and potentially give him 10-12 years in prison.”  I hope I can identify this yellow fascist someday.