Ombudsman hails win in ex-AFP general’s ill-gotten wealth case

The efforts of the Office of the Ombudsman to seize the ill-gotten wealth of former Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia has come full circle.

The turnover of ₱53.6 million in cash and forfeited land titles from Garcia to the Bureau of Treasury last week was also a vindication of sorts for Ombudsman Samuel Martires and Special Prosecutor Edilberto Sandoval, according to the Ombudsman in a press release.

Sandoval was then the presiding justice of the Sandiganbayan while Martires was among the three justices of the Sandiganbayan Special Second Division who approved Garcia’s plea bargaining agreement with the Ombudsman prosecutors in 2011.

Under the agreement, Garcia would plead guilty to committing a lesser offense of direct bribery and facilitating money laundering instead of standing trial for plunder.

The former military comptroller also agreed to hand over ₱135.4 million of his assets to the government.

The compromise agreement resulted in the filing of a complaint in the Department of Justice against Martires, Sandoval and then Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Teresita Baldos, who were accused of issuing an “unjust interlocutory order.”

The DOJ’s National Prosecution Service would eventually dismiss the complaint for lack of merit.

The Aquino administration had challenged the plea deal and led to the impeachment of then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez in the House of Representatives, subsequently prompting her to resign in May 2011 as the Senate was about to start her impeachment trial for betrayal of public trust.

On September 16, 2020, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the Sandiganbayan’s decision that greenlighted the agreement as it echoed the antigraft court’s position that the government prosecutors failed to present sufficient evidence that would warrant Garcia’s conviction for plunder.

In a 40-page ruling penned by Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, the high court unanimously concluded that the compromise deal “appears to be procedurally sound” and was consistent with the Rules of Court.

“Considering the prosecution’s failure to prove private respondent Garcia’s guilt for plunder and money laundering beyond reasonable doubt, respondent Sandiganbayan cannot be said to have gravely abused its discretion in approving the assailed plea bargaining agreement,” the high court ruled.

Interestingly, Leonen had initially opined that the plea deal was “void” when he testified during a Senate inquiry in 2011 as the then dean of the University of the Philippines’ College of Law.

Martires, who was publicly pilloried along with Sandoval and Baldos, said he was confident that their 2011 decision would stand the judicial scrutiny and review by his former colleagues in the judiciary as he maintained that they were just after the interest of the public in handling the case against Garcia.

“As what I have always told my fellow justices then, the time will surely come when the Holy Spirit will unfold the truth in this case,” Martires said.

“To my mind, the Supreme Court ruling was a vindication of our decision as it was penned by no less than the justice who previously said that the plea bargaining agreement was erroneous,” he said.

For his part, Sandoval is elated that their much-maligned decision has now borne fruit and brought additional revenues to the state coffers.

He also recalled that the administrative and criminal complaints filed against them in connection with the plea deal had been dismissed without them being required to submit a comment.

“The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that our decision allowing the plea bargaining agreement was legal, proper and valid,” Sandoval said.