Trial to proceed for fire officials over Kentex tragedy
The Sandiganbayan has ruled that two Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) officials will still be tried on charges of reckless imprudence over the Kentex factory fire which killed 74 people, mostly workers, in May 2015.
In a recently released 13-page resolution dated July 17, the court’s Second Division denied the motion filed by Valenzuela City fire marshal, Supt. Mel Jose Lagan, and Senior Insp. Edgrover Oculam, city fire safety chief, seeking to quash the case against them on jurisdictional grounds.
Lagan and Oculam argued that the court did not have jurisdiction over them because of its Dec. 13 resolution throwing out the case against Valenzuela Mayor Rexlon Gatchalian and two officials of the city’s Business Permits and Licensing Office (BPLO).
By dropping Gatchalian from the case, they said the highest-ranked among the remaining defendants would be Lagan, whose Salary Grade (SG) 25 was two notches below the jurisdictional threshold of SG 27.
However, the Sandiganbayan said the city fire marshal still fell under its coverage because he was considered a city department head under Section 4(a)(1)(b) of Republic Act No. 8249, the law defining the antigraft court’s jurisdiction.
Sections 55 and 56 of Republic Act No. 6975 or the Department of the Interior and Local Government Act of 1990 required each city to have at least one fire station headed by a fire marshal.
The court also disagreed with the two officials’ contention that there was no probable cause to try them for reckless imprudence because their alleged criminal neglect was not the “proximate cause” of the deadly May 13, 2015, fire. Instead, they pointed to the “welding flux” that directly ignited the flammable chemicals inside the factory.
However, the Sandiganbayan said there was sufficient basis to try them because Section 5 of the Fire Code mandated the BFP to inform local government unit officials of establishments’ compliance with or violations of fire safety regulations.
It also noted that the BFP’s power to abate fire hazards under Section 9 of the Fire Code did not appear to have been “exercised by the accused.”
While Lagan and Oculam insisted that they had refused to issue a fire safety inspection certificate and directed Kentex to address its fire code violations, the court said it was a matter of defense best threshed out through the presentation of evidence in a full-blown trial.
The Sandiganbayan also rejected the argument that it had no jurisdiction over Lagan and Oculam because they were not accused of bribery or causing any damage to the government.
It explained that its exclusive original jurisdiction also covered “other offenses and felonies” as long as these were committed by officials in relation to their public office.
Associate Justice Michael Frederick L. Musngi penned the resolution with the concurrence of Associate Justices Oscar C. Herrera Jr. and Lorifel L. Pahimna.
Gatchalian, as well as BPLO officer in charge Renchi May Padayo and licensing officer Eduardo Carreon, avoided trial after the court ruled in its Dec. 13 resolution that their issuance of a business permit despite Kentex’s lack of a fire safety inspection certificate did not directly cause the fire.
The court previously said that Gatchalian and the licensing office merely abided by City Ordinance No. 62, series of 2012, which streamlined the processing of business permits in the city.