It is interesting to note that at the necrological services for former Senate President Edgardo Angara, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo, in whose presidencies he had a bizarre role, were the ones eulogizing him. That it happened at the time that the Supreme Court, which has had great impact on the lives of the two former presidents, is again the subject of harsh criticism.
On January 20, 2001, amid calls of people gathered at the EDSA Shrine for President Estrada to resign for receiving payola from gambling lords and kickback from tobacco growers, the Supreme Court declared Estrada “constructively resigned” as president on the basis of an entry in then Executive Secretary Angara’s diary that Estrada left Malacanang without indicating he was coming back. As if to avoid being dubbed by Estrada as the “supreme hoodlums in robe,” the justices wore Barong Tagalog instead of their traditional robes when they convened to make that declaration.
Just the same, while facing the charge of plunder in 2003, Estrada referred to the justices who kicked him out of office as “hoodlums in robes.” Estrada coined the term back in 1993 when he was vice president and head of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission (PACC). He alleged that 80 percent of the cases filed in court by the PACC were dismissed summarily by corrupt judges. In his inaugural address as president, he again made reference to “hoodlums in robes.” He said, “We know that the major crimes in this country are committed by hoodlums in uniforms…and acquitted by hoodlums in robes.”
In September 2007, the Sandiganbayan division presided by Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro found Estrada guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of plunder and sentenced him to reclusion perpetua, or a jail term of up to 40 years. Estrada was accused of violating Republic Act No. 7080 for allegedly receiving P545-million protection money from jueteng operators; diverting P130-million tobacco excise tax share of Ilocos Sur; receiving P189.7-million kickback from Belle Corp. for GSIS and SSS purchase of P1.8-billion worth of shares of stocks, and maintaining P3.23-billion “Jose Velarde” account with Equitable-PCIBank.
A month later, Estrada applied for “full, free and unconditional pardon” from President Arroyo. He said he “had no choice” but to ask for pardon as he reiterated his frustration with the country’s justice system. “I really do not have any intention to run in any election,” he said. “All I want to do now is to be with my mother and take care of her perhaps in her last few days, or last few weeks or months of her life.”
Within days, President Arroyo pardoned him, setting aside his conviction and life sentence, on condition he does not seek any elective office. She ordered: “Whereas, Joseph Ejercito Estrada has been under detention for six and a half years; whereas, [he] has publicly committed to no longer seek any elective position or office, I hereby grant executive clemency to Joseph Ejercito Estrada. He is hereby restored to his civil and political rights.”
Critics said Arroyo had pardoned Estrada to curry favor with the opposition which was mounting charges of corruption against her. Her legitimacy had so suffered from scandal after scandal, from the Garci tapes to the ZTE deal. Someone remarked that she must have hoped that by setting Estrada free, she would receive the blessings of St. Francis’ prayer: “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”
Estrada jokingly said after his pardon was announced, “I did not say that in writing,” referring to his pledge not to run for public office again. But in 2013, Estrada ran for mayor of Manila. Mayor Alfredo Lim, who was running for re-election, filed a petition to disqualify Estrada for having been convicted of plunder and banned for running for elective office. But the Commission on Elections allowed Estrada to run. He defeated Lim. The disqualification case was elevated to the Supreme Court.
In 2015, the Court junked the case, thereby allowing Estrada to remain as Manila mayor. It ruled that his pardon was absolute, thereby restoring Estrada’s civil rights, including the right to run for public office. The ponente was Associate Justice Teresita J. Leonardo-De Castro, the same de Castro who as Sandiganbayan presiding justice judged Estrada guilty of plunder in 2003.
In 2011, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee recommended that former President Arroyo and Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) General Manager Uriarte be charged with plunder and technical malversation. It said the use of the PCSO intelligence funds for bomb threats, kidnapping, destabilization, and terrorism is not part of the agency’s function. Not only that, the Senate committee said that the use of the confidential and intelligence funds was “grossly excessive and disproportionate to the claimed reasons for their release.” It said Arroyo signed on the margins of memoranda Uriarte brought to her.
In 2012, Arroyo was charged with plunder in connection with the alleged misuse of P366 million of PCSO funds that went to “fictitious” expenses towards the end of her nine year term. It was the first plunder case filed against Arroyo, who was at the time under hospital arrest for electoral sabotage, a nonbailable offense like plunder. She was also facing two counts of graft in the Sandiganbayan in connection with her approval of the overpriced National Broadband Network-ZTE deal.
The Office of the Ombudsman said that from January 2008 to June 2010, Arroyo and other PCSO officials diverted funds from the PCSO’s operating budget to the intelligence fund, which could be withdrawn any time and with few restrictions. The accused then allegedly “converted, misused and illegally transferred the funds for their own use in the guise of fictitious expenditures.” It noted that the intelligence fund of the PCSO, which is tasked with funding healthcare programs for the underprivileged and other charities, grew from P10 million to P103 million in 2008. It was puzzled as to why additional intelligence funds worth P75 million, P90 million and P150 million for 2008, 2009 and 2010, respectively, were more than double the original amount allocated in its corporate operating budget.
The Office of the Ombudsman also found that the identically worded one-page requests for additional confidential or intelligence funds were not supported by any specific plan, project, program or undertaking of any intelligence activity. The requests in 2008 and 2010 were made even before the PCSO’s corporate operating budget was approved. Furthermore, it said there were no supporting documents or receipts to show that part of the funds was used to finance relief operations or to pay blood money.
Among the witnesses who testified against Arroyo for the plunder case were Deputy Customs Commissioner Danilo Lim and former Akbayan Representative Risa Hontiveros, the same people who filed a plunder complaint against Arroyo for the alleged misuse of PCSO money.
In 2014, Atty. Estelito Mendoza petitioned the Sandiganbayan for a “demurrer to evidence,” a plea to dismiss the plunder case against Arroyo on the basis of weak evidence. The anti-graft court dismissed the demurrer in 2015, paving the way for the trial for plunder against Arroyo. Mendoza then went to the Supreme Court to challenge in a 100-page petition the Sandiganbayan ruling.
In July last year, Arroyo walked free after the Supreme Court acquitted her of the charge of plunder for “insufficiency of evidence.” The landmark ruling came a month after Rodrigo Duterte, who during his campaign for the presidency promised to set Arroyo free, was sworn in as President.
It is said there is honor among thieves, meaning they don’t steal from each other. I am beginning to think there is honor among “hoodlums” — be they in robes, Barong Tagalog, or Filipina dress — meaning they don’t bring misery upon each other.
(Several paragraphs in the online version of this piece have been re-ordered upon the request of the columnist. — Ed.)
Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a member of Manindigan! a cause-oriented group of businessmen, professionals, and academics.