Sandiganbayan Justice Francisco Villaruz may have gotten the top vote among Supreme Court magistrates to replace outgoing Justice Ruben Reyes in January 2009 but his superior in the anti-graft court—Presiding Justice Diosdado Peralta—could just edge him out of the competition.
With the disqualification of two candidates with strong Palace connections—Solicitor General Agnes Devanadera and businessman Rodolfo Robles, who is a family friend of President Arroyo—Peralta, insiders in the judiciary tell us, is emerging as the new frontrunner.
The Judicial and Bar Council delisted Devanadera because of a pending graft case with the Ombdusman and Robles because of his age. Non-career applicants need to serve five years in the Supreme Court. Robles is 65 years and 5 months old.
The JBC has yet to cast its votes for its top three nominees on Monday, December 15. The JBC vets nominees to the appointing authority, the president.
Peralta is close to Malacanang, particularly to President Arroyo’s cousin and confidential assistant, Erlinda de Leon, who helps vet appointees to the judiciary. We reported earlier that Peralta is part of the informal vetting process of aspirants to the Court of Appeals and Sandiganbayan.
In the public interview with the JBC, Peralta vowed to be independent amid his late father’s, Manila Court of First Instance Judge Elviro Peralta, friendship with the Arroyo patriarch, the former Pres. Diosdado Macapagal. (Peralta was named after the late president.)
“I would not sacrifice my independence just to accommodate somebody else,” he said during last November 24.
The Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice, who also chairs the court’s first division, is best known for his participation in the special division which tried and convicted deposed Pres. Joseph “Erap” Estrada of plunder on September 12, 2008.
But beyond Estrada’s case, Peralta has put his mark on other politically sensitive cases: his reversal on the case of former justice Secretary Hernando Perez and his decision to grant 20 percent of San Miguel Corporation shares to Eduardo “Danding”Cojuangco.
Reversal on Nani
Peralta reversed himself on the case of former justice Secretary Hernando “Nani” Perez who has been cleared of graft and robbery-with-extortion charges. Perez is an ally of President Arroyo and former boss of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez at the Department of Justice.
Last November, Perez was cleared on two of the four charges filed against him in relation with the alleged $2 million payoff he demanded from former Manila Rep. Mark Jimenez.
The Sandiganbayan First and Second Divisions junked the graft and robbery-with- extortion charges against Perez after the case slipped on some technicalities.
The first division, chaired by Peralta, reversed an earlier July 18 resolution which found probable cause in the graft charges filed by the Ombudsman against Perez, consequently approving his motion to quash the charges.
The court approved Perez’s motion to quash after it ascertained that the facts of the case fell short of an element that qualifies a violation of Sec. 3(b) of Republic Act 3019, or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.
That is the fourth element, which stipulates that graft could be present if “request or receipt was made in connection with a contract or transaction.”
In its complaint, the Ombudsman alleged that Perez cheated Jimenez out on an agreement that would put the former Manila solon under the witness protection program or WPP in exchange for his testimony and affidavits that would implicate certain personalities in the plunder case against Estrada.
When the WPP promise did not prosper, Jimenez allegedly got cold feet. However, Perez purportedly threatened to lock him behind bars unless he pays up $2 million.
The First Division ruled, however, that the absence of a monetary consideration in Jimenez’s inclusion in the WPP rules out their agreement as a contract.
Peralta told Abs-cbnnews.com/Newsbreak that a party should receive a certain “percentage” from a transaction in order for it to constitute a monetary consideration, as stated in the Supreme Court ruling in Santiago Jr. vs. Sandiganbayan.
Aside from this, the First Division pointed out that the “contract” for the WPP has not been perfected, a fact also stated by the Ombudsman in its complaint.
But the disputed definition of a contract did not emerge as a problem or an issue for the first division when it first resolved Perez’s motion.
In the nine-page minutes of their meeting dated July 17, 2008, the division stated that all the elements—including the fourth element—necessary to build a case in the context of a violation of RA 3019 were present in the case against Perez.
The first and second elements, which specify that the person in question should be a public officer, have been met because Perez was the justice secretary when he reportedly tried to extort $2 million from Jimenez.
On the other hand, the First Division also ruled that the third and fourth elements were also present, as the “request or receipt was made on behalf of the offender.” Lastly, the case also has the fifth element as Perez, in his capacity as DOJ secretary, could intervene in said transactions.
But Peralta explained that the determination of the elements is but a requirement that should be met before an accused is arraigned. The nitty-gritty, the technicalities regarding the elements, would be looked on as the trial progresses.
However, the trial did not go any further, after the first and second divisions dismissed the raps against Perez. The second division, in a resolution penned by Justice Edilberto Sandoval, another contender to the SC, ruled that the Ombudsman’s delayed completion of an initial preliminary investigation stripped it of the authority to pursue a case against Perez.
Decision for Danding
Peralta also penned the decisions on two civil cases regarding the coco levy funds in November last year – one which awarded 20 percent of the San Miguel Corp. shares to Marcos crony Danding Cojuangco Jr., and another one which upheld 72.2 percent of the shares in the United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB) as public funds.
The ruling on the 20 percent shares came three years after the court, in a partial summary judgment, declared that the 27 percent SMC shares registered under the Coconut Industry Investment Fund belong to the government.
Peralta, in his ponencia, pointed out that 20 percent of the shares are owned by Cojuangco because the Philippine Commission on Good Government, which recovers the ill-gotten wealth of the Marcoses, failed to prove that Cojuangco used the coco levy funds to acquire the said shares.
Before 2004 ended, the Sandiganbayan first division promulgated another decision, also penned by Peralta, which maintained the July 23, 2004 acquittal of Cojuangco and others of graft charges resulting from supposed illegal P8 million-worth of donations from coco levy funds.
The acquittal also overturned a prior ruling of the Court in October 2001 which pinned down Cojuangco of graft charges. The first division said that there was no evidence which could show that the donations made were anomalous.
On November 26, the first division also dismissed Civil Case No. 033-C or the Bugsuk island project, one of the eight subdivisions of the coco levy cases because the PCGG failed to push it forward in eight years.
Around P840 million was allegedly poured into Agricultural Investors Inc., a company owned by Cojuangco, for the development of the Bugsuk project in Palawan. The investments which came from the National Investment Development Corp. and UCPB were all allegedly part of the coco levy funds.
Petitions for review
The affirmation of the UCPB shares as public funds took off from a landmark ruling handed down by the first division, with Peralta as member then, on July 11, 2003.
The decision gave some hope to around one million farmers whose pesos fed the funds. But at the same time, the timing of the decision was put into question as it was promulgated days after Cojuangco, chairman of the Nationalist People’s Coalition, announced his bid for the 2004 presidential elections.
UP law professor Harry Roque said that between the two Sandiganbayan decisions in November last year, the one which awarded the 20 percent SMC shares to Cojuangco worked to his advantage not only because he won the case, but because “the UCPB is pretty much useless… the government has been propping it with money to keep it afloat.”
Peralta said that petitions for review on the Sandiganbayan decision on the 20 percent SMC share are already pending in the SC.