By Rey Panaligan
The Supreme Court (SC) has reversed the Sandiganbayan as it ordered the dismissal of the P13.3 million malversation charges filed against Sergio O. Valencia, former chairman of the board of directors of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO).
In a decision written by the now retired Associate Justice Mariano C. del Castillo, the SC granted the demurrer to evidence filed by Valencia, in connection with the alleged illegal and fraudulent release, withdrawal, and disbursement of PCSO’s confidential and intelligence fund (CIF) from 2007 to 2010.
On April 6, 2015, the Sandiganbayan granted Valencia’s demurrer to evidence, as far as his plunder case was concerned, since the charge involved only P13.3 million which was below the P50-million threshold for plunder.
But the anti-graft court, in the same resolution, ruled that there was sufficient evidence to convict Valencia of malversation under Article 217 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC).
Case records showed that in July and December 2011, two complaints for plunder, malversation and graft were filed against several members of the PCSO board and other officials led by former President and then House Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
On July 10, 2012, the Office of the Ombudsman filed with the Sandiganbayan plunder charges against them.
In the case of Arroyo and Benigno Aguas, former PCSO budget and accounts manager, they elevated the Sandiganbayan’s denial of their demurrer to evidence before the SC which ruled in their favor.
The SC also ruled in favor of Arroyo and Aguas on the issue regarding the sufficiency of the allegations in the information (criminal charge sheet) for plunder as to include the crime of malversation.
The unfavorable Sandiganbayan ruling prompted Valencia to elevate the issue before the SC.
He said “the crime of plunder cannot be downgraded to the crime of malversation as the latter is not included in the former” and “there was no sufficient evidence to hold him liable for malversation.”
A demurrer to evidence is a motion filed by an accused in a case to dismiss the charges on allegation that the prosecution’s evidence is not sufficient to render a guilty verdict.
In granting Valencia’s demurrer to evidence and, in effect, ordering his acquittal on charges of malversation, the SC used as basis its July 19, 2016 decision in the case of Arroyo and Aguas.
The SC’s Arroyo-Aguas decision, written by then associate justice, now Chief Justice Lucas P. Bersamin, ordered the dismissal of the plunder case filed against them. In the case of Mrs. Arroyo, she was ordered immediately release from detention at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center in Quezon City.
In an 11-4 vote, the SC ruled there was insufficient evidence to pin down Mrs. Arroyo and Aguas on plunder involving PCSO funds.
It said the prosecution failed to prove that there was conspiracy between Mrs. Arroyo and the other persons charged in the cases and there was no proof that the former President and Aguas amassed ill-gotten wealth of at least P50 million which is the “corpus delicti” of plunder.
“There was also no evidence, testimonial or otherwise, presented by the prosecution showing even the remotest possibility that the CIFs of the PCSO had been diverted to either GMA or Aguas…,” the decision pointed out.
On April 18, 2017, the SC denied the motion for reconsideration filed by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) and addressed the issue raised in the motion: “Even assuming that the elements of plunder were not proven beyond reasonable doubt, the evidence presented by the People established at least a case for malversation against Arroyo and Aguas.”
The SC ruled:
“In thereby averring the predicate act of malversation, the State did not sufficiently allege the aforementioned essential elements of malversation in the information. The omission from the information of factual details descriptive of the aforementioned elements of malversation highlighted the insufficiency of the allegations. Consequently, the State’s position is entirely unfounded.”
In the case of Valencia, the SC said that the ruling (in Arroyo-Aguas) “squarely applies in the instant petition since one of the issues raised in the latter is the denial of petitioner’s constitutional right to due process.”
The SC said:
“He (Valencia) asserts that he cannot be held liable for malversation in view of the insufficiency of the allegations of its elements in the information. It is well to note that the Information subject of the aforementioned cases of Arroyo and Aguas is the very same information under scrutiny in the present case wherein petitioner is their co-accused and where all the incidental matters stemmed and had their origin.
“Hence, there is no reason not to apply the afore-quoted ruling in the present petition since it has reached its finality, per Entry of Judgment, on May 30, 2017.
“We are therefore not free to disregard it in any related case which involves closely similar factual evidence.
Otherwise, we would jettison the doctrine of immutability of final judgment and, further, obviate the possibility of rendering conflicting rulings on the same set of facts and circumstances in the same information.
“It is therefore apparent that in denying petitioner’s Demurrer to Evidence and ruling that there was sufficient evidence to hold him liable for malversation despite the lack of specific allegations of the factual details pertaining to the crime of malversation in the information, respondent Sandiganbayan is said to have gravely abused its discretion amounting to lack of jurisdiction.”