The Sandiganbayan’s First Division threw out the graft complaint filed against Sen. Manuel “Lito” Lapid and several others in connection with the alleged anomalous purchase of fertilizers in 2004.
The anti-graft court dismissed the case because of the unwarranted delay in the preliminary investigation conducted by the Office of the Ombudsman.
In a 14-page resolution promulgated on September 30 and made public on Tuesday, the court granted Lapid’s urgent motion to dismiss that was adopted by private individuals Ma. Victoria Aquino-Abubakar, Leolita Aquino, and Dexter Alexander Vasquez.
“Accordingly, the case against them is hereby ordered dismissed, for violation of their rights to the speedy disposition of their cases, without prejudice to any civil liability which the Province of Pampanga may file against them,” the tribunal said.
The court found that the Ombudsman’s preliminary investigation began on May 2, 2011. The Ombudsman later found probable cause to file the case at the Sandiganbayan in a resolution dated September 18, 2013, which was finally approved on June 3, 2014.
Lapid asked the Ombudsman to reconsider its ruling but his appeal was dismissed and a case was filed at the Sandiganbayan on November 4, 2015.
“From the foregoing timeline, it appears that four years and six months had lapsed from the time of the filing of the Complaint in 2011 until the time the information was filed in 2015. Three years and one month out of this said period was consumed in the Ombudsman’s preliminary investigation,” the court said.
The prosecution described the lapse of time as reasonable considering the voluminous records, the number of those allegedly involved, and the time needed to evaluate the parties’ evidence.
But the Sandiganbayan said the Ombudsman’s justification was “unacceptable”.
“The reason proffered by the prosecution is unacceptable as recent jurisprudence has called attention to the constitutional mandate of the Ombudsman as the ‘protector of the people,’ such that it is expected to act promptly on all complaints lodged before it,” the court said.
It stressed that the State has the duty to prove that the delay was reasonable.
“But, the prosecution clearly failed to hurdle this burden since no plausible explanation was given to justify the delay in the Ombudsman’s preliminary investigation,” the court said, adding that no satisfactory explanation was also given for the time it took the Ombudsman to approve the resolution.
“The unjustified delay during the Ombudsman’s preliminary investigation qualifies as vexatious, capricious, and oppressive. Without a reasonable explanation, the delay in the latter’s proceedings is unwarranted considering the adverse affects and/or prejudice that such long delay may cause upon the defense of the accused,” it said.
Last year, the Ombudsman charged Lapid along with former provincial accountant Benjamin Yuzon; former provincial treasurer Vergel Yabut; Ma. Victoria Aquino-Abubakar and Leolita Aquino who were incorporators of Malayan Pacific Trading Corporation (MPTC or Malayan), and; Dexter Alexander Vasquez who was the proprietor of D.A. Vasquez Macro-Micro Fertilizer Resources (Vasquez Fertilizers).
It alleged that the items were overpriced and purchased without public bidding.
Associate Justice Reynaldo Cruz penned the ruling which was concurred in by Associate Justice Efren De La Cruz, who leads the court’s First Division, and Associate Justice Michael Frederick Musngi.