Ombudsman drops graft charges vs former Sulu governorBy Leila B. Salaverria
Philippine Daily Inquirer
MANILA, Philippines—The Office of the Ombudsman has dropped eight graft charges against former Sulu Governor Benjamin Loong which stemmed from his allegedly irregular transactions involving ice plant and cassava production livelihood projects in 2007.
Loong, who is currently the province’s vice governor, was cleared along with Kanoh Hajib, who chairs the Bawisan Multi-Purpose Cooperative, following a reinvestigation of the case.
The Ombudsman’s Office of the Special Prosecutor asked the Sandiganbayan Third Division to withdraw the charges. The charges were filed with the anti-graft court last year, but Loong sought a reinvestigation.
Loong and Hajib were accused of involvement in the allegedly questionable P41.5 million cash advances for construction of the ice plant and cold storage facilities in Maimbung, Sulu. At the time of the transactions, Loong was the province’s governor.
Loong and Hajib were also indicted for supposedly making it appear that the Bawisan Multi-Purpose Cooperative would manage the province’s cassava production project and ice cold storage facilities, when the projects were operated by BJ Coco Oil Mill, Inc., which Loong allegedly owned. Loong was further accused of having a personal interest in the livelihood projects, as well as four road projects.
But in its latest ruling, the OSP said Loong and Hajib’s indictment for the release of funds was based only on the affidavit of provincial treasurer Jesus Cabelin. There was no other evidence, even documentary ones, to support the charge, it said.
But it noted that the affidavit of Maimbung treasurer Hadja Pawah showed that it was Cabelin who directed him to issue the official receipts for the P41 million for the cold storage facilities even though he did not receive any such amount. The Commission on Audit had also attributed the deficiencies in the fund disbursement to Cabelin and not to Loong, it added.
“Amidst this paucity, if not the absence of documentary and testimonial evidence against the accused, the complainants’ evidence are opposed to each other. Clearly, this obtaining condition will not support the successful prosecution of these cases,” it said.
The OSP also said there was no evidence that Loong and Hajib received any money or other material remuneration from the business dealing.
As for Loong’s personal interest in the four road projects, which was supposedly shown because he owned the company contracted for the undertaking, the OSP said this was not the case.
It said that though Loong admitted that he was the president of contractor BJ Construction and Materials Supply as of 2010, this was immaterial because the questioned transaction was approved in 2007.
In 2007, Loong’s name never appeared as BJ Construction’s President in the certificate of filing of the amended articles of incorporation. His name was not among the officers either, it said.
With regard to the construction of the ice plant and cassava production facilities in the compound of BJ Coco Oil Mill, the OSP said the evidence to support this contention was insufficient.
It said tax declarations could not be considered competent evidence to prove that the facilities were built inside the oil mill compound. And even if the facilites were in the compound, this is not enough to indict Loong for graft because there was no proof that he had intervened in the decision to build the facilities, it added.
It also cited Loong’s explanation that the cold storage facility’s location inside the compound was strategic because it is at the edge of the shoreline and easily accesible to fisherfolk buying the ice. The cassava production facility was at the boundary of the oil mill premises, he added.
The OSP further there was insufficient evidence to show that BJ Coco Oil Mill was running the cassava production and post harvest facilities, and that Loong profited from the cold storage facility and cassava production.
But it also said the COA should conduct further audit on the matter.