Sandiganbayan orders arrest of Negros Oriental gov for fund misuse
MANILA, Philippines – The Sandiganbayan ordered the arrest of Negros Oriental Governor Roel Degamo over malversation and graft charges for the alleged misuse of his province's calamity funds.
In its decision issued on Tuesday, January 24, the anti-graft court's special third division said there is probable cause to put Degamo on trial for 11 counts of malversation through falsification of public documents and one count of graft.
The charges stemmed from a P480.7-million worth of Special Allotment and Release Order (SARO) that Degamo requested in 2012 to pay for infrastructure projects in Negros Oriental, which was then reeling from the devastation of Typhoon Sendong and a magnitude 6.9 earthquake.
The Department of Budget and Management (DMB) eventually withdrew the SARO for non-compliance with guidelines for infrastructure projects. The Commission on Audit also issued notices of disallowances but Degamo ignored the orders and proceeded to award P143.2-million worth of contracts for infrastructure projects.
In denying Degamo's Motion for Judicial Determination of Probable Cause, the special third division said it was "superfluous" to ask the court to conduct a judicial determination without undergoing trial first.
"The task of the presiding judge when the information is filed with the court is first and foremost to determine the existence of probable cause for the arrest of the accused," the court said.
In his motion, Degamo argued that it was illegal for the DBM to withdraw the SARO, claiming that the provincial government complied with all the requisites and that DBM Undersecretary Mario Relampagos made an error when he "failed to examine or see all the required documents which accompanied the fund request."
This argument is included in Degamo's appeal still pending before the Commission on Audit. Thus, Degamo argued, the Sandiganbayan has no basis to proceed with the case.
Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang, who penned the decision, said the Constitution allows the prosecutors to conduct an investigation and file charges even without the COA's ruling.
"The interest of the COA is solely administrative, and that its investigation does not foreclose the Ombudsman's authority to investigate and determine whether there is a crime to be prosecuted for which a public official is answerable," the decision said.
The court said that because the COA appeal does not stop the Ombudsman from investigating and filing charges, it also cannot stop the Sandiganbayan from proceeding with the case and ordering the arrest of Degamo.
Administrative charges of grave misconduct were also filed against Degamo before the Court of Appeals, but the CA dismissed the charges on August 30, 2016.
Having been absolved before the CA, Degamo argued in his motion that this should have also stopped the Ombudsman from charging him.
The Sandiganbayan said the "Court of Appeals' decision has no material consequence to the institution of these cases."
"The long-settled rule in our jurisdiction is that the dismissal of the administrative case against a respondent government official does not bar the filing of a criminal case against him based on the same acts," the special third division said, citing a Supreme Court decision.
The arrest order was issued on Tuesday together with the court's decision.
Graft and malversation are both bailable offenses.
The court set the bail at P2.23 million, P200,000 for each of the 11 counts of malversation and P30,000 for one count of graft.
The decision and the arrest order also includes Degamo's co-accused Provincial Treasurer Danilo Mendez and Provincial Accountant Teodorico Reyes.
Degamo has not responded to Rappler's text message seeking his comment. – Rappler.com