2016 SC ruling cited in junking fertilizer scam case vs Joel Reyes
MANILA — Former Palawan Governor Mario Joel Reyes is the latest politician to be cleared of charges over the 2004 fertilizer fund scam due to “inordinate delay” by the Office of the Ombudsman.
In its 14-page resolution on Monday, the Sandiganbayan Fifth Division granted Reyes’ motion to dismiss his P3.25-million graft case on the heels of an earlier win by two co-accused agriculture officials.
Reyes took a cue from the moves of Department of Agriculture regional technical director Rodolfo Guieb and DA regional executive director Dennis Araullo, whose cases were thrown out on March 15 for the violation of their right to speedy disposition of their cases.
Just like in the case of Guieb and Araullo, the anti-graft court faulted the Office of the Ombudsman for taking “close to 12 years” before finally filing formal charges against Reyes in September 2016.
This period included the fact-finding investigation stage which took place from 2004 until Task Force Abono initiated the case for preliminary investigation in May 2011.
Although Ombudsman prosecutors usually argue that the evidence-gathering stage should not be considered as part of the proceedings against a respondent, the Sandiganbayan pointed to the Supreme Court’s “unequivocal” October 2016 ruling in the case of retired Commodore Lamberto Torres. (On Oct. 5, 2016, the Supreme Court dismissed eight counts of graft filed against Torres in connection with the 1991-92 emergency purchase of medical supplies for the Philippine Navy. Torres had filed a petition for certiorari, claiming his rights to due process and speedy trial were violated by the Office of the Ombudsman and the Sandiganbayan. The criminal charges for the 1991-92 purchase were filed with the Sandiganbayan only in 2011. Torres’ trial at the Sandiganbayan dragged on for another five years after that.)
Applying the 2016 Supreme Court ruling in the Torres case, the Sandiganbayan said it did not buy the prosecution’s claim that the delay in the fertilizer scam case was a reasonable part of due process and the respondents, including Reyes, were heard during the preliminary investigation stage.
It said this reasoning did not “sufficiently explain the long stretches of time… that the case against the accused remained pending with no apparent action.”
The court stressed that while it recognized the “immense scope” of the fertilizer fund scam, the supposed decade-long delay “cannot be countenanced lest We run afoul of the Constitutional protection afforded by the right to speedy disposition of cases.”
Justice Rafael R. Lagos penned the resolution, with the concurrence of Justices Reynaldo P. Cruz and Maria Theresa V. Mendoza-Arcega.
Reyes earlier lost his first attempt to throw out the case through a motion for judicial determination of probable cause that questioned the basis of his indictment by the Ombudsman.
The Sandiganbayan First Division, which originally handled the case, affirmed in a Dec. 1 resolution that sufficient evidence existed so far to subject him to trial.
Reyes, Guieb and Araullo, along with Masaganang Ani Para sa Magsasaka Foundation, Inc. (MAMFI) officers Marina Sula and Nathaniel Tan, were accused of misusing a P3.25-million allocation under the Farm Inputs and Farm Implements Program in 2004.
The officials allegedly favored MAMFI to be the project implementer without conducting the necessary public bidding and even if the non-government organization was not government-accredited.
The Office of the Ombudsman has continued trying to prosecute dozens of local officials for graft cases arising from the 2004 fertilizer fund scam. But, prosecutors have recently met defeat left and right at the Sandiganbayan as most of the defendants ended up questioning the length of time it took to bring the cases to court. SFM
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.