By Benjamin Pulta

VERDICT. Senator Jinggoy Estrada smiles to reporters as he leaves the Sandiganbayan along Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City on Friday (Jan. 19, 2024). The anti-graft court acquitted Estrada of plunder charges in connection with his alleged involvement in the multi-billion-peso pork barrel scam but found him guilty of one count of direct bribery and two counts of indirect bribery. (PNA photo by Robert Oswald P. Alfiler)

MANILA – The Sandiganbayan on Friday acquitted Senator Jinggoy Estrada and businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles of plunder charges in connection with the so-called pork barrel scam on account of reasonable doubt.

In its 396-page decision, the anti-graft court’s Fifth Division however convicted Estrada of bribery charges arising from the transfer of Estrada’s Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel to bogus non-government organizations owned by Napoles.

Estrada was found guilty of one count of direct bribery and sentenced to eight to nine years imprisonment.

He was also found guilty of two counts of indirect bribery and sentenced to two to three years imprisonment for each count.

Estrada was also suspended from holding public office and temporarily disqualified from exercising the right to vote, as well as asked to pay a PHP3 million fine.

In a radio interview, Estrada’s lawyer, Atty. Alexis Abastillas-Suarez, said the acquittal on plunder is “a very big victory.”

On the bribery charges, she said they still have to read the decision to determine the basis of the court in convicting Estrada.

“Bribery is not part of the information on the crime of plunder. Babasahin muna namin ang desisyon ng court (We still have to read the court’s decision),” she said.

Suarez also maintained that the decision is not yet final and executory.

“We still have legal remedies to file. So, he (Estrada) can still hold office,” she said.

On the other hand, the court found Napoles guilty of five counts of corruption of a public official by direct bribery and sentenced to up to 10 years imprisonment for each count as well as a fine of PHP29.63 million.

She was likewise found guilty of two counts of corruption of public officials by indirect bribery and sentenced to up to 10 years for each count.

She was likewise ordered to indemnify the government P262.03 million with interest in civil liability.

Napoles was found liable for five counts of corruption for giving bribe money to Estrada amounting to PHP1 million on September 18,2008 and for transactions coursed through his former deputy chief of staff, Pauline Therese C. Labayen, with the aggregate amount of PHP8.87 million paid on four different dates.

The indirect bribery involved PHP 1.5 million initially received by Estrada through an intermediary which he returned.

The charges involved transactions between 2004 and 2012 between the accused involving kickbacks and commissions representing a percentage of the cost of a project to be funded from Estrada’s PDAF in consideration of endorsement of NGOs controlled by Napoles, like the Masaganang Ani Para sa Magsasaka Foundation Inc. (MAMFI) and the Social Development Program for Farmers Foundation (SDPFFI), which became the recipients and implementors of the ghost or fictitious projects supposedly in several areas throughout the Philippines.

“Estrada’s acts, from requesting the release of his PDAF allocations to the execution of letters of endorsement and memoranda of agreement, are all related to the exercise of his functions as a public official. Being a senator who is allocated with PDAF, he exercised full control over the release thereof and had the sole discretion as to the livelihood project that would be funded by it. His endorsements of Napoles’ NGOs to implement projects funded by his PDAF could not have materialized if not for the public office he held,” the court said.

“A public officer commits an offense in relation to his office if he perpetrates the offense while performing, though in an improper or irregular manner, his official functions and cannot commit the offense without holding his public office,” it added.

The court in its ruling also ordered alias warrants against missing co-accused John Raymund De Asis, an aide of Napoles, and Labayen who remain at large with the cases against them archived subject to reinstatement once they are caught.  

Nothing is final yet

In an ambush interview after the decision, Estrada said the decision is “appealable” and they will exhaust all legal remedies.

“Well, nothing is final. That is appealable. We will file the necessary motion for reconsideration before the Sandiganbayan. I will instruct all my lawyers to exhaust all legal options, all legal remedies,” Estrada said.

His brother, Senator JV Ejercito, said in a statement that he still believes in the country’s justice system and asked everyone to respect the decision.

“The Sandiganbayan has handed down its verdict. I urge everyone to respect the wisdom and fairness of our justice system. Our justice system, despite its imperfection, is there to maintain law and order, protect our rights, and provide justice,” Ejercito said.

“I wish him well and will continue to pray for Senator Jinggoy Estrada and his family,” he added.

Suarez confirmed that Estrada had an earlier cash bond of PHP1.3 million for plunder and another PHP2 million as travel bond which allows him to roam freely.

Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said they recognize the legal remedies available for Estrada.

“He has the right to exhaust all of these. Until and unless the decision becomes final and executory, Senator Jinggoy is duty-bound to continue performing his functions as senator of the Republic,” Zubiri said in a statement. (With a report from Wilnard Bacelonia/PNA)