THE Sandiganbayan’s Sixth Division has ordered the 90-day preventive suspension of Camarines Sur second district Rep. Luis Raymund Villafuerte Jr., pending litigation of the graft charges filed against him in connection with the province’s alleged anomalous procurement of petroleum products in 2010 when he was governor.
In a resolution promulgated on September 7, the court granted the suspension sought by the Office of the Ombudsman, citing Section 13 of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act which mandates the preventive suspension of incumbent public officers facing a valid graft charge.
“Wherefore, the prosecution’s Motion to suspend the accused pendente lite is hereby granted, and accused Luis Raymund Villafuerte Jr. is hereby directed to cease and desist from further performing and/or exercising the functions, duties and privileges of his position as Congressman of the Second District of Camarines Sur, or any other position he may now or hereafter be holding effective immediately upon receipt hereof and continuing for a period of ninety (90) days,” the court said.
The ruling also directed the House Speaker or his authorized representative to inform the court in writing of the action taken regarding the suspension within five days from receipt of the resolution which copy was also given them as a matter of procedure.
In his opposition to the suspension plea Villafuerte argued “there can be no possible intimidation of the Prosecution’s witnesses nor any legitimate fear with respect to the documentary evidence, since most of the evidence which had been previously marked have already been presented.”
The defense also argued that the acts for which he stands charged do not constitute a violation of the anti-graft law, which would warrant his mandatory suspension.
However, in its ruling, the graft court said that its authority to order the suspension of an incumbent public official, including members of Congress, who are charged with graft “has both legal and jurisprudential support.”
“The accused prays that a pre-suspension hearing be conducted. Such prayer is however too late as he already entered his plea (not guilty) and was arraigned, thereby recognizing the validity of the Information and/or obviating the desired pre-suspension hearing, the purpose of which is to determine the validity of the Information,” the court said.
Villafuerte was arraigned on October 8, 2013 and since the validity of the charge sheet is no longer in dispute with his arraignment, the court held that it is mandatory to suspend him pending litigation.
“The stage of the proceedings is immaterial, and any protestations of the accused would have to be disregarded. What is important is that the validity of the Information was already determined with the arraignment of the accused,” it said.
“It must be remembered that the imposition of suspension pendente lite is not a penalty because it is not imposed as a result of judicial proceedings. In fact if acquitted, the official concerned is entitled to reinstatement and to salaries and benefits which he failed to receive during suspension,” the court added.
The ruling was issued by Associate Justice Rodolfo Ponferrada, head of the court’s Sixth Division which was concurred in by Associate Justices Oscar Herrera Jr. and Karl Miranda.
In 2013, the Ombudsman filed three counts of graft before the Sandiganbayan against Villafuerte and private respondent Jeffrey Lo in connection with the alleged procurement of petroleum products amounting to P20 million from the latter without calling for the required public bidding in 2010.