The Sandiganbayan’s First Division dismissed the graft case filed against Bohol Governor Edgardo Chatto, Rep. Rene Relampagos, and five others because of the inordinate delay by the Office of the Ombudsman in filing it in court.
Last October, the Ombudsman filed the case against Chatto, Relampagos and several others in connection with the contracts they entered into on behalf of the provincial government in 2001 regarding the Provincial Electric System (PES) and Provincial Water System (PWS).
“(T)he Court is convinced that the Office of the Ombudsman incurred inordinate and unjustified delay in the conduct of the preliminary investigation of this case in violation of the right of the accused to a speedy disposition of their case,” Associate Justice Efren Dela Cruz, who leads the court’s First Division, wrote in a six-page ruling promulgated on January 21.
It was concurred in by Associate Justices Rodolfo Ponferrada and Rafael Lagos.
The anti-graft court’s ruling granted the separate motions filed by several of the accused last year seeking dismissal of the case.
Relampagos filed a motion seeking to void the charge on the ground of violation of his right to speedy disposition of the case.
Chatto and his co-accused, former provincial Council members Isabelito Tongco, Concepcion Lim, Tomas Abapo Jr., and Felix Uy later filed a motion to dismiss likewise citing violation of their right to speedy disposition of the case.
Private respondent Dennis Villareal also sought the outright dismissal of the case.
“The motions to dismiss are impressed with merit,” the court said.
According to the ruling, the criminal complaint was filed before the Ombudsman on October 25, 2000 and was filed before the court only on October 23, 2015 “which means that it took the Office of the Ombudsman fifteen (15) long years to conclude the preliminary investigation.”
“In this span of years, the Court does not see any intervening event that will excuse the Office of the Ombudsman to stretch the proceedings to such unreasonable length,” it said.
The prosecution opposed the defendant’s motions and argued that the delay was never meant to oppress them but to ensure that the anti-graft office issues a correct or valid ruling.
According to Relampagos’ camp, the Ombudsman dismissed the complaint in 2008 for lack of probable cause and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales later ordered a reinvestigation in 2014.
The prosecution said that the February 21, 2000 ruling dismissing the complaint, approved on July 2, 2008, did not attain finality for being void because then-Acting Deputy Ombudsman Orlando Casimiro only signed its photocopy and there was no showing that he was authorized to do so.
However, the Sandiganbayan said, “Be that as it may, this does not negate the fact that the Office of the Ombudsman committed capricious and vexatious delay.”
It pointed out that the Ombudsman spent over five years to reverse the dismissal of the complaint in 2008 and another two years to file the case before the anti-graft court.
“It is inconceivable that the Office of the Ombudsman needed five (5) years just to realize that Acting Deputy Ombudsman Casimiro signed only a photocopy of the subject Resolution and that he was not supposedly authorized to do so. Certainly, the bases of the Office of the Ombudsman for reversing itself did not involve difficult questions of law or complicated facts needing five (5) years to answer,” the court said.
The court also lifted the hold-departure orders issued against the accused.
Relampagos was governor at the time of the alleged offense while Chatto was vice governor. Both are members of the Liberal Party.
Villareal was the president and/or Representative of the Consortium of Salcon International Inc., Salcon Power Corporation, and Pure and Pam Inc. (Power Consortium) and the Consortium of Salcon International Inc., Salcon Philippine Inc. and Salcon Limited (water consortium).
The Ombudsman alleged that the respondents conspired and entered into joint venture agreements with the said consortiums in the amount of P782 million, broken down into P135 million for the utilities’ fixed assets and P647 million for their franchise.