In June 2014, then Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. was arrested for his alleged involvement in the misuse of P517 million of his Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), more commonly known as the pork barrel fund allotted to each member of Congress.
The charge against him, filed by the Office of the Ombudsman in the Sandiganbayan, is non-bailable. As a consequence, Revilla spent the last two years of his second term as a senator under detention at Camp Crame.
Revilla’s two-year compulsory absence from the Senate was a welcome relief to many who consider him a useless legislator. His critics were treated to an additional three years of a Revilla-free Senate from July 2016 up to July 2019, thanks to the constitutional ban against a third consecutive term for all senators.
Last December, however, the Sandiganbayan did the unexpected. In a decision that surprised many, the anti-graft court, voting 3-2, acquitted Revilla of criminal liability on the ground that the prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Revilla allowed the illegal use of his PDAF allocations by bogus non-government organizations created by controversial businesswoman Janet Napoles. The anti-graft court also declared that the prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Revilla received rebates, kickbacks and commissions for the misuse of his PDAF allotments.
Notwithstanding Revilla’s questionable acquittal, the Sandiganbayan convicted Napoles and Revilla’s staff employee, Richard Cambe and ruled that all three — Revilla, Napoles and Cambe — are solidarily liable to return to the National Treasury the amount of P124 million which, the anti-graft court said, belongs to the government but was misappropriated by the three.
Solidary liability means that any one of the three, Revilla included, can be required by law enforcers to return the entire P124 million.
As expected, many protested the decision. If Revilla, Napoles and Cambe have the legal obligation to return P124 million to the government on the ground that the said amount was anomalously taken from Revilla’s PDAF and spent illegally, then Revilla must be guilty in the same way and to the same extent as Napoles and Cambe are.
More specifically, how can one be found innocent of any wrongdoing and at the same time be legally obligated to return government funds which had been misused? The ruling of the Sandiganbayan does not make sense.
Evidently, the acquittal of Revilla by the Sandiganbayan is attended with grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack of jurisdiction on the part of the anti-graft court. Precisely because of that, this newspaper published an article last December urging the government prosecutors in the Ombudsman to question the acquittal of Revilla in the Supreme Court (SC).
Under the rules, they have 60 days to file the corresponding petition in the SC. Sadly, that opportunity came and went, and no petition was filed.
Just recently, the government prosecutors asked the Sandiganbayan to compel Revilla to return to the national coffers the P124 million in PDAF money illegally spent by him and his two cohorts. As if to add insult to injury, however, Revilla insists through his lawyers that he cannot be compelled to return the said amount because he was acquitted.
For deliberately neglecting to contest in the SC Revilla’s acquittal, the government prosecutors in charge of the Revilla case should be themselves charged criminally and administratively by the Ombudsman. If the Ombudsman does not act on this matter, then the cases against the prosecutors can be filed by any concerned taxpayer.
Many are asking if money exchange hands somewhere along the way that led to Revilla’s acquittal. Many hope it isn’t so.
Meanwhile, it is unsettling to realize that Revilla is free to run for the Senate, and that if Revilla is elected, the former movie actor will probably be free as well to misuse his PDAF and yet incur no criminal liability. His pre-campaign period political advertisements are all over television to remind everybody of that upcoming specter — another six years of Revilla in the Senate.
Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. back in the Senate will serve only one purpose — to prove that the Senate has become a glorified circus.