Ombudsman junks graft charges against ex-Sulu governorBy Leila B. Salaverria
Philippine Daily Inquirer
The Ombudsman has dropped eight graft charges against former Sulu Governor Benjamin Loong that stemmed from his transactions involving ice plant and cassava production 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.
The Ombudsman’s Office of the Special Prosecutor (OSP) has asked the Sandiganbayan’s Third Division to withdraw the charges filed last year. Loong had sought a reinvestigation.
Loong and Hajib were accused of irregularities in connection with P41.5 million in cash advances for the construction of an ice plant and cold storage facilities in Maimbung, Sulu. At the time of the transactions, Loong was the governor.
Loong and Hajib were also accused of 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.
In its decision to drop the case, the OSP noted that 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.
Aside from the paucity of evidence, the OSP noted that some pieces of evidence even contradicted the charge. It said 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 also attributed the deficiencies in the fund disbursement to Cabelin and not to Loong, it added.
“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 deal.
As for Loong’s personal interest in the four road projects, which was supposedly shown by the fact that 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 was not listed among the officers of the construction company, the OSP noted.
With regard to the construction of the ice plant and cassava production facilities at the compound of BJ Coco Oil Mill, the OSP said the evidence to support this contention was insufficient.
It said tax declarations were insufficient to establish that the facilities were built inside the oil mill compound. And even if the facilities were in the compound, this was not enough to indict Loong for graft because there was no proof that he intervened in the decision to build the facilities, it added.
It cited Loong’s explanation that the cold storage facility’s location inside the compound was strategic because it is on the edge of the shoreline and easily accessible to fisherfolk buying the ice. The cassava production facility was at the boundary of the oil mill premises, he added.
The OSP further said there was insufficient evidence to show that BJ Coco Oil Mill was running the cassava production and postharvest facilities, and that Loong profited from the cold storage facility and cassava production.
It recommended further COA audit.