No stopping Garcia plea deal: lawmaker

Posted at 12/20/10 10:40 AM

MANILA, Philippines -Malacañang is powerless to stop the court-approved plea bargain that allowed a former military comptroller to own up to a lesser charge and return some of the money he allegedly stole from military coffers, Dasmariñas City Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr. said on Monday.

"If the plea agreement has in fact been sealed by the court, then based on the principle of separation of powers between the Executive and the Judicial branches of government, Malacañang is not in a position to review or reverse the deal," Barzaga said in a statement.

"Plea deals are permitted by court rules. In fact, our jurisprudence on the matter is quite rich," added Barzaga, a prosecution lawyer for more than 20 years.

A plea bargain is an agreement in a criminal case whereby the prosecutor offers the accused the chance to plead guilty, usually to a lesser charge or to the original charge, with the endorsement of a lighter than the maximum sentence.

President Benigno Aquino III earlier ordered Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. to review the plea bargain that allowed retired Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia to walk out of jail after posting bail of P60,000 for the lesser charges of direct bribery and money laundering.

The Sandiganbayan had reportedly approved the deal, in which Garcia pleaded guilty to the lesser charges, and agreed to return P135 million of an estimated P303.27 million he had been accused of stealing from the government.

Garcia was originally accused of plunder, a non-bailable capital offense punishable with life in prison and the forfeiture of ill-gotten assets.

Barzaga said prosecutors usually offer a plea deal if the evidence that they have gathered is not as strong as they would want it to be to guarantee a conviction.

"Plea deals ensure that offenders do not escape punishment, allow the speedy resolution of cases, and enable both prosecutors and the court to move on and work on other cases, which are numerous," he said.

Barzaga cited the Sandiganbayan's approval of a plea bargain that Charlie "Atong" Ang entered into with the Ombudsman in 2007.

Instead of facing trial for plunder, Ang pleaded guilty to the lesser offense of corruption of public officials in relation to indirect bribery. He admitted pocketing P25 million in tobacco tax collections, and agreed to surrender the money to the government.

Barzaga also doubts whether Malacañang could do anything lawful to prevail upon the Office of the Ombudsman to disengage from any plea deals.

"We must stress that under the Constitution, the Ombudsman is supposed to be an independent body," he said.