Sandigan clears former Davao councilor

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The anti-graft court Sandiganbayan’s Special Third Division has acquitted former Davao City councilor Conrado Baluran and then-utility worker Jobert Roy Catalan of the city council in a graft case filed against them in connection with alleged use of a government vehicle to transport unauthorized passengers in 2007.

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The court thus ordered the release of the cash bonds, which they had posted for their provisional liberty, and lifted its hold departure order, which had barred the accused from going abroad without its permission.

“In fine, the totality of evidence presented does not support the accused’s conviction for violation of Section 3(e) of RA 3019 because the prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt all the elements of the offense charged. Since the prosecution failed to discharge its burden, the presumption of innocence will prevail and acquittal should follow as a matter of course,” it held in part in a 20-page decision promulgated last week.

Republic Act (RA) 3019 is the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

The Office of the Ombudsman filed the case in 2010 alleging that the vehicle, a red Ford Ranger pick-up, which was assigned to Baluran and driven by Catalan, was used to transport some nursing students from a subdivision to the Davao Medical Center (DMC).

It alleged that the defendants caused undue injury to the city government consisting of the fuel consumed and the supposed wear and tear caused to the vehicle.

Prosecution witness Marco Anacleto Buena, a Graft Investigation and Prosecution Officer and who led the complaint unit of the Office of the Deputy Ombudsman for Mindanao at the time, testified that he saw the vehicle while on his way to the DMC in the morning of August 14, 2007.

When he arrived at the hospital five to seven minutes later, based on the court’s ruling, he saw two nursing students and Catalan alighting from the same car and he took pictures because they had an “operation red plate” at the time.

The accused explained that a patient who allegedly asked Baluran for medical assistance was brought to the hospital for an urgent blood transfusion and that on their way, the nursing students allegedly asked Catalan for a ride.

In its ruling, the court found that the prosecution witness’ testimony was “inconclusive to establish that there were no other people in the said vehicle except for the said two (2) nursing students and accused Catalan who were standing near the vehicle as shown by the pictures taken by Buena himself.”

It said that the government vehicle arrived at the DMC ahead of Buena, who admitted that he could not see if there were other people inside the car.

“Thus, the Court is inclined to believe that the said government vehicle was used to bring patient [Violeta] Vicente to the DMC to avail of the bag of blood for transfusion as well as the said nursing students to the DMC,” it said.

The court added that while the act “may be violative” of the Government Accounting and Auditing Manual, “there was no concrete proof” that it was attended by evident bad faith or manifest partiality.

Further, it found that the prosecution failed to prove the allegedly undue injury caused to the city government or the supposedly unwarranted benefits allegedly given to the nursing students and the patient.

Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang, who concurrently leads the court’s Third Division, penned the ruling, which was concurred in by Associate Justices Samuel Martires and Sarah Jane Fernandez.

REINA TOLENTINO

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