Sandiganbayan clears Mayor Gatchalian, 2 others in Kentex fire

MANILA, Philippines – The anti-graft court Sandiganbayan has cleared Valenzuela Mayor Rex Gatchalian and two other city officials of criminal liability in the Kentex factory fire that killed 72 people in 2015.

The other officials are Business Permits and Licensing Office chief Renchi May Padayao, and BPLO licensing officer Eduardo Carreon.

The Sandiganbayan’s Second Division said in its 17-page decision promulgated on December 13 but released only on Thursday, December 15, that there is no probable cause to let the 3 officials stand trial on charges of reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide and multiple physical injuries, and two counts of graft.

Associate Justice Michael Frederick Musngi penned the ruling with Associate Justices Samuel Martires and Geraldine Faith Econg concurring.

The Office of the Ombudsman accused the defendants of conspiring with officers of the Valenzuela Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) and owners of Kentex Manufacturing Corporation in issuing a business permit to Kentex, allegedly without ensuring its compliance with fire safety measures.

The court ruled, however, that it is the BFP which has the duty under the law to implement the Revised Fire Code of the Philippines 2008 and not the local government executives.

“Accused city officials – Gatchalian, Padayao, and Carreon, who were merely complying with the current laws…are not liable for violation of the Fire Code, precisely because they are not tasked to implement it,” the court said.

It said the issuance of a business permit was a regular function of the local government but it is the BFP “who is primarily responsible for the implementation of the FSIC [Fire Safety Inspection Certificate] and had the obligation to inform the LGU officials of compliance or violation.”

“Considering that the actions of the accused LGU officials were pursuant to existing laws, rules and ordinance, they could not be said to have acted with manifest partiality, evident bad faith or gross inexcusable negligence when the business permit of Kentex was issued in 2015,” the court said. 

“It does not appear that the (3) accused were involved in the incident that caused the fire. There is no direct casual connection between the fire and the damage incurred and the acts supposedly committed by the accused,” the Sandiganbayan said.

Kentex factory owner Ong King Guan, city fire marshall Mel Jose Lagan, fire senior inspector Edgrover Oculam, and senior fire officer Rolando Avendan did not join the motion for judicial determination of probable cause.

The court did not mention the status of the cases against them. –