By ANGELO L. GUTIERREZ
A defective government form on statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) and weak prosecution helped former Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia win a perjury case.
In a 54-page decision, the Sandiganbayan Second Division chaired by Associate Justice Edilberto Sandoval, said Garcia made an "honest mistake" and did not "willfully and deliberately make an assertion of falsehood" in his December 1998 statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) prepared by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
The decision also highlighted that Garcia should have been made to fill up two SALN forms "as required by law", one for him and another for his wife.
The perjury cases were filed for violation of Republic Act 6713 or Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, which the Second Division said requires the Civil Service Commission (CSC) to provide two SALN forms for public employees and officials.
The decision cited the second paragraph in Section 8 of RA 6713 that says "the only instance where only one SALN may be submitted is when husband and wife are both public officials," which doesn't apply to Garcia since his wife, Clarita, is not a government employee.
It's the SALN form's fault
However, even if Garcia did fill up two SALN forms for a "detailed disclosure," the former AFP comptroller may still be acquitted of the crime of perjury.
"A closer look at both the SALN forms prepared by the CSC and the one used by the AFP, will tell us that nowhere in the boxes required to be filled up can a single space be found for the filer to declare assets, liabilities and net worth of the spouse and children below 18 years old and living with the public official or employee," the court said in the ruling.
It added: "In fact, there is no instruction in the form that would require the filer to declare the assets and liabilities of the wife and unmarried children below 18 years old."
Mistake is not false statement
The prosecution alleged that Garcia failed to disclose his real assets in the 1998 SALN when he indicated in the "motor vehicle" field the amount P870,000.
The prosecution claimed the amount should have been close to P1.5 million because aside from the Toyota Previa that costs P521,797, he should have declared two other vehicles -- a Mitsubishi L-300 van and a 1997 model Honda Civic -- owned by his wife.
"Consequently, whatever error was committed by the accused, the same is attributable to the mistake in the preparation of the SALN form by the CSC," the decision said, adding "A false statement, which is obviously the result of an honest mistake is not perjury."
Case filed prematurely
The court said it agrees with Garcia that the perjury case filed against him was prematurely filed as he was not given a chance to correct the alleged "errors" in his 1998 SALN. "We find no reason to disagree with the accused. Indeed, the information was prematurely filed."
The court said due process requires the Office of the Ombudsman, where the case "originated exclusively", was hastily filed at the anti-graft court.
It also stressed that the Office of the Ombudsman's only task by law is to "investigate" and not to "determine" probable cause.
Cars not conjugal property
The decision also said government lawyers failed to prove that the vehicles owned by Garcia's wife are conjugal property.
"It is incumbent upon the prosecution to prove that these two other cars are conjugal property, which the accused ought to have declared. But none was proven so far," the court said.
It said, "not all property of the spouses belong to the community property or the conjugal partnership."
With Garcia's acquittal, the court ordered the release of the cash bond posted by Garcia and the lifting of a hold departure order on the former military official.
Two more perjury cases
The government filed four perjury against Garcia based on four SALNs he allegedly misdeclared while in service.
In May 22, 2006, the Sandiganbayan Third Division acquitted Garcia in one of the perjury cases. The two other perjury cases are being heard by the First and Fourth divisions of the anti-graft court.
Garcia's lawyer, Constantino de Jesus, said the Third Division had a similar citation in acquitting his client in 2006.
In the 2006 decision, the court also said the prosecution "failed to prove that [Garcia] willingly and deliberately made an assertion of falsehood."
While de Jesus and his co-counsel Maricel Capa declined to predict the other Sandiganbayan division's probable ruling, they said they are "hoping Garcia will be cleared" of the other two cases.
De Jesus said Garcia's defense team will use the two acquittals to support their defense in the the two remaining perjury cases.
Garcia is also facing a plunder case, also before the Second Division, and two ill-gotten lawsuits.
De Jesus added that it would be hard for them to predict what will be the anti-graft court's decision on the plunder charge, which he said is an "entirely different case."
»Sandiganbayan decision on Garcia perjury case(PDF)