The Sandiganbayan’s Fifth Division stood pat on its decision convicting seven former Quezon City officials and two private individuals in connection with the tragic Ozone Dance Club fire 19 years ago, which is dubbed as “the worst fire in Philippine history.”
The anti-graft court denied for lack of merit the motions for reconsideration filed by the defendants.
“No reason was thus found to reverse the questioned Decision finding all accused guilty of the crime charged,” Associate Justice Ma. Theresa Dolores Gomez-Estoesta wrote in an 18-page Decision dated April 23.
Fifth Division Chairman Roland Jurado and Associate Justice Alexander Gesmundo concurred with the decision.
Last November, the court sentenced the following to six years to 10 years: former City Engineers Alfredo Macapugay and Donato Rivera Jr., Engineer Petronilo de Llamas, field inspector Edgardo Reyes, building inspector Rolando Mamaid, Enforcement and Inspection Division Chief Francisco Itliong, and Processing Division Chief Feliciano Sagana, as well as Hermilio Ocampo and Ramon Ng, stockholders and directors of Westwood Entertainment Company which ran the discotheque.
They were found “guilty beyond reasonable doubt” for violating the Anti-Graft Law for causing undue injury to the public and giving unwarranted advantage to Westwood by giving it building permits without inspection, which led to their failure to detect Ozone’s structural deficiencies and safety insufficiencies that directly caused the fire in 1996.
The former public officials were meted out the penalty of perpetual disqualification to hold public office over the fire that torched to death 162 people, who were mostly teenagers, and injured 93 others.
Llamas cited presumption of regularity in approving the structural aspect of the building, saying there was no finding that the building was structurally unsound.
Rivera denied liability for the issuance of the building permit in 1991, given the Ombudsman’s dismissal of the charges against his subordinates “whose findings he relied on in good faith,” the decision read. He also pointed a finger at the Building Official in 1994, 1995 and 1996.
But the court found it ironic for him to disown liability as acting building official yet admit that the building official has the responsibility of conducting annual building inspection.
Itliong, Sagana, Mamaid and Reyes filed a joint appeal wherein they maintained that the issuance of a building permit is in accordance with the National Building Code. They also blamed the Local Fire Services for failure to conduct fire safety inspections, which the court found “futile.”
Macapugay, on the other hand, said that he took no part in the issuance of the building permit and that the fire, being caused by an overload of the electrical system, was something the owners and electricians have control over.
But the court stressed that as city engineer and building official in 1992, it was his duty to enforce the National Building Code.
Meanwhile, Ng said that there was no proof that he “cajoled” the public officials to approve the building permit and certificate of occupancy, while Ocampo argued that the prosecution failed to prove evident bad faith and manifest partiality.
But the court pointed out to the private individuals that it is an understatement for them to disclaim liability just because the filing of an application for a building permit was by virtue of the authority Westwood gave them.
“[I]t is the misrepresentations made in the applications themselves which siphoned all criminal acts of the accused,” it said, narrating that Westwood applied for the permit in 1991 which covers renovation of a “one-story structure.”
In 1992, it applied again for a permit for the renovation of a “one-sty w/ mezz bldg.”
“A one-story structure to be represented a year later as a one-story structure with mezzanine” should not have been taken lightly. Notably, accused Ng and Ocampo did not refute this finding in their Motion. This truth, even to themselves, certainly proved harder to swallow,” the court said.
“[D]espite the glaring discrepancy why a second floor suddenly existed, accused de Llamas approved the building plan for another renovation of the Ozone Disco,” it said.
Ng and Ocampo cannot buffer responsibility on the ground that Westwood hired architects and contractors to secure the needed permits, the court said.
That these architects and contractors being under Westwood’s employ “only meant that they only represented the instructions given them by their employer . . . through its authorized representatives, Ng and Ocampo,” it said.
For the other accused to shift the blame to others causes no ripple effect, the decision read.
“The bottomline issue which plagued the finding of guilt in this case is the failure of building officials concerned, despite the misrepresentations made in the applications, to conduct the necessary inspection before and after the issuance of the building permits and Certificate of Occupancy, where the structural deficiencies of Ozone Disco as well as its electrical and fire safety insufficiencies, were left undetected,” it said.
WITH JEFFERSON ANTIPORDA AND LLANESCA T. PANTI