Cebu governor charged with graft over purchase of largely underwater estate
MANILA, Philippines—The Office of the Ombudsman on Thursday charged Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia with two counts of graft and one count of illegal use of public funds at the Sandiganbayan for the purchase of land for a housing project, which turned out to be mostly under water.
Charged with Garcia, who had declared she was running for senator, are seven other Cebu officials who had roles to play in the province’s purchase of the Balili Estate for P99 million in 2008.
Charged with one count of graft with Garcia were then provincial Board Member Juan Bolo; Anthony Sususco, then chair of the Cebu Provincial Appraisal Committee and provincial assessor; then CPAC members Roy Salubre and Eulogio Pelayre; then provincial Budget Officer Emme Gingoyon, and Amparo and Romeo Balili, the land owners.
The Ombudsman said Garcia entered into an agreement with the Balilis to buy a portion of the Balili Estate in Naga, Cebu, with an area of 24.9 hectares. The Cebu government had paid the Balilis P99 million.
It turned out that at least 19 hectares of the land were under water, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Garcia, the Ombudsman said, also signed the deal with the Balilis despite the province having no funds earmarked for it.
The Ombudsman said the officials also lied about the real condition of the land and disregarded findings that more than half of it is under water to ensure passage of a provincial board resolution authorizing Garcia to enter into the deal.
Garcia, the Ombudsman said, diverted at least P50 million in government funds intended for site development and a housing program to pay for part of the estate’s price.
The Ombudsman said the Cebu government lost at least P99 million as a result of the deal.
“The disbursement was illegal,” said the Ombudsman.
The provincial government, it said, “can no longer carry out its plan of site development and housing program because … 196,696 square meters of 249,246 sq m (of the land) were under water.”
It said the provincial board was made to believe that the land was classified as industrial and recreational when it authorized Garcia to pay for the piece of property.
The Ombudsman said Garcia took funds from appropriations for social services to pay the Balilis, exceeding her authority.
The provincial board, it said, would have known that more than half of the land is under water had not the CPAC disregarded a report of a technical working group and if one of the respondents, Board Member Bolo, had been candid enough to inform the board of the land’s condition.
This was the reason that CPAC members Sususco, Salubre and Pelayre were charged as well, said the Ombudsman.
The governor was unavailable for comment, but her spokesperson, Jong Sepulbeda, said “we are still in the process of verifying. The governor’s lawyers have not received any notice or resolution (of the Ombudsman).”