Ex-Pangasinan gov, co-accused acquitted of graft over black sand mining issue
MANILA, Philippines — Former Pangasinan governor Amado Espino Jr. and other provincial government officials have been acquitted from graft charges that stemmed from the black sand mining controversy in 2011.
In a decision handed down by the Sandiganbayan’s Sixth Division Thursday, the graft charges against Espino, then-provincial administrator Rafael Baraan, housing officer Alvin Bigay, and other private individuals were dismissed for failure of the prosecution to establish evident bad faith when the provincial government tapped companies to excavate black sand or magnetite sand.
The issue came from the controversial black sand mining program in Lingayen, which the government claimed was for the purpose of creating a golf course for their eco-tourism ventures. However, the prosecution believed that the golf course project was a mere cover for the real purpose, which was black sand mining.
The anti-graft court agreed with the prosecution that the officials involved may have given unwarranted benefits to Alexandra Mining and Oil Ventures Inc (AMOVI) and Xypher Builders, Inc. — the companies tasked to extract black sand — as the companies transported the magnetite sand allegedly worth P10.75 million to China.
However, Sandiganbayan said that this does not prove that the government was subjected to undue disadvantage, as the two companies did the work — extracting black sand — for free, in part of the golf course project. Neither does it assert that the officials charged acted with manifest partiality in favor of the companies.
“From the testimonial and documentary evidence presented by the prosecution, the Court finds no scintilla of proof that accused Espino, Baraan, and Bigay […] acted with evident bad faith. The only circumstance established in this case is that the subject permits failed to meet the requirements of law,” the court said in the decision penned by Associate Justice Kevin Narce Vivero.
“In this case, there is no showing that accused Espino, Baraan, and Bigay were motivated by malice or bad faith in failing to comply with the provisions of the law. Absent any showing of bad faith and malice, the presumption of regularity in the performance of official duties will work in their favor,” it added.
Sandiganbayan added that not even the questions on the legality of mining permits issued to the companies can prove that there was collusion between the officials and the companies mentioned.
“The court is not prepared to convict the accused public officers over their neglectful non-compliance or misapplication of mining laws, that was caused in part, too by the lapses of the mining authorities themselves,” it claimed.
The court also took note that it is hard to believe that the golf course project was merely a front as there was sufficient planning and reason to pull out the black sand from the area that was being developed.
“[…] The Court is convinced that the excavation, soil remediation, black/ magnetite sand extraction and other earth-moving activities in the subject area were all part and in pursuit of preparatory works for the 18-hole golf course, which is part of the Province of Pangasinan’s eco-tourism development,” Sandiganbayan noted.
“We cannot simply turn a blind eye to the extended efforts and detailed plans, programs, maps, and studies undertaken by the provincial government for the said golf course project. We thus found no basis to rule that the golf course project is all but a ploy to hide illegal mining activities,” it added.
Sandiganbayan however agreed with the prosecution over lapses in the extraction and transportation of black sand — even if it was necessary in the development of the golf course.
With the developments, the hold departure orders for Espino and the other officials for this case have been lifted and set aside, while their bail bonds were also ordered released.
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