Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 24 May 2014


No disrespect intended, but while the World Economic Forum on East Asia was going through its opening paces, there was a small group discussion (SGD) taking place at the same time on a topic at least equally important: How ready are the relevant institutions—the Office of the Ombudsman, the Sandiganbayan, the media, the people, etc.—to handle the upcoming cases involving the Priority Development Assistance Fund?

The group was convened by the Transparency and Accountability Network, which characterized the activity as a “pre-conversation” to help identify areas where a deeper conversation will be necessary. The ultimate goal, per the invitation letter, was to make sure that areas of vulnerability don’t go unnoticed and that we get positive outcomes and results from the PDAF cases. A worthy objective.

The discussions were held under the so-called Chatham House Rule (i.e., participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed). This was to encourage openness and the sharing of information.  Which means I may not reveal who were there and who said what. But at least I can say that the resource persons and the discussants were mostly recognized heavyweights in their fields.

With respect to the Sandiganbayan, where the cases, if any, will be heard, one of the problems identified was the grave delay in the resolution of the cases, which does not augur very well for future cases brought to it. Apparently, this was brought up as early as 2003, when a study funded by the World Bank showed that the average span of time from the filing of information to the promulgation of decision was 6.6 years average. A 2004 study by the Office of the Ombudsman of cases decided by the Sandiganbayan in 2003 confirmed this finding. Unfortunately, recent studies showed that the situation has even worsened: It now takes eight years on the average from filing to resolution of a case.

That’s the average. Civil case 0005, against Lucio Tan and others on Marcos’ ill-gotten wealth, took more than 19 years, and the decision of the Sandiganbayan is being questioned in the Supreme Court, so one can add another two to five years for that.

Depressing? Not really, said the resource person, because the solutions are quite simple. First, 60 percent of the cases filed in the Sandiganbayan are “minor” cases, involving P1 million or less (it used to be 40 percent). So, he said, just pass a law transferring to the regional trial courts jurisdiction over these minor cases, and voila—the future caseloads are lessened by 60 percent.

Additionally, some small changes in current procedures can help a great deal. For example, right now the Sandiganbayan Law requires the presence of at least three justices before a case can be heard. Proposal: a “justice designate” concept, whereby the chair of the division designates one member “to hear and receive evidence and resolve all incidents arising therefrom from that day; and allow two justices instead of three to constitute a quorum for sessions in divisions.”

Furthermore, another change, albeit a major one because of budgetary implications, was also proposed, increasing the number of Sandiganbayan justices from 15 to 45 (five divisions to 15). The original law in 1978 creating the Sandiganbayan provided for three divisions with three justices each. This was amended in 1995, increasing the justices to 15. Maybe it is time for another increase.

So if the changes are so simple, why haven’t they been done? Answer: They all require legislation. But even here, there is good news: Senators Frank Drilon, TG Guingona, and Koko Pimentel have filed Senate Bill No. 2138, which has been approved on third reading. What’s the rub, then? Alas, there are no corresponding bills in the House of Representatives, which has the reputation (generically) of shooting down earlier proposals to reform the Sandiganbayan. And in this the members of the House have been apparently aided and abetted by, guess who? Some of the Sandiganbayan justices themselves.

Is all lost then? No. There is one last resort. The President. Apparently, he still calls the shots in the House. Meaning, what the President wants, the President gets.

But will the President accept unsolicited advice, to which he is particularly allergic? Yes, if it comes from the Filipino people, who, according to him in his WEF speech, are responsible for any of the successes that he claims for the Philippines. We are his boss, remember?

So that’s how we will solve the problem of the delays in the resolution of the cases at the Sandiganbayan, one of the institutions critical to the success of the PDAF initiative. In the final analysis, the people, via the President, are the key.

Thus will we be assured of a speedy resolution, counted in months rather than years.

Of course, this assumes that the Sandiganbayan judges are competent, impartial personages, which may be a heroic assumption, but then that problem can be solved by constant monitoring—again by the people. Literally, the court is  kulang  sa  pansin. And, of course, this assumes that the other institutions mentioned earlier have done what they are supposed to do (discussed by the SGD and which I will also be writing about).

One last thing: This means that the at least 100 PDAF-related cases cannot be brought up simultaneously but, rather, sequentially (as in batches of related cases). I hope the Reader can see why.