Graft case vs Garcia, others for P98.9M purchase of land mostly under water dismissed
CEBU CITY—The anti-graft court Sandiganbayan dismissed a graft case against Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia and several others for the controversial purchase in 2008 by the provincial government of a lot that turned out to be mostly under water and cost P98.9 million.
In a decision promulgated last Nov. 26, the court said the prosecution failed to prove graft was committed by Garcia and the other accused in the purchase of the lot owned by the Balili family in Naga City, Cebu province.
The owners of the property were also cleared.
The decision to clear Garcia and the rest of the accused, according to the Sandiganbayan ruling, was made after “a thorough consideration of the evidence adduced by the prosecution.”
It said the court was convinced “that the guilt of the accused has not been proven with the required quantum or proof at this stage of the proceedings.”
“There being no sufficient basis to sustain the indictments, the court is left with no choice but to dismiss the case,” said the ruling penned by Associate Justice Lorifel Pahimna.
Associate Justices Michael Musngi, Maria Theresa Mendoza-Arcega and Karl Miranda concurred.
The ruling also found no basis to impose any monetary damage claim on Garcia and the other accused since the prosecution failed to prove any act or omission that would constitute civil liability.
A hold departure order against the accused, issued during the pendency of the case, was also lifted.
Bail bonds posted by Garcia and the other accused were canceled and returned.
Aside from Garcia, also charged with graft but cleared in the case were:
Former Provincial Board Member Juan Bolo
Retired provincial assessor Anthony Sususco
Former provincial treasurer Roy Salubre
Former provincial engineer Eulogio Pelayre
Former provincial budget officer Emme Gingoyon
Spouses Romeo and Amparo Balili, owners of the property
Garcia and the other accused, except for the Balilis, had been found guilty of grave misconduct by the Office of the Ombudsman, ordered dismissed from service and barred from holding public office.
But the Court of Appeals nullified the Ombudsman decision, saying the graft prosecuting office acted “whimsically, capriciously and arbitrarily.”
It said the administrative case against Garcia should fall under the so-called Aguinaldo Doctrine when Garcia was reelected governor in 2010.
The Aguinaldo Doctrine spares a public official from administrative liability for acts committed in a previous term of office if the official had been reelected. In effect, Garcia’s reelection in 2010 rendered her off the hook.
Garcia, a member of one of the most powerful clans in Cebu, served as Cebu governor from 2004 to 2013—the first woman to hold that office. She was elected representative of Cebu’s third congressional district in 2013 and 2016.
In 2019, she ran and won again as governor of Cebu even after then Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, in a ruling in February 2018, ordered Garcia, who was representative at the time, expelled from government service and barred from holding public office. Then Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez refused to enforce Morales’ order.
The case against Garcia and the others involved the province’s purchase of 11 parcels of land with a total area of 24.9 hectares for P98.9 million from the Balili family.
The Ombudsman’s decision said the deal was tainted with irregularity as the province at the time had no funds available for the purpose of “providing a good opportunity for the province of Cebu to develop and cater to the needs of interested investors.”
It said 50 percent of the total payment by the Capitol “actually came from the P50 million budget of the province not specifically earmarked for that purpose but for site development and housing program under social services.”
The decision noted that of the 11 parcels of land, at least 196,696 square meters of the total area of 249,246 square meters is submerged in seawater and can’t be used for the purposes listed by the provincial government—site for an international airport, to attract investors or as site for housing.
“The use of funds for a purpose other than the specific purpose for which the fund was appropriated is per se illegal,” the Ombudsman had said.
But the Sandiganbayan said there was no proof that funds for the Balili property came from annual allocation meant for site development and housing.
There was no proof that funds had been diverted.
The Sandiganbayan ruling added that the absence of a decision by the Commission on Audit or the provincial government’s Internal Audit Service to disallow the transaction “weighs in favor of the accused insofar as establishing the regularity of the transaction.”
While the prosecution was able to present overwhelming documentary evidence to provide the individual participation of each accused, the court was not convinced that there was a conspiracy to commit graft.
“To the court’s mind, it cannot be said that accused acted in conspiracy in the absence of evidence that points to their intentional participation in the transaction with a view to cause undue injury to the government,” the court said.
Edited by TSB
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