Sandiganbayan affirms graft charges vs Gwen Garcia after impasse

Lian Buan

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Sandiganbayan affirms graft charges vs Gwen Garcia after impasse
The anti-graft court had to convene a special division, but the aspiring governor of Cebu still loses by a vote of 3-2

MANILA, Philippines – Cebu 3rd District Representative Gwendolyn Garcia lost her bid at the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan to throw out two counts of graft and one count of technical malversation, after a special division voted 3-2 to deny her appeal.

The charges stem from the controversial Balili property which has hounded Garcia since 2010 when she was still governor of Cebu.

In the Sandiganbayan where each division consists of 3 justices, the vote has to be unanimous to be effective. In case of a dissent, the division will invite two additional members chosen via the drawing of lots. The winning vote is determined by majority.

Garcia filed a motion to dismiss before the Second Division, invoking the politician’s favorite inordinate delay doctrine and arguing that the time it took to investigate and try the cases violated her constitutional right to a speedy disposition.

The complaints were filed against Garcia in June 2010 shortly after she was reelected governor of Cebu. The complaints accuse her of malversing public funds through the purchase of the Balili properties which turned out to be submerged under water.

There are no clear mathematical standards to determine what constitutes inordinate delay, although the Supreme Court had recently declared that when computing the period, the fact-finding phase at the Ombudsman level should be excluded from the count.

Inordinate delay

Garcia said the 7 years that her charges have spent in court constitute inordinate delay.

Three Sandiganbayan justices ruled otherwise, because from 2010 when the complaints were filed, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales was able to file the charges in a little under two years, which was in July 2012.

Since then, the trial on the charges have been going on for 5 years. (READ: Is it game over for Gwen Garcia after Ombudsman’s dismissal order?)

“Conspicuously absent from accused Garcia’s account are the intervening motions which she filed before and after her arraignment,” said the 3 concurring justices.

The justices added: “If there is delay, the same may be reasonably attributed to the ordinary processes of justice.”

In the regular 2nd Division, Associate Justices Lorifel Pahimna and Oscar Herrera concurred, while Associate Justice Frederick Musngi – a former Palace official under Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III – dissented.

The two additional members were Associate Justice Efren de la Cruz who concurred, and the Cebu-bred Associate Justice Geraldine Faith Econg who dissented.

What happens now?

Garcia has filed her candidacy for governor of Cebu.

She is facing multiple legal battles, but the Omnibus Election Code still allows her to run, without prejudice to the filing of a disqualification case against her.

In February 2018, Morales dismissed Garcia from service after finding her guilty of grave misconduct as an offshoot of the Balili property cases. If the graft charges at the Sandiganbayan have to do with the property being submerged, the February dismissal concerns the backfilling of the property.

Then House speaker Pantaleon Alvarez defied the dismissal order against his deputy speaker. Garcia is currently chair of the committee on economic affairs under the Arroyo leadership.

Her February dismissal also perpetually disqualified her from public office, but it has to be final and executory to stop Garcia from running. This means more litigation in the appellate court, or even the Supreme Court.

Garcia said in February that the dismissal further inspired her to run for governor, insinuating that the cases were instigated by her rivals in Cebu.

Garcia is not new to power struggles; she holed up at the Cebu capitol and refused to leave when she was suspended as governor in 2012.

Garcia would have to run her gubernatorial campaign while fighting her charges in court. –

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.