Acquitted but ordered to return money? The 'odd' case of Bong Revilla

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"Iyan ang napatunayan ng hukuman, na wala akong ninakaw kahit sentimo mula sa taumbayan (That was proven by the court, that I did not steal any centavo from the people)," former Senator Bong Revilla says in a speech at the flag raising ceremony of Bacoor City, Cavite, which is led by his wife, Mayor Lani Mercado-Revilla.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 10) — Many were puzzled after the Sandiganbayan acquitted former Senator Ramon "Bong" Revilla Jr. of plunder but supposedly ordered him, along with his co-accused, to return ₱124.5 million to the government.

Law experts explain one may be found not guilty of a criminal charge but still be held civilly liable.

"Conviction on the criminal charge requires proof beyond reasonable doubt, while a judgment of liability on the civil charge requires only a preponderance of evidence," said Abdiel Fajardo, President of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), the national organization of lawyers, in a statement on Monday.

He said that in the case of Revilla, the prosecution failed to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt, but the court seemed convinced that there was a lot of evidence against Revilla, that he "must be held as equally accountable to the People of the Philippines with respect to the return of the money lost by virtue of the PDAF scam." The Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) – also known as pork barrel or funds set aside for lawmakers' projects – was declared unconstitutional by the High Court in 2013 following the exposé on its misuse.

Constitutional expert Fr. Ranhilio Aquino, dean of San Beda's Graduate School of Law, shares the same view as Fajardo.

In a public Facebook post on December 7, the day the Sandiganbayan handed down its not-guilty verdict on Revilla, Aquino explained the difference between preponderance of evidence, which means "the proof of guilt is greater than the proof of non-guilt," and proof beyond reasonable doubt wherein the court, "by the strength of the evidence presented, has no more reasonable questions left to ask about the culpability of the accused."

"In this case, there may be preponderance of evidence sufficient to establish your civil liability, that does not however rise to the level of proof beyond reasonable doubt to secure your conviction," Aquino said.

Aquino also cited an example when an accused may commit a mistake without any criminal intent - and thus be only civilly liable.

"If you bring home your officemate's wallet, thinking in all good faith that it is yours, and your officemate later on charges you with theft, you will, in all probability be acquitted absent any proof that you intended to defraud your colleague, but you will still be ordered to return the wallet and its contents for the simple reason that it is not yours," he said.

Revilla won't pay

The Revilla camp maintains only those convicted of plunder – businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles and Revilla's staff Richard Cambe – should pay the ₱124.5 million as civil liability.

"Since he (Revilla) is not criminal liable, there is no basis for civil liability," Revilla's lawyer, Reody Anothony Balisi stressed on Monday.

Revilla likewise said the court already upheld his innocence.

"Iyan ang napatunayan ng hukuman, na wala akong ninakaw kahit sentimo mula sa taumbayan (That was proven by the court, that I did not steal any centavo from the people)," Revilla said in a speech at the flag raising ceremony of Bacoor City, Cavite, which is led by his wife, Mayor Lani Mercado-Revilla.

Fajardo said the Sandiganbayan's decision is to blame for the confusion over whether or not Revilla has to pay.

"The confusion of the public is most likely because the civil aspect of the judgment was not discussed with more detail in the majority decision," Fajardo said.

Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Maria Theresa Gomez-Estoesta, who dissented from the majority decision, found it "odd" that the court did not exempt Revilla from civil liability when it refused to conclude that the ₱87.26 million in bank deposits made by the former senator and his immediately family were "the very same money from Napoles."

"It only goes to say therefore, that since all three accused were made to answer for the same civil liability, the source of the accumulation of wealth as found in the criminal liability should only be the same," she said.

She and another dissenting judge, Associate Justice Efren Dela Cruz, questioned why the Sandiganbayan decision "disparaged as not conclusive" a report by the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), that showed the multi-million peso bank transactions from 2006 to 2010, which were made within 30 days from the dates mentioned by whistle blower Benhur Luy when Revilla supposedly received rebates through Cambe.

READ: Napoles, Revilla staff can't plunder alone – dissenting justices

Dela Cruz, who initially penned a decision convicting all three accused, was dissented to by Associate Justices Geraldine Econg and Edgardo Caldona, resulting in a 2-2 vote. This forced the anti-graft court's first division to create a special division of five justices to break the impasse. Econg penned the final decision.

Malacañang reiterated on Monday that it is bowing to the decision of the Sandiganbayan and stressed that it does not interfere with the judiciary.

"Dissenting opinion will always be there but our rule is that majority prevails," Presidential Spokesperson and Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo said.

Revilla's case is the first to be resolved among dozens of cases involving lawmakers' PDAF. Former Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Juan Ponce Enrile are also facing plunder and graft charges in relation to the scam wherein Napoles allegedly funneled ₱10 billion of lawmakers' funds into bogus non-government organizations. Revilla, Estrada and Enrile are all out on bail and seeking a Senate comeback in the 2019 elections.

READ: Jinggoy Estrada hopes for acquittal by February 2019