Estrada camp panicking on Atong’s plea deal

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — THE CAMP of deposed President Joseph Estrada yesterday slammed Charlie “Atong” Ang for his failure to give Estrada’s defense lawyers a copy of his plea bargain agreement with state prosecutors before he submitted it to the Sandigabayan.

“The hidden agenda is disgraceful as the intent was not even to give us a copy of an important document that may affect our client. What law authorizes such posture?” said Rene Saguisag, Estrada’s lead defense counsel.

The agreement, if approved by the Sandiganbayan, would allow Ang to enter a plea of guilty for the lesser offense of bribery, which carries a six-year prison term, and avoid a possible sentence of 40 years for plunder.

In exchange, Ang would assist in the prosecution of cases “in which he has personal knowledge.”

In the plea bargain he submitted to the Sandiganbayan on Wednesday, Ang acknowledged that he and Estrada conspired in 1998 to “divert” P130 million in tobacco excise taxes originally allocated for Ilocos Sur province.

Saguisag said Ang’s plea bargain contained information prejudicial to the defense of his client Estrada who, along with Sen. Jinggoy Estrada and lawyer Edward Serapio, went on trial at the Sandiganbayan for plunder.

Estrada, who is detained in his estate in Tanay, Rizal, had been on trial since he was ousted in 2001. He is facing plunder charges for allegedly amassing some P4 billion in ill-gotten wealth.

Joint trial

“Technically, it’s still a joint trial. As far as I know, there has been no severance of trial,” Saguisag said of the deal being potentially against Estrada in the plunder case. Ang was an original accused in the case.

Saguisag’s reading of the possible impact of Ang’s plea bargain on his client’s case was in sharp contrast with that of Estrada and his spokesperson.

Saguisag criticized government prosecutors and Ang’s lawyers for their aversion to giving Estrada lawyer Jay Flaminiano a copy of the deal even after it was presented to the justices of the Sandiganbayan special division during the pre-trail proceedings against Ang on Wednesday.

“They didn’t want to give a copy of the agreement. How would you look at that?” Saguisag said.

Battle for hearts and minds

Saguisag said the case “is not only a battle for hearts and minds but of one’s place in history among those supposed to be involved in the crimes alleged.”

The defense lawyer filed a motion with the Sandiganbayan seeking clarification on whether or not information prejudicial to the former President may be received by the court without him, the principal accused, being informed about it.

Saguisag also noted that the joint trial of Estrada and Ang had not been severed.

The lawyer asked the court to give the defense panel more time to file its reply to the prosecution’s opposition to the defense’s formal offer of evidence in light of “the confusion that may have arisen” because of the plea bargain deal.

“On the basis of media reports, we need to know whether Ang has filed a motion for a separate trial. If not, we should be notified of all hearings, particularly if (Estrada’s) rights may be adversely affected,” Saguisag said in his seven-page motion.

“This is due process in what is punishable by death prior to the amendment. Notice is indispensable. Then we decide whether to waive our right to be present or not,” he added.

Estrada said he was confident of the evidence that his lawyers had submitted in his defense. “The deal will not affect us,” he said after Ang, his former gambling buddy, submitted the agreement to the Sandiganbayan.

Hearsay

Rufus Rodriguez, Estrada’s spokesperson, said the plea bargain “will not prejudice” the case against the deposed President.

“[The contents of the plea bargain deal are] hearsay as far as the defense is concerned. [The deal] will not affect our client’s case,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday.

Rodriguez said Ang’s latest allegations against Estrada would run counter to the court’s reenactment of the cash delivery that he said showed that it was physically impossible for one man to carry with him P130 million in cash.

Rodriguez also said that Ang had already told a Senate inquiry under oath that the alleged diversion of the excise tax proceeds, as alleged by top Estrada accuser Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis Singson, was a lie.

At the Senate impeachment trial of Estrada in 2000 and at his plunder trial at the Sandiganbayan, Singson had said that it was Ang who had delivered the money to Estrada.

No more trial for Ang

Dennis Villa-Ignacio, lead prosecutor in the plunder case, said Wednesday that the plea bargain deal, once accepted by the Sandiganbayan, would form part of the records of the case.

He said there was no longer a need for Ang to take the witness stand to testify on how he delivered P130 million in cash to Estrada’s residence on Polk Street in North Greenhills, San Juan.

“Why would we go through another trial for Atong Ang? That’s already it,” Villa-Ignacio said of the uselessness of having Ang take the stand against Estrada in view of the plea bargaining agreement.

Unless Ang takes the stand and testifies on the alleged delivery of the money to Estrada’s home, the damaging information may not be used against Estrada as this will constitute hearsay, said Villa-Ignacio and Ang’s lawyer, Ruth Castelo.

“The plea agreement is just between the prosecution and our client Atong Ang. It will not affect the case against President Estrada,” Castelo said.

Saguisag said the special prosecutor was saying one thing while Ang’s lawyers were saying another. “This is the reason why we are seeking a clarification from the court,” he said.

Like Superman

In his manifestation before the court, Saguisag sought to clarify if Ang’s allegations would be subjected to closer examination by the court.

“Is this honorable court ready to pepper Ang with questions on the ludicrous tale that like Superman he carried P130 million all by his lonesome? Or that in fact he never went to Polk during President Estrada’s entire tenure? No court could just take any imposition,” Saguisag said.

Concern for Ang’s safety

He expressed concern for Ang’s safety following his plea bargain deal with the government prosecutors.

Saguisag said that it was in Estrada’s interest that his co-accused remain alive for the day when it would be safe for him to tell the “real (story).”

“We have a stake in his safety after what he has done. We want him to live. In the wisdom of a new day, he may tell another story, this time, the real one,” Saguisag said.