Guilty. Joseph Estrada is found guilty of plunder.
This is an important mark in our history – the first time a head of state is tried and convicted of a crime committed while in office. Of course not as cold and uncharitable how we’ve seen people in Korea or Iraq did of their erring leaders. We are, perhaps, a compassionate lot. Look how we allowed Marcos to take a Hawaiian vacation after his ouster. And now, Erap while on trial, is well-rested in the comfort of his Tanay rest house.
The verdict was well, expected – assuming that the Arroyo Administration had a hand in the outcome – now repeatedly muttered as a post-verdict spin by the Erap supporters, that it is nothing but a political decision intended to legitimize GMA’ assumption to power. The logic, of course, is not farfetched. For indeed, following such assumption, if Arroyo allowed a total acquittal – she will be just supplying the noose with which to hang herself, so to speak.
But without painting any political color on the decision and by simply sieving through the reasoning of the Sandiganbayan would perhaps render irrelevant any suspicion of it as being simply a politicial decision. Setting aside pure conjectures, the court should be credited for such an evidently exhaustive and judicious decision.
Consider for example the court’s finding (and Erap’s blunder?) that he is the personal and beneficial owner of the “Jose Velarde” account, part of which was established to be the commissions personally gained by Erap in the purchase of Belle Shares using GSIS and SSS funds. The amount of commission paid: P189,700,000.00.
Here’s a pertinent snippet of the court’s decision:
x x x The Court finds that former President Estrada is the real and beneficial owner of EPCIB combo account C/A No. 0110-25495-4 and S/A No. 0160-62501-5 in the name of Jose Velarde.
The eyewitness account of Prosecution witness Clarissa Ocampo that she saw former Pres. Estrada sign the name Jose Velarde in the various documents presented to him x x x was undisputed by (him) and constitutes direct evidence that former Pres. Estrada signed as Jose Velarde.
Another direct evidence that (he) is Jose Velarde is the admission of former Pres. Estrada that he signed as Jose Velarde in the documents presented to him by Ocampo.
As stated, SSS and GSIS used the funds belonging to its million belonging to millions of members to buy Belle Shares upon instruction of former Pres. Estrada who benefited for his personal gain from the P189,700,000 commission paid in consideration of the purchase of the Belle shares by SSS and GSIS.
The amount of P189,700,000.00 deposited to the Jose Velarde account of former Pres. Estrada are public funds. x x x”
The crime of plunder which Erap is convicted of deserves utmost condemnation. I do not share, nor consent to the view that his being a former president extenuates the gravity of this crime.
On the contrary, the fact that a person of such high government position and entrusted with such immense power is perhaps the aggravating circumstance that impelled the legislators to make plunder a heinous crime in the first place. The respect accorded to the position of the President should be contra-distinguished from a rightful condemnation of the crime. We should learn to put each in its proper place.
Unfortunately, the media has turned this event into circus frenzy. No, I’m sorry, not circus, but a drama frenzy. On TV, we see celebrity friends of Erap interviewed, we see politicians deliver their misplaced sympathies and we see close family members and Erap supporters with their impassioned speeches, as if Erap is the luckless victim of this perceived elaborate contrivance perpetrated by the government against him.
The deluge of human drama and political propaganda the media has, wittingly or unwittingly, so copiously fed the public only served to bury the important underside of this whole event – the evil of plunder. It seems that the evident enormity and flagrancy of the crime has been lamentably blunted by all these. I have yet to see on paper or on TV the extent of the amount involved – hundreds of millions of pesos – displayed in big, bold numbers.
One finding of fact in the Decision which should not escape the minds of the public, particularly Erap’s so-called masa supporters, is the fact that the Jose Velarde account is the repository of such mind-boggling deposits that totaled:
It is, I repeat, a finding of fact by the court. While the court did not convict Erap on this ground (sub-par. d of the amended information), as the sources of these funds were not sufficiently established except for the commission that he got from the purchase of the Belle Shares, this cannot erase the verity that he did amass such wealth through that account.
What I am trying to drive at here is the apparent hypocrisy of one who projects himself as man of the masses (people who for years have lived on the throes of poverty) but nevertheless has the effrontery of accumulating such wealth he and his family could not possibly spend in their entire lifetime.
What is plunder then? In the Sandiganbayan Decision, the Court quoted the legislative rationale behind this law, by citing The Explanatory Note of Senate Bill No. 733, quoted in the case of Estrada v. Sandiganbayan (G.R. No. 148965, February 26, 2002, 377 SCRA 538, 555), as follows:
Plunder, a term chosen from other equally apt terminologies like kleptocracy and economic treason, punishes the use of high office for personal enrichment, committed thru a series of acts done not in the public eye but in stealth and secrecy over a period of time, that may involve so many persons, here and abroad, and which touch so many states and territorial units. The acts and/or omissions sought to be penalized do not involve simple cases of malversation of public funds, bribery, extortion, theft and graft but constitute plunder of an entire nation resulting in material damage to the national economy. The above-described crime does not yet exist in Philippine statute books. Thus, the need to come up with a legislation as a safeguard against the possible recurrence of the depravities of the previous regime and as a deterrent to those with similar inclination to succumb to the corrupting influence of power.
The majority opinion in the above-cited case, penned by Honorable Justice Josue N. Bellosillo, further explained the rationale behind the Anti-Plunder Law in this manner:
Our nation has been racked by scandals of corruption and obscene profligacy of officials in high places which have shaken its very foundation. The anatomy of graft and corruption has become more elaborate in the corridors of time as unscrupulous people relentlessly contrive more and more ingenious ways to milk the coffers of the government. Drastic and radical measures are imperative to fight the increasingly sophisticated, extraordinarily methodical and economically catastrophic looting of the national treasury. Such is the Plunder Law, especially designed to disentangle those ghastly tissues of grand-scale corruption which, if left unchecked, will spread like a malignant tumor and ultimately consume the moral and institutional fiber of our nation. The Plunder Law, indeed, is a living testament to the will of the legislature to ultimately eradicate this scourge and thus secure society against the avarice and other venalities in public office.
These are times that try men’s souls. In the checkered history of this nation, few issues of national importance can equal the amount of interest and passion generated by petitioner’s ignominious fall from the highest office, and his eventual prosecution and trial under a virginal statute. This continuing saga has driven a wedge of dissension among our people that may linger for a long time. Only by responding to the clarion call for patriotism, to rise above factionalism and prejudices, shall we emerge triumphant in the midst of ferment. [Emphasis Supplied]
This conviction does not target Erap alone. I cannot subscribe to the view that the present scandals that hound the Arroyo government, while these might eventually be proven to eclipse the enormity of the sins of Erap, should serve to supplant our rightful indignation toward the crime Erap was proven to have committed. If Arroyo and his cohorts have committed similar or even worse crimes against the Filipino people, then by all means, prosecute and convict. And let this recent conviction serve as fair warning to them all.