MANILA – The Court of Appeals (CA) ordered on Wednesday the reinstatement of the Office of the Ombudsman Chief Special Prosecutor Wendell Barreras-Sulit after she was dismissed by the Aquino administration in connection with the plea bargaining agreement (PLEBARA) entered into with former Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) comptroller Maj. Gen. Carlos F. Garcia.
In a 29-page decision written by Associate Justice Zenaida T. Galapate-Laguilles, the CA Special 10th Division ruled that the Office of the President (OP), during the term of President Benigno S. Aquino III and Executive Secretary Paquito N. Ochoa Jr., committed an error with its order dismissing Sulit from her post as top prosecutor of the Ombudsman.
“In view of the foregoing, We Grant the instant petition for review. The Decision dated July 18, 2013 and Resolution dated December 6, 2013 of the Office of the President, dismissing Petitioner Wendell Barreras-Sulit from the service, are hereby Reversed and Set Aside,” the CA ruling said.
Garcia was the former AFP comptroller who was charged with plunder by the Ombudsman after a lifestyle check was conducted against him and discovered millions of pesos and properties under his name and his family members, including that of the Trump Plaza Condominium in New York City.
He was also charged with money laundering and the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) even moved to freeze the assets of Garcia and his family members.
The CA did not agree with the findings of the OP that the plea bargaining deal with Garcia which allowed the general to enter a plea to a lesser offense was unlawfully executed.
It said that the PLEBARA executed by Sulit was lawful because she carried out the same under the direct supervision of then Ombudsman Marceditas Gutierrez, who happened to be the rightful persons to enter into the agreement as representatives of the people.
Gutierrez and Sulit entered the PLEBARA with Garcia, asking to return the properties to the Philippine government and allowing his plunder case to be downgraded to direct bribery charges.
Garcia was able to return PHP135,433,387.84 to the Philippine government with the PLEBARA with Gutierrez and Sulit.
Gutierrez and Sulit believed that the PLEBARA is the most advantageous way for the government because it is impossible to sustain a conviction since the information filed by then Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo and Special Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio for plunder were weak. These findings were affirmed by the Sandiganbayan.
However, when Aquino assumed the presidency, he forced Gutierrez to resign from her post to be able to appoint a new Ombudsman and then dismissed Sulit by using this case as a threat.
However, the CA said that the PLEBARA was also approved by the Sandiganbayan which made the agreement above board and within the process mandated by law.
The CA ruled that Malacanang had no authority to determine whether or not the evidence presented before the Sandiganbayan was strong to sustain a conviction.
“The act of the OP (Office of the President) in determining the probative value of the evidence presented in the cases of plunder and money laundering in this administrative proceedings is not only misplaced and uncalled for but also constitutes an encroachment of judicial power. The authority rests solely upon the appropriate court – the Sandiganbayan in this case,” the CA ruling said.
With this, the CA said that Malacanang “was unable to present substantial evidence consistent with petitioner Sulit’s administrative liability in relation to the execution of the PLEBARA. Our exposition below expounds further the OP’s failure to overcome the burden of proving their claim that petitioner Sulit committed acts and/or omissions constituting betrayal of public trust and graft and corruption.”
“We find it unfair to accuse petitioner Sulit of gross inexcusable negligence and bad faith in the performance of her function as Special Prosecutor as there was no substantial evidence that she was remiss in protecting the interest of the state. We believe that the PLEBARA was the outcome of a prudent, reasonable and practical evaluation of the cases against Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia, a solution that would best serve the interest of the nation and its people,” the CA ruling said.
Concurring with the ruling are Associate Justices Marlene Sison and Mario Lopez.