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Defining plunder: SC asked to rule on basic issue

NY public officer who, by himself or in connivance with members of his family, relatives by affinity or consanguinity, business associates, or other persons, amasses, accumulates, or acquires ill-gotten wealth through a combination or series of overt criminal acts as described in Section 1(d) hereof in the aggregate amount or total value of at least fifty million pesos shall be guilty of the crime of plunder…”

This definition in Section 2 of RA 7080, An Act Defining and Penalizing the Crime of Plunder, is at the center of a legal issue raised by the counsel of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the effort to get the Sandiganbayan to approve her petition for bail.

In its ruling rejecting the petition, the Sandiganbayan pointed out that former President Arroyo signed and thus authorized the release of P357 million for confidential or intelligence funds requested by the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO).

The former president’s counsel, former Solicitor General Estelito Mendoza, however, stressed that she only signed and thus authorized the release of the funds. There is no evidence that she got even a peso from the P357 million.

“If one does not amass, accumulate, and acquire ill-gotten wealth, there is no plunder,” Mendoza said, quoting the plunder law.

Some opposition quarters have pointed out that this legal issue on what constitutes plunder may be raised in the case of the big amounts released under the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), for which Secretary of Budget and Management Florencio Abad and Undersecretary Mario Relampagos have been charged by the Ombudsman. In one Senate hearing, Secretary Abad, defending himself, said all the DAP fund releases were signed by President Aquino.

The Ombudsman excluded President Aquino from the DAP charges, saying the allegations on DAP fund releases were not impeachable charges. They might be raised if charges are filed later in court during the next administration, but the question raised in the Arroyo bail petition might apply in his case.

There is no evidence that President Aquino benefited from the DAP fund releases; he merely signed and authorized their release. Just as there is no evidence that President Arroyo benefitted from the PCSO fund release; she merely signed and authorized it, according to her counsel.

Counsel Mendoza has now gone to the Supreme Court, charging that the Sandiganbayan, in rejecting Arroyo’s plea for bail because she signed the release, redefined the crime of plunder as it is now expressly provided in RA 7080. The graft court’s action could set a dangerous precedent unless the Supreme Court reverses it, he said.