Ex-Sorsogon gov convicted of graft over fertilizer fund scam
MANILA, Philippines – The anti-graft court Sandiganbayan on Friday, August 18, conviced former Sorsogon governor Raul Lee of graft in connection with the P723-million fertilizer fund scam.
The Sandiganbayan's First Division convicted Lee of 4 counts of graft over his involvement in the scam, and sentenced him to 24 to 40 years in prison, or 6 to 10 years for each count.
Lee, who was the first official charged over the scam in 2011, is the first big name to be convicted in the scam that had implicated officials as high up as former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
The court ordered Lee to return to the government P2.591 million.
Also convicted was former provincial accountant Raul Hernandez, which, according to the court, was already dead.
Former Sorsogon provincial treasurer Ofelia Velasco was acquitted.
The 2004 fertilizer fund scam is a widespread scheme of buying overpriced fertilizers, with the Department of Agriculture (DA) at the center of the scandal. Senator Panfilo Lacson accused then President Arroyo of using the stolen funds to help shore up the campaign kitty of her allies in the 2004 elections.
The Senate probed the issue, and the Ombudsman started filing charges in connection with the scam in 2011.
More than a decade later, charges were still being filed in connection to the scam. Former Surigao del Norte governor Robert Lyndon Barbers and former Rizal governor Casimiro Ynares Jr were charged in February for an offense in 2004.
The anti-graft court had earlier cleared of plunder former agriculture underecretary Jocelyn “Joc-Joc” Bolante, the alleged scam orchestrator.
In 2014, the Office of the Ombudsman cleared Arroyo of, saying there was no evidence for her to be charged in court. (READ: Joc-joc fertilizer scam and Jenny Napoles: More of the same)
Many of the charges related to the scam involved supplier Feshan Phils Incorporated. A Senate inquiry linked Feshan to Bolante, just as questionable non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the pork barrel scam had been linked to alleged pork barrel scam masterming Janet Lim Napoles.
In one of Lee's questioned transactions, Lee paid Feshan P3 million for 2,000 liters of Bio Nature Liquid Fertilizer "when in truth and in fact, said quantity of fertilizer only costs P23,940."
For that transaction, Lee and Feshan overpriced by P2.6 million.
In Lee's charges, the court noted that the provincial government already specified "Bio Nature Liquid Fertilizer" in the purchase requests, a violation of the law "mandating that procurement of goods shall be based on relevant characteristics, and reference to brand names shall not be allowed."
The contract did not go through public bidding. "The records will bear out that the province of Sorsogon's resort to direct contracting for the purchase of the 2,133 liters of Bio Nature Fertilizer was upon the initiative of Lee," the decision said.
Lee attempted to dismiss his case by way of a demurrer of evidence but the court repeatedly denied his motions.
A demurrer of evidence is a motion an accused files after the prosecution finishes presenting its evidence. Through that motion, the accused is telling the court that the prosecution's evidence – or lack thereof – is enough to drop the charges. (READ: Major corruption cases crumble as Ombudsman Morales races against time)
After dismissing his motions, Lee was warned he should present his evidence next but still, he did not. The court considered Lee's right to present evidence waived.
The same happened to Velasco but she was acquitted because the court said she could not "be deemed liable for certifying as to the availability of cash for the fertilizers because, indeed, there was an available allocation for the expense."
The decision was penned by Associate Justice Efren de la Cruz with concurrences from Associate Justices Geraldine Faith Econg and Bernelito Fernandez.
From 2016 to 2017, the Sandiganbayan dropped 4 fertilizer fund scam cases due to inordinate delay.
The dismissed plunder case against Bolante is being appealed by the Office of the Ombudsman before the Supreme Court. – Rappler.com