Ombudsman Morales: All bark, no bite

Maybe there’s a reason why the porkbarrel indicted senators are still smiling.

For all her bluster, President Aquino’s handpicked anti-graft official, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, hasn’t won any case she has filed at the Sandiganbayan since she assumed the post in July 2011.

And given the Sandiganbayan’s snail pace in resolving cases, Morales is likely to be in cozy retirement in her 80s when the anti-graft court convicts or absolves these first senators ever to be tried for corruption.

Carpio-Morales’ underperformance is all the more glaring since she filed a lot of cases in the past two years—a total of 1,432 “criminal informations.”

The anti-graft body even boasted in a recent press release: “In the Sandiganbayan alone, 961 informations were filed in 2013, which is the highest in the last 18 years and double than the 2012 figures.”

But filing of criminal informations is just one stage before the Sandiganbayan actually takes up the cases and issues its warrants of arrest. Using the Sandiganbayan’s own data, that its pending cases increased only from 2,164 in 2008 to 2,239 in 2012, the anti-graft court has probably taken up to be tried probably merely a fifth, at most, 100 of the Ombudsman’s cases.

“They’re just filing a lot of garbage with us, that many here are getting sick of it,” said a source at the Sandiganbayan, the anti-graft court. “Some are even suspecting all these might be extortion plots,” he said smiling, “if you know what I mean.”

As if timed to emphasize that her bark is really much worse than her bite, consider one of Morales’ high profile cases, that against former agriculture secretary Luis Ramon “Cito” Lorenzo and five of his officials at the Quedan and Rural Credit Corp.

This case was dismissed on the same day she filed with a lot of fanfare her pork-barrel cases against senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, and Ramon Revilla, Jr., and about a dozen other people.

The Sandiganbayan’s decision was quite harsh against the Ombudsman, labeling the case speculative, and even implying that the prosecutor was ignorant of government procurement regulations.

The Sandiganbayan dismissed the case againsnt Lorenzo so fast—it was filed only July last year—that it was viewed in legal circles as a humiliation of the Ombudsman.

Sources said it was a message that the anti-graft court has become sick and tired of the current Ombudsman burdening it with weak cases, which were merely filed to boost the Aquino administration’s flagging “anti-corruption” image.

In fact, Ombudsman Carpio-Morales in the past three years has been on a relentless propaganda campaign. Her office has been regularly issuing press releases to portray that she’s been winning at the Sandiganbayan—when the cases were those filed years before her term, as early as 1995.

For example, its most recent press release issued last week boasted: “The Office of the Ombudsman secured the conviction of a former mayor for unlawfully paying 1,500 bags of cement worth P247,500.” That case was filed by the Ombudsman’s Office in August 2002, or nine years before Morales stepped into this office.

Another of the Ombudsman’s press releases on Feb. 24, 2014 said: “Sandiganbayan Convicts Mindoro Ex-Gov.” That case was filed in 1997, or 17 years ago. It goes on and on.

Among the 21 cases the Sandiganbayan listed on its website as having been decided in 2013 and 2014, all except one were filed before Morales’ watch. Six of the cases were filed in the 1990s.

The single case that the Ombudsman under Morales won involved a Nueva Ecija mayor who was proven not to have actually solemnized a marriage, and therefore technically falsified public documents.

His conviction, for a fine of P5,000, would bar him from holding any public position. The complainant? His political enemy, the vice-mayor.

The next two years would give Ombudsman Carpio-Morales a small window to show that it is not entirely her fault that she is failing to win any cases at the Sandiganbayan.

But the fact of the matter is that our justice system moves so slowly, that many of the accused die of natural causes in their twilight years. Indeed, the Sandiganbayan in many cases wasted its time in court hearings in which lawyers merely presented the official death certificate of the accused so that the case could be officially dismissed.

It takes the Sandiganbayan an average of nine years to resolve a case, according to a September 2013 World Bank study on our justice system, the slowest among the higher courts that include the Supreme Court (1.9 years), the Court of Appeals (2.3), and Court of Tax Appeals (2.1).

The plunder case of former President Joseph Estrada took six years, from April 2001 to September 2007. Take note, however, that this case had full-time private prosecutors in hearings before a full-time, special division of the Sandiganbayan.

In the pork-barrel cases, there are 45 charges against a dozen accused, which will be tried by the court’s regular divisions.

How many cases is the Sandiganbayan handling now? It cannot suspend hearings on these cases; otherwise it could be accused of selective implementation of our justice system.

The answer: about 2,400 cases. This means a current workload of 480 per division.

The caseload of the Sandiganbayan has been increasing and will continue to do so, from 1,674 in 2008 to 2,299 in 2012, to this estimate of 2,400 cases. This is based on the court’s data that it handles 135 new cases a year and is able to decide only on about 84, on average.

Former Chief Justice Panganiban in his newspaper column says: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused are entitled to bail as a matter of right before conviction, except those charged with offenses punishable with reclusion perpetua or life imprisonment “when the evidence of guilt is strong.”

If I read him right, it could mean that the three senators could argue that they should be allowed bail if they can prove that the evidence of guilt isn’t strong. This despite the fact that “plunder” officially is a non-bailable offense.

This is most unfortunate for Benhur Luy and the other whistleblowers, for despite the national attention this case has generated, this will be another one that Ombudsman Morales won’t be winning. Luy and company will go the tragic way of other whistleblowers who all would be forgotten once the next administration rolls into place.

National media will soon tire of the issue and the boring technicalities of a trial—be riveted instead to the election campaigns for 2016. Enrile will be allowed house arrest, to live a quiet life in his Dasmariñas Village home or even in his vast ranch in his home province.

Estrada and Revilla will almost certainly run again for public office in 2016, portraying themselves as the poor victims of the vengeful haciendero President.

Without an effective justice system, any claim to rid our society of graft is sheer braggadocio, a sham, or just, as more and more believe, outright political persecution.