Court dismisses Kentex fire raps vs Mayor Gatchalian
The Sandiganbayan Second Division dismissed for lack of probable cause the criminal charges of graft and reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide and injuries against Valenzuela City Mayor Rexlon Gatchalian for his alleged negligence over the Kentex fire tragedy.
In a resolution promulgated on Dec. 13, the anti-graft court said Gatchalian and two of his co-accused were not directly involved in the incident that caused the fire.
“It does not appear that the accused were involved in the incident which caused the fire. There is no direct causal connection between the fire and the damage incurred and the acts supposedly committed by accused,” the court said in the resolution penned by Associate Justice Frederick Musngi.
The resolution was concurred by division chairperson Associate Justice Samuel Martires and Associate Justice Geraldine Econg.
The court effectively granted the motion to dismiss for lack of probable cause by mayor Gatchalian, the brother of Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, in connection with the criminal charges.
The cases of Gatchalian’s co-accused were also dismissed – city hall employees Renchi May Padayao, officer in charge of the Business Permits and Licensing Office (BPLO), and Eduardo Yco Carreon, licensing officer IV of the BPLO.
The court added that the accused could not be held liable for graft for giving a business permit to Kentex even though the latter had no Fire Safety Inspection Certificate (FSIC).
The court said Gatchalian and the two city hall officials could not be faulted for granting a business permit to Kentex because a city ordinance allows the grant of the business permit even without an FSIC.
They could also not be held liable for violating the Fire Code of the Philippines because it is the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) – not the city hall – which was tasked to implement it.
“Considering that the actions of the accused local government unit officials were pursuant to existing laws, rules and ordinance, then they could not be said to have acted with manifest partiality, evident bad faith or gross inexcusable negligence,” the court said.
“On the contrary, because the accused LGU officials were dispensing with their duties pursuant to law and existing rules, good faith is presumed,” the court added.
The court also said the officials were not aware of the delinquencies committed by Kentex.
“From the records of this case, there is no fact established or alleged that accused LGU officials are aware of the delinquency,” the court said.
The court said there was no evidence to show that the BFP submitted a report or recommendation to the city hall about the FSIC of Kentex.
“The Court has no other option but to dismiss the instant case. There is no reason to hold the accused on trial and further expose them to an open and public accusation of the crime when no probable cause exists,” the court said.
In his motion, Gatchalian said the Office of the Special Prosecutor under the Ombudsman erred in filing a reckless imprudence case against him for the grant of business permit to Kentex, the slippers factory that was gutted in a fire last May 2015.
Gatchalian said the inter-agency task force that investigated the incident has determined that the cause of the fire was the “molten slags from the welding rod” of workers welding in the factory that came into contact with combustible sacks of chemicals used for manufacturing slippers.
Gatchalian said it was not he who was negligent but the welders who accidentally ignited the chemicals.
“There is no showing that the issuance of the business permits to Kentex… was the proximate cause of the fire which caused the death and injury to Kentex workers,” his motion read.
Refuting the Ombudsman
“With due respect, the Office of the Ombudsman is gravely mistaken in forcibly indicting the accused for the crime of Reckless Imprudence… Attributing the fire to the accused unduly stretches the limit of the principle of proximate cause in determining criminal liability,” the motion added.
Gatchalian also refuted the Ombudsman’s allegation he was liable for graft for giving undue preference to Kentex in the grant of permit even though it was not qualified.
Gatchalian said he was only fulfilling his duties as mayor in enforcing ordinances that aim to eliminate red tape in government by the speedy issuance of business permits.
He said as mayor it was not he nor the Business Permits and Licensing Office, but the Bureau of Fire Protection that was mandated to check if Kentex violated the Fire Code of the Philippines.
“Accused merely enforced the procedure provided by the Administrative Issuances and Ordinance No. 22 in issuing the business permits to Kentex. There is no showing that Accused treated Kentex any differently from the thousands of other applicants of business permits in Valenzuela city,” his motion read.
Gatchalian added that the policy in Valenzuela city in the grant of business permit was also being implemented in other local government units.
He added that it is the current policy of the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte to stamp out red tape in government.
“The present administration validated the procedure implemented by Valenzuela city in issuing business permits… The settled national policy of streamlining the issuance of business permits has been given more importance by the president administration under President Rodrigo R. Duterte,” his motion read.
The Office of the Special Prosecutor filed charges of reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicides and multiple injuries punishable under the Revised Penal Code against Gatchalian, and city hall employees, Renchi May Padayao, officer in charge of the Business Permits and Licensing Office (BPLO), and Eduardo Yco Carreon, licensing officer IV of the BPLO.
Also charged with multiple homicide are the officials of the Bureau of Fire Protection in Valenzuela–Mel Jose Lagan, city fire marshall; Edgrover Oculam, fire senior inspector; and Rolando Avendan, senior fire officer; as well as Ong King Guan, known as Terence King Ong, the general manager and treasurer of the ill-fated Kentex Manufacturing Corp.
The prosecution said the accused conspired with each other in a “negligent, careless and imprudent manner” in granting a business permit to Kentex while failing to impose the prescribed sanction under Section 9 of the Revised Fire Code of the Philippines.
Gatchalian and other officials granted the business permit to Kentex thereby allowing Kentex to operate under hazardous conditions, while abandoning the necessary precautionary fire safety measures meant to protect the lives of the workers and prevent accidents.
Their actions resulted in the deaths of 74 individuals, thereby causing injury amounting to P3.7 million, the prosecution said.
Meanwhile, Gatchalian, Mecina, Padayao, Carreon and Ong were charged with violation of Section 3(e) of the anti-graft law for giving undue advantage to Kentex in the grant of business permit in 2015 despite its delinquent status and without requiring a Fire Safety Inspection Certificate.
They were also accused of failing to revoke the permit after Kentex failed to submit the requirements within the prescribed period, allowing Kentex to continue operating with inadequate fire safety measures.
The inadequate fire safety standards resulted in the deaths due to the fire that gutted the warehouse last May 13, 2015, the prosecution said.
Gatchalian, Padayao and Carreon were also charged with a second count of graft or violation of Section 3 (j) of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, for conspiring with each other in approving the business permit to Kentex even though it was not qualified or entitled to such a permit because of the absence of the required Fire Safety Inspection Certificate.
President Benigno Aquino III earlier pinned the blame on the Valenzuela local government unit for granting a business permit and certificate of occupancy to Kentex despite noncompliance to safety standards and violations of the Fire Code, such as lack of an automatic fire sprinkler system and of a protected fire exit.
Of those killed, 69 died of fourth degree burns while three died of inhalation of fumes. The seven-hour fire that did not even spare the life of one of the owners’ sons raised the issue of unsafe “sweatshop” labor conditions for workers in the country./ac
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