Sandiganbayan drops another fertilizer fund scam case due to delay

MANILA, Philippines – The Sandiganbayan appears to be deaf to the request of the Office of the Ombudsman to stop dismissing cases on the basis of "inordinate delay".

In a ruling issued on April 24 and released to media on Wednesday, April 26, the Sandiganbayan First Division dismissed corruption charges against former Marinduque Representative Edmundo Reyes Jr and 7 others, citing "unreasonable delay" in the investigation by the Office of the Ombudsman.

In a press conference on Tuesday, April 25, the Office of the Ombudsman said that the court has dismissed a total of 26 cases from January to April this year due to what it thinks is inordinate delay at the investigation level.

Reyes was charged with graft and malversation for the misuse of P5 million in public funds, said to have been part of the widespread fertilizer fund scam.

Ombudsman investigators found irregularities in the transactions, especially those involving the non-governmental organization (NGO) 'Gabaymasa', which Reyes endorsed. (READ: Ombudsman takes Bolante's plunder case to SC)

The fertilizer fund scam, in all, involved P728 million and thrust at the center of the scandal the Department of Agriculture, which allegedly used its Farm Inputs and Farm Implements Program (FIFIP) to earn kickbacks. 

The charges against Reyes were filed before the Sandiganbayan only in February. But the Sandiganbayan has decided there's no longer a need to thresh out the issues in a full-blown trial, giving more merit to the argument of the accused to have the charges dropped because of the damages incurred by the delay.

Last March 15, the Sandiganbayan also dismissed fertilizer fund scam-related charges against former Department of Agriculture officer-in-charge Regional Technical Director Rodolfo Guieb and regional Executive Director Dennis Araullo, also for inordinate delay. They were the co-accused of former Palawan governor Joel Reyes.

This also inspired Reyes to invoke in a recent motion his right against delay.

The specific complaint against Reyes was filed before the Ombudsman in 2011, but the court is counting as far back to 2006 when former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez created the task force which was dedicated to investigating the fertilizer fund scam.

"It took the Ombudsman 11 years to complete the preliminary investigation reckoned from the investigation commenced by the task force in 2006 to the filing of the informations in 2017," the first division's ruling says.

Immense scam

The Ombudsman defended the delay by saying that the 5 years between 2006 to 2011 that it took them to file a specific complaint against Reyes was due to the immensity of the scam. 

Secondly, the Ombudsman uses the defense they've been using all this time – that the Sandiganbayan cannot start counting from the fact-finding level because it's confidential in nature.

For the Ombudsman, the clock should start ticking when criminal investigation is triggered, or in Reyes' case, around 2013.

But these did not satisfy the court. In their ruling, the Sandiganbayan reiterated that the count includes the fact-finding level. This dispute is currently the subject of a petition filed by the Ombudsman before the Supreme Court (SC). (READ: Ombudsman asks SC to strike down ‘delay’ doctrine)

"Clearly, the delay can only be attributed to the Ombudsman, and such delay was not convincingly explained and justified by the said Office. The Ombudsman took unreasonably long period of time to resolve the issues before it and file the Informations before this court," the ruling said.

The court added: "It bears to stress that the questioned transactions happened in 2004. Certainly, there is basis in the accused-movants' dilemma that the evidence for their defense, both testimonial and documentary, may already be difficult, if not, impossible to produce."

Associate Justice and division chairman Efren N. de la Cruz penned the 15-page resolution with the concurrence of Associate Justices Geraldine Faith A. Econg and Bernelito R. Fernandez.

The seeming conflict between the Ombudsman and the Sandiganbayan – the supposed partners in busting corruption – prompted Morales to defend her office in a series of media interviews this week.

During Wednesday's press conference, Morales took a swipe at Sandiganbayan justices for letting 3 years pass by without putting on trial a single lawmaker involved in the pork barrel scam. "Hindi ba 'yan matatawag din na inordinate delay?" Morales asked. (Isn't that considered an inordinate delay too?)

In dismissing Reyes, the court again cleared former agriculture officials Araullo and Guieb. Also cleared with them are former city accountant Raymundo Braganza, former technical director Balagtas Torres; former legislative coordinator Lucille Odejar, former cashier Dory Iranzo, and Margie Tajon Luz, president of Gabaymasa Foundation. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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