So complete, it seems, is the memory loss on so recent an event that hardly anyone flinched or raised a hue and cry when the Court of Tax Appeals (CTA) ruled last week to acquit retired Lt. Gen. Jacinto Ligot and his wife, Erlinda, in a P428-million tax deficiency case. The court threw out the charges based on the prosecution’s alleged failure to present enough evidence and their improper use of the country’s strict bank secrecy laws to look into the assets of the Ligots.
“Ligots who?” was probably the question many asked themselves while scrolling through their newsfeed for the day. But just eight years ago, in 2011, the Ligots were front-page news for weeks.
Jacinto Ligot was a former military comptroller who, with his wife Erlinda, became the subject of a wide-ranging Senate investigation into massive corrupt practices in the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
The tax-evasion charges were among the cases that were thrown at the Ligots after details of their unexplained, mind-boggling wealth came to light.
In particular, as this paper wrote in an editorial following Ligot’s appearance before the Senate:
“Ligot, the military comptroller when Gen. Angelo Reyes was AFP chief of staff, was confronted with records showing that his wife traveled to the United States 42 times, and bought two houses there, one of which she paid for in cold cash amounting to $183,868 in 2002… The Ligots are said to own, in all, eight pieces of real estate in the US.”
The Bureau of Internal Revenue’s tax evasion case against the Ligots maintained that they failed to supply correct information in their income tax returns from 2001 to 2004. The couple’s properties here and abroad, added the BIR, had a total value that far exceeded Ligot’s declared income of some P770,000 as a former AFP comptroller. His wife was a full-time homemaker.
Ligot made a memorable appearance before the Senate, chiefly because of the practiced bumbling act he put on. He denied knowing anything about his wife’s multiple trips to the United States; his wife kept them “secret,” he said.
Erlinda was out of the country for a straight three months at one point; Ligot said he neither noticed, nor looked for his wife. (Then Sen. Jinggoy Estrada’s incredulous reaction: “Even our pet dogs or cats, when they go astray, we look for them. What more if it’s your wife missing.”)
As for the houses, Ligot said he learned of their existence only when the Sandiganbayan slapped them with forfeiture cases. When he confronted his wife about the new houses, he said he had to drop the matter posthaste because Erlinda turned hysterical.
This is the kind of avid, brazen, unrepentant corruption case that should have made for a slam dunk in court. But, eight years later, the CTA exonerated the Ligots after it struck off the record a key piece of evidence — the Anti-Money Laundering Council’s investigation report showing that the couple deposited P364.18 million in several banks and made substantial investments.
The report was disallowed because, according to the court, the prosecution had no written consent from the couple as required by the country’s bank secrecy law. (Which begs the question: Would any accused ever consent to giving out such potentially incriminating information?)
Although the court ruled that the Ligots still face a related P55-million forfeiture case at the antigraft court since they did not question the BIR’s final assessment notice, that comes as decidedly small comfort to taxpayers and the public at large who are, once again, confronted by a high-profile case of corruption and misuse of the people’s money ultimately derailed by technicalities, and the culprits allowed to get away.
The other deficiency cited by the court is even more jarring for being so basic: The prosecutors, it said, presented certified copies or photocopies of documents that were not adequately authenticated as required by the Rules of Court. “Documents which have been identified and marked as exhibits during pre-trial or trial but which were not formally offered in evidence cannot in any manner be treated as evidence,” the CTA pointed out.
Think about it: Government prosecutors had years to research and prepare the documents that would have clinched the case. How to explain this glaring negligence, or perhaps ignorance, of court and evidentiary rules? And who must account for what appears to be so remiss and shoddy a work that, in dropping the ball in this case, the people’s lawyers gave the Ligots exactly the lucky break they needed to squeak out of the law’s grasp?