Napoles, Revilla staff can't plunder alone – dissenting justices

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 7) — Two Sandiganbayan justices find it hard to believe that former Senator Ramon "Bong" Revilla Jr. is innocent of plunder in the controversial pork barrel scam.

Associate Justices Efren Dela Cruz and Maria Theresa Gomez-Estoesta dissented from the anti-graft court's decision that acquitted Revilla on Friday. The court convicted Revilla's co-accused, alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles and Revilla's staff Richard Cambe.

The 186-page decision of Sandiganbayan's first division ruled that there is "not a single direct evidence" that proved that Revilla pocketed millions of pesos from his Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) – but said it is "morally certain" that Napoles and Cambe conspired to commit the crime.

Dela Cruz, who initially penned a decision convicting all three accused, said this could not be possible, noting that Napoles, a businesswoman, and Cambe, a legislative aid, have no access to Revilla's PDAF.

"Revilla is a seasoned senator. He is not naive to allow Napoles and Cambe to solely steer the course of a PDAF," Dela Cruz said.

"In the context of the surrounding circumstances, I find it extremely hard to believe that this scam of such magnitude was confined only within the realm of Napoles and Cambe to the exclusion of Revilla," he added.

Dela Cruz's original ponencia was dissented to by Associate Justices Geraldine Econg and Edgardo Caldona, resulting in a 2-2 vote. This forced the anti-graft court's first division to create a special division of five justices to break the impasse. Econg penned the final decision.

The Sandiganbayan decision gave weight to the testimony of Desiderio Pagui, a handwriting expert, that Revilla's signatures on endorsement letters for the release of his pork funds to fake nongovernment organizations - were forged. It said this destroys any possible paper trail to prove the crime.

Gomez-Estoesta admitted that the lone testimonies of whistleblowers Benhur Luy and Merlina Suñas are "concededly not potent to establish the fact that" Revilla authorized Cambe to receive commissions, rebates, and kickbacks and hand the money over to him.

She said it's just understandable that the prosecution failed to find documents that would show Revilla authorized Cambe to receive money in his behalf. "Conspiracy only thrives in secrecy," she said.

Dela Cruz said the lack of direct evidence "does not altogether disprove of his non-receipt thereof." "The Court may resort to circumstantial evidence," he added.

How about Revilla's wealth?

The dissenting judges questioned why the Sandiganbayan decision "disparaged as not conclusive" a report by the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) that Revilla and his immediate family members made numerous bank deposits to their bank accounts totaling P87.26 million from 2006 to 2010. Dela Cruz noted that the transactions were made within 30 days form the dates mentioned by Luy when Revilla received rebates through Cambe.

"The accused never even attempted to debunk the findings of AMLC in his own defense. He simply wallowed in his own defense of denial and forgery. Why should the majority opinion now take the cudgels for him?" Gomez-Estoesta said.

She said the "irrefutable burgeoning wealth" of Revilla is the "end-all" of the PDAF controversy.

She also said it was odd for the court to still order Revilla to return P124.5 million to the government as civil liability.

"It only goes to say therefore, that since all three accused were made to answer for the same civil liability, the source of the accumulation of wealth as found in the criminal liability should only be the same," she said. Revilla's lawyers, however, said he is now excluded from the requirement because of his acquittal.

Econg said she and the other justices only ruled based on the evidence and the lack thereof.

"It's an unpopular decision. I would have loved to be a heroine, that I convicted him, but at the end of the day we are bound to rule based on the evidence," Econg said in a statement.

Malacañang, meanwhile, said the ruling was a product of an independent judiciary.

"Regardless of the sentiments to the contrary, we have to bow down to the judgement of the Sandiganbayan," Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said in a statement.