OLONGAPO CITY: The Sandiganbayan has reaffirmed its earlier decision acquitting the city’s former mayor and other officials of graft over the reportedly anomalous lease and development of the Olongapo City Civic Center.
Former city mayor Rolen Calixto Paulino and several city officials were accused of violating Section 3(e) of Republic Act (RA) 3019, or the “Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act,” by the Office of the Ombudsman and meted a six-month suspension.
Paulino and his co-accused reportedly fast-tracked the awarding of the lease and development of the 38,749-square-meter Olongapo City Civic Center to SM Prime Holdings Inc. (SMPHI).
Vice Mayor Aquilino Cortez Jr. and Councilors Elena Calma Dabu, Benjamin Cajudo 2nd, Eduardo Guerrero, Noel Atienza, Alruela Bundang Ortiz, Edna Elane, Emerito Bacay, Randy Sionzon and Egmidio Gonzales Jr. were also included in the charge sheet, along with Tony-Kar Balde 3rd of the City Planning and Development Office, Cristiflor Buduhan of the Office of the City Accountant, Anna Sison of the Office of the City Legal Officer, Mamerto Malabute of the Office of the City Administrator and Joy Cahilig of the Office of the City Budget Officer.
The complaint said the accused did not comply with the provisions of RA 6957, or the “Act Authorizing the Financing, Construction, Operation, and Maintenance of Infrastructure Projects by the Private Sector, as amended by RA 7718,” and its implementing rules and regulations.
Paulino filed a motion to quash, saying the provisions of the Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) Law do not apply in the case because “this law only covers specific contractual agreements which do not include a straight lease agreement.”
The case of SMPHI, Paulino added, involved a “simple lease contract” that is not part of the BOT Law.
The anti-graft court granted Paulino’s motion on July 26.
Two motions for reconsiderations were filed after the charge was dismissed, harping on the “apparent error” made by the court.
One of the motions said the lease agreement with SMPHI was not a private-sector infrastructure and development project, rather a contract with the obligation to develop the leased space for commercial purpose.
Contrary to Paulino’s statement, the prosecution said the lease agreement did not fall outside the scope of the BOT Law.
The other motion accused the court for acting with grave abuse of discretion when it considered the provisions of the lease agreement because it was not yet presented as evidence by the accused, and it has not been marked nor authenticated.
The anti-graft court, however, said the prosecution’s argument “wanes in its invocation” because, for one, the lease agreement was an admitted fact by the prosecution, so it no longer required proof.
“The prosecution’s protestations should only be lulled. It is too late in the day to deny what it has admitted to in the beginning. Even in its original motion for reconsideration, the prosecution has not denied the lease agreement as it has premised its arguments on the interpretation of the BOT Law, as applied to the lease agreement by zeroing on the phrase ‘including but not limited to,’” the court said.
The lease agreement dated December 16, 2014, showed the court that the government-owned land was leased to SMPHI for commercial purposes.
The lease agreement aimed to develop the land for mixed commercial use, which included a mall, hotel tower, buildings for business process outsourcing offices, parking buildings and a transport terminal.
The court explained that infrastructure projects refer to the construction, improvement and rehabilitation of roads and bridges, railways, airports, seaports and communication facilities, among many other things.
In this case, it said, the lease of the property cannot be considered as an infrastructure project.