At long last, the Anti-Money Laundering Council finally filed a petition to freeze the Ampatuans’ assets with the Court of Appeals. Of course, the CA , because its Justices are not from another planet, naturally issued a temporary freeze order . The question now is this: Wwill there still be assets to freeze at this late stage in the game? The Ampatuan massacre happened more than a year and a half ago. Some of the victims whom we represent made the request with the Council to file a freeze order more than six months ago. Why the late action?
The Council Secretariat’s executive director, Vicente Aquino in a letter to this newspaper reacting to an earlier column that I wrote, said that our impatience with them was borne of ignorance of the law and procedures. He was insistent, and he repeated this in a hearing at the Senate, that his office could not cause the filing of a freeze order with the courts without a finding of probable cause made by the Office of the Ombudsman in a complaint for either plunder or a violation of the anti-graft and corrupt practices act. Well, it seems that his own office proved Aquino wrong. The court did order a temporary freeze even without any action on the Ombudsman on the lone complaint for plunder filed by the same massacre victims who requested his office to file a petition for freeze order. Clearly, Aquino was attempting to justify the unjustifiable when he misinterpreted the law to explain their inaction on the Ampatuan wealth.
In the Senate hearing where Aquino, Secretary Leila de Lima, and I were invited as resource persons, he interpreted the law’s provision which reads as “…upon determination that probable cause exists that any deposit or similar account is in any way related to an unlawful activity” to mean a determination by the Ombudsman or the public prosecutor that probable cause exists for plunder or graft before his office could petition the court for a freeze order. Fortunately, I did not have to respond to such a patently wrong reading made by no less than the executive director of the office created to implement the law. This chore was left to Secretary de Lima who patiently explained to Aquino and the senators that it was not the job of the AMLA to determine probable cause for the commission of a crime, but only to determine existence of probable cause that accounts or assets may be the fruits of an illegal activity.
Aquino countered that this was a wrong reading of the law since according to him, “what would happen if after the freeze, the Ombudsman or the fiscal does not find probable cause?” Again, de Lima, with even more patience, explained that in which case, the frozen assets would simply be unfrozen. The liability of those responsible for the erroneous freeze would depend on whether they acted with malice or gross negligence. In which case, the account holder may sue them criminally, civilly, and administratively.
I guess the best proof that Aquino and his boss, Governor Amando Tetangco, are both wrong is their very own petition which the Court of Appeals quoted in ordering the freeze: “We agree with petitioner that probable cause exists that the subject bank accounts and other described properties of the respondents in the petition are related to unlawful activities; and that unless frozen, the funds in the subject accounts will certainly be withdrawn and the other identified properties disposed of, thereby placing them beyond the reach of the law”. Lo and behold, after belittling our knowledge of the law, the council turns around and adopts what we have been saying is the correct interpretation of the law!
But then, the question remains unanswered: why did the council take one year and seven months to tell the Court of Appeals what we have known all along: that the incredible wealth of the Anpatuans could not have come from legitimate sources given the documented income of local elected officials? Well, the most altruistic view would be that it is due to its own ignorance of the law that it seeks to implement. To me, though, it is still because the council’s top officials, like Tetangco, are beholden to the past administration. In turn, the Ampatuans are darlings of that administration.
In any case, I sincerely hope that council isn’t playing too late the hero here.
On another point, much ado has been made about the recent resignation of Transportation and Communications Secretary Jose “Ping” De Jesus. There is no doubt that de Jesus was among the truly good ones in the Aquino administration — together with Secretary De Lima, Jesse Robredo, and Albert Del Rosario. But the point is, unless you’re willing to make huge financial sacrifices or have further ambitions, it really is difficult to be in government with a salary of fifty thousand pesos per month. Let’s not read too much on a perfectly understandable decision. And yes, my good friend, the departed Josie Lichauco, herself a former DOTC Secretary, would be very happy that a person whom she has high respects for, Mar Roxas, took over the DOTC portfolio. I’m happy too that Roxas accepted.
This averted D-day between the Balay and Samar groups. Oh well, at least for now.