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SC: Too long, too late to prosecute JPE, others for coco levy fund mess

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THE Supreme Court (SC) has ordered the dismissal of the graft charges filed against former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile and several others in connection with the alleged siphoning of coco levy funds amounting to P840.7 million.

In a 52-page decision penned by Associate Justice Ramon Paul Hernando, the SC’s First Division held that the Ombudsman violated the constitutional right to speedy disposition of cases of respondents Enrile, businessman Jose Concepcion, Rolando dela Cuesta, Narciso Pineda and Danila Ursua, warranting the dismissal of the graft charges against them.

The Court also ordered the dismissal of the graft case against Eduardo Cojuangco Jr., Jose Eleazar, Maria Clara Lobregat, and Augusto Orosa due to their supervening deaths.

Their criminal and civil liabilities, according to the Court, are distinguished by Article 89 of the Revised Penal Code.

However, for civil liability, the Court said the government may still file a civil against the respective estates of Cojuangco Jr., Eleazar, Lobregat and Orosa, “as may be warranted by law and procedural rules.”

If a case has already been filed, the Court said the civil action “shall survive notwithstanding the dismissal of the criminal case in view of their deaths.”

In the case of Enrile, Concepcion, dela Cuesta, Pineda and Ursua, the Court noted that the preliminary investigation on the case started on February 12, 1990 when the complaint was filed, and terminated on October 9, 1998, when the Ombudsman approved the order dated September 25, 1998 of the graft investigating officer recommending the dismissal of the complaint on the ground of prescription of offense.

The SC pointed out that under Administrative Order 1 of the Ombudsman, fact-finding investigation should not exceed the period of 12 months to 24 months depending on the seriousness of the offense.

“Consequently, the burden of proof shifted to petitioner Republic. However, petitioner Republic failed to discharge this burden, as petitioner Republic did not establish that the delay was reasonable and justified,” the SC explained.

“While this Court has no doubt that the Republic had all the resources to pursue cases of corruption and ill-gotten wealth, the inordinate delay in this case may have made the situation worse for respondents,” it added.

In particular, the SC said the government failed to prove that it followed the prescribed procedure on the conduct of preliminary investigation and the prosecution of the case; the complexity of the issues and the volume of evidence made the delay inevitable; and no prejudice was suffered by the accused as a result of the delay.

“With this case pending for over 30 years and possibly more without the assurance of its resolution, the Court recognizes that the tactical disadvantages carried by the passage of time should be weighed against petitioner Republic and in favor of the respondents,” the SC said.

“Certainly, if this case were remanded for further proceedings, the already long delay would drag on longer. Memories fade, documents and other exhibits can be lost and vulnerability of those who are tasked to decide increases with the passing of years. In effect, there would be a general inability to mount an effective defense,” it added.

The Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) had alleged that Cojuangco took advantage of his close relationship with then President Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr. for his own personal and business interests through the issuance of favorable decrees.

The government later to entered into a contract with Cojuangco, through the state-run National Investment and Development Corporation (NIDC), with its corporation AII, under terms and conditions allegedly grossly disadvantageous to the government and in conspiracy with the other respondents who were then members of the UCPB Board of Directors.

Cojuangco, Enrile, Lobregat and the others were held criminally liable because they were members of the UCPB Board of Directors at the time.

The government said they all had “personal interest or material interest in the transactions.”

The NIDC and the UCPB board, according to the complaint, violated their duty as administrator-trustee of the Coconut Industry Development Fund when they conspired to siphon off of the CIDF funds to Cojuangco’s AII.

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