MANILA, Philippines – The Sandiganbayan dismissed the graft case against Ozamiz City Mayor Reynaldo Parojinog Sr and his daughter, Vice Mayor Nova Princess Parojinog-Echavez, because of the delay of their case at the level of the Office of the Ombudsman.
The acquittal comes just two months after the anti-graft court's Fifth Division found probable cause to order their arrest. The Parojinogs posted bail following the arrest order in February and filed a motion to quash, which became the basis of their acquittal.
The court gave merit to the Parojinogs' argument that the 6 years it took the Ombudsman to investigate and formally file charges against them in court was a violation of their constitutional right to speedy disposition of cases.
The Parojinogs were charged before the court in November 2016 for awarding a government contract to family-owned Parojinog and Sons Construction. The issue started as far back as 2010, when the Department of Justice (DOJ) received an anonymous complaint against them.
In their motion to quash, the Parojinogs cited inordinate delay and insufficient charges in the information.
In the decision promulgated on Friday, April 7, and released to media on Tuesday, April 11, the court ruled that the information filed against the Parojinogs was sufficient but it also recognized that there was an unjustifiable delay in the proceedings that spanned almost 6 years.
The Sandiganbayan handed down the ruling as the Ombudsman awaits the Supreme Court (SC) decision on its petition to strike down the principle of inordinate delay. The Ombudsman argued that the principle was being abused by public officials. (READ: Ombudsman asks SC to strike down 'delay' doctrine)
In its petition, the Ombudsman asked the SC to clarify the guidelines in counting the period of investigation. The Ombudsman wants the fact-finding proceedings excluded from the count because these are "confidential in nature and should not form part of the preliminary investigation."
The Ombudsman's petition zeroes in on the role of the Commission on Audit (COA), the agency which often works with the body in investigating corruption. The Ombudsman has argued that when COA submits a report to it in connection to a corruption case, it does not trigger criminal proceedings and therefore, should not be included in the count.
This petition is pending with the SC.
In the Parojinogs' case, the Sandiganbayan started counting from December 2010, the time that the Ombudsman referred the case to COA for a special audit.
"The Office of the Ombudsman's initial referral of the case to the COA is an official act taking cognizance of the case. This referral is within the powers of the Ombudsman as laid down in RA No 6770 (the Ombudsman law)," the Sandiganbayan said in its ruling.
COA submitted its special report on the Parojinogs' case to the Ombudsman in September 2011. The case was filed before the court in November 2016.
Taking into consideration the fact that state auditors "did not take a prolonged time to act on the matter referred to it by the Ombudsman," the court said "there is no acceptable justification for the delay after the COA submitted its audit report."
"The factual and legal bases for the complaint were already extensively discussed in the COA report. The COA report provided everything that the FIO needed to institute the proper complaint. There is no explanation on record to justify the delay in the actions by the FIO," the decision said.
The Sandiganbayan also took note that in the proceedings, the Parojinogs were only responsible for less than two months worth of delay. After Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales indicted them in April 2016, the Parojinogs filed a motion for reconsideration, but it was thumbed down by Morales in June that year.
The decision was penned by Associate Justice Maria Theresa Mendoza-Arcega with Associate Justices Rafael Lagos and Reynaldo Cruz concurring.
According to data from the Ombudsman, from 2015 to 2016 alone, 44 public officials in 24 cases were acquitted of corruption charges because the court gave merit to their inordinate delay argument.