Ombudsman junks graft case vs ex-DENR Secretary Gina Lopez
MANILA, Philippines — The Office of the Ombudsman has dropped the graft case against former Environment Secretary Gina Lopez, who was accused of “receiving gift” from a renewable energy firm, for lack of probable cause.
In a 10-page resolution, the Ombudsman said Lopez’s trip to France in 2016 to observe wastewater projects in Paris “could not qualify as ‘receiving any gift’ within the meaning of the law.”
Viena Tañada, former Business Development Officer of Ecoglobal Inc., filed the graft case against Lopez before the Ombudsman on March 16, 2017. Tañada asserted Lopez’s trip to Paris upon the invitation of French company Syndicat Interdepartmental pour l’Assainissement de l’Agglomeration Parissienne (SIAAP) constitute graft because at the time of the trip, Ecoglobal is seeking a permit from government.
According to Tañada, Ecoglobal had a 10-month pending application for a Renewable Energy Service Contract (RESC) with the Department of Energy (DOE), for a 30 megawatt solar farm project. She said Ecoglobal was looking to expand the project into a 300 megawatt solar farm that also needs approval from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
Tañada said Lopez’s expenses in Paris, including hotel accommodations, flight bookings, and travel insurances worth 38,380 euros or roughly P2.05 million, were shouldered by Ecoglobal Foundation, Inc.
Tañada argued Lopez helped Ecoglobal secure approval for its RESC application with DOE. Based on the complaint, Lopez and five others left for Paris on October 2, 2016 and the next day DOE awarded EcoGlobal an RESC.
Tañada is one of Ecoglobal’s former employees who have filed charges of estafa, nonpayment of wages and illegal dismissal against Ecoglobal Foundation, Inc.’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Jean-Philippe Henry, who was also charged for graft at the Ombudsman together with Lopez.
But Lopez countered the allegations, saying she never requested any trip and even noted it was SIAAP that made the offer. She also said the Paris trip was “sanctioned and approved by the government” as it was not for her own personal benefit.
She then pointed out that it is DOE that approves RESC, and not DENR.
The Ombudsman’s resolution penned by Graft Investigation Officer Bonifacio Mandrilla sided with Lopez, noting that the third element of graft — that the offender directly or indirectly requested any gift, present, or material benefit for himself or another person — is absent in this case.
“The third element is absent. The trip to France could not qualify as ‘receiving any gift’ within the meaning of the law […] Albeit the all-expense paid trip to Paris extended to Secretary Lopez is technically a gift given gratuitously by SIAAP, the qualifying circumstance that the same be manifestly excessive is lacking,” the resolution said.
“The fact that there were seven other people who went with her trip carries the possibility that the alleged amount could have likewise covered their trips. This deprives the Office of any basis to rule on whether the trip is manifestly excessive or not,” the Ombudsman added.
The Ombudsman also banked on the approval Lopez secured from the Office of the President.
“Even if the principles laid down in similar laws on the concept of unauthorized ‘gift-giving’ were to be applied, the act complained of would still not qualify as a criminal violation. Under Section 7(d)(3) of R.A. No. 6713, Congress allows acceptance of foreign travels from foreign governments if the same is with the permission of the head of agency where the public officer belongs,” the Ombudsman explained.
“The trip was with the approval of the Office of the President and the same was in line with the government’s plan to rehabilitate Pasig River,” it added. /kga
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