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US court forfeits $100K seized from Garcia sons, PHL loses claim

A United States court on Friday (US time) forfeited the $100,000 (about P4.4 million) seized seven years ago from the two sons of former military comptroller Gen. Carlos Garcia, who is facing plunder and money laundering and other charges in the Philippines. Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of the US Northern District Court of California issued the final forfeiture order in favor of the US government on January 7, after nobody—not even the Philippine government—stepped forward to claim the amount. The forfeited money is believed to be part of the P303-million ill-gotten wealth Garcia and his family allegedly earned while he was still in active military service. The money was seized from the Ian Carl Garcia and Juan Paolo Garcia, sons of the former comptroller, after they were apprehended in Dec. 2003 at a US airport for allegedly trying to sneak the money into the US. They did not declare the cash, which was found hidden in their luggage. Ian Carl, 32, and Juan Paolo, 29 pleaded guilty to charges of cash smuggling in September 2010. In Nov. 2010, the Office of the Ombudsman said it had asked the US government to return the confiscated money, saying it was part of the Garcia family’s ill-gotten wealth. GMANews.TV was unable to get the side of the Ombudsman as of posting time. Preliminary forfeiture order On Oct. 29, 2010, Patel issued a Preliminary Order forfeiting the $100,000 in favor of the U.S. government. The order allowed claimants, including the Philippine government, to stake a claim for the smuggled money within 30 days. To stake a claim, Manila should have registered its claim at a website run by the US Department of Justice from Nov. 5, 2010 to Dec. 4, 2010. California Northern District Attorney Melinda Haag later extended the deadline in the forfeiture notice she had issued, giving claimants until Jan. 4 to register their claims. “The U.S. hereby gives notice of its intent to dispose of the forfeited property in such manner as the United States Attorney General may direct," the notice read. “Any person, other than the defendants in this case, claiming interest in the forfeited property must file a Petition within 60 days of the first date of publication (Nov. 5, 2010) of this Notice of this official government Internet website pursuant to Rule 32.2 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and 21 U.S.C. section 853(n)(1)," it also read. When no one had registered claims by January 4, or 60 days since the US court opened its doors to claimants, the court then submitted a proposal to issue a final order of forfeiture. It submitted this on Jan. 6. Acceding to the proposal, Patel said in her final order that “The United States represents that it has complied with the publication and notice requirements of the Preliminary Order and that no petitions have been filed." “Therefore, it is ordered that the above-described property shall be forfeited to the United States," she added. Garcia faces plunder charges, makes plea bargain The Garcia family is facing civil and criminal charges before the Sandiganbayan, the Philippines' anti-graft court, for alleged plunder of around P300 million, which the former comptroller is said to have illegally obtained while serving in the military. A member of the Philippine Military Academy class of 1971, Garcia was charged before the Sandiganbayan with plunder, a non-bailable offense, and violation of Section 4-A of the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA) for allegedly amassing around P300 million in bribe money. However, he entered a "not guilty plea" to these charges. Instead, on Dec. 16, he pleaded guilty to the lesser offenses of knowledge of unlawful transactions under Section 4-B of the AMLA, and to direct bribery, a bailable offense under the Revised Penal Code. A day later, Garcia walked out of detention at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center in Quezon City after posting a P60,000 bail. Office of the Solicitor General on Jan. 5 revealed that the plea bargain agreement between Garcia and the Office of the Ombudsman had been approved by the anti-graft court during the last two months of the previous Arroyo administration. Apart from the former general, Garcia’s wife and three sons—who are believed to have spent the ill-gotten wealth— were also charged with plunder and are now the subject of extradition proceedings in the US. Plunder is punishable by imprisonment of 30 years to life in prison. US Magistrate Judge Edward Chen of the U.S. Northern District Court of California is hearing the extradition case against Ian Carl and Juan Paolo. A status hearing is set on January 26, 2011. Another son of the general, Timothy Mark Garcia, 25, is due to face Judge Richard Holwell of the U.S. District Court of Southern New York on Jan. 12, 2011 for the status hearing of his extradition case. He was earlier arrested in New York for purchasing a $765,000 (P36.7 million) apartment using portions of the $2 million that was allegedly ill-acquired and transferred from the Philippines by the Garcia family. The extradition of their mother Clarita Garcia, 59, is pending before Judge George Caram Steeh of the US Eastern District of Michigan. — JA/DM/KBK, GMANews.TV