GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/1 February) — An anti-corruption group in Sarangani Province hailed the life sentences meted by the Sandiganbayan last Thursday to two incumbent and seven former provincial officials over the misuse of the province’s funds a decade ago.
Rev. Avelino Sichon, coordinator of the Sarangani People’s Alliance for Reform and Good Governance (Spare-Go), said local residents finally received the justice they deserve with the guilty verdict meted by the court on incumbent provincial board members Eugene Alzate and Cornelio Martinez Jr. and eight other former officials for malversation of provincial funds amounting to P475,000 in 2002.
The misused funds were drawn from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) of then Rep. Erwin Chiongbian.
“We waited 11 years to get these convictions. This is a big victory for residents of Sarangani,” he said.
Sichon, whose group was among the case’s principal complainants, said the verdict is a major boost for the group’s continuing campaign against corruption and the cleansing of the provincial government of dishonest officials and employees.
Aside from Alzate and Martinez, the Sandiganbayan’s first division found former provincial board members Lelibeth Canillo-Prospero, Hernando L. Sibugan, Juanito H. Purisima, Marlind L. Marcelo, Redempto Y. Abiso and Jesus H. Desedilla, and former executive assistant Amelia Constantino-Zoleta guilty of charges of malversation through falsification of documents.
In addition to the life terms, the nine were ordered to each pay a P475,000 fine, jointly indemnify Sarangani Province in the amount of P475,000 and were disqualified from holding public office.
Alzate and Martinez, who attended the promulgation of the case along with Abiso and Desedilla, were immediately arrested and brought to the New Bilibid Prisons in Muntinlupa City to serve their sentences.
The two incumbent officials were close political allies of Sarangani Rep. Emmanuel Pacquiao and were among those who bannered the latter’s party, the People’s Champ Movement, in the May 2013 local and national midterm elections.
Alzate and Zoleta were among the six Sarangani officials and employees, including former Gov. Miguel Escobar, who were sentenced in August 2012 to a maximum of 18 years imprisonment after finding them guilty of conspiracy when they misused around P300,000 also drawn from the PDAF of Rep. Chiongbian.
In a 33-page decision penned by Associate Justice and First Division chair Efren N. de la Cruz, he gave credence to the accounts of computer operator Mary Ann Gadian, who was previously assigned at the office of the late Sarangani Vice Gov. Felipe Constantino.
Gadian testified during the hearings that her responsibility was mainly “to make fictitious transactions in order to get money from the government.”
Case records showed that she was asked by the accused to do some “dirty tricks” in April 2002 by producing P20,000 for each of them for a trip to Manila.
Gadian said she made it appear that the P475,000 went to the fictitious non-government organization Sea Angels Aqua Marketing Cooperative as requested by a non-existent official named Wenilo Bravo for a “bagoong-making venture.”
Sichon said they held on to the case despite initially facing some pressures and challenges, knowing that they have enough solid evidences against the accused officials.
He and other Spare-Go leaders thoroughly monitored the progress of the case since they filed it at the Office of the Ombudsman in 2003.
He said they attended all the hearings and facilitated the appearances of the witnesses.
Sichon said they were so far satisfied with the court’s decision over the case and expressed confidence of a favorable ruling for the other pending cases against some accused Sarangani officials.
For her part, Gadian said the latest ruling was only one of the 29 cases that they had filed before the anti-graft court.
“I will not abandon these cases until the end,” she said in an interview over TV Patrol Socsksargen.
Gadian, who was dismissed from her job at the provincial capitol when the scam initially surfaced in 2003, said the latest verdict vindicated her from accusations that she had masterminded the fund misuse and was later dismissed from government service for it.
Former Sarangani Gov. Miguel Rene Dominguez, who had backed Spare-Go’s initiatives, urged residents and other provincial officials to respect the court’s ruling.
He called on the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) in Region 12 to immediately intervene over the vacancies in the provincial board as a result of the convictions of Alzate and Martinez.
“It should immediately sit down with the concerned officials and discuss the next steps to address the impact of these convictions,” he said.
Lawyer Anthony Dennis Pantua, Alzate’s counsel, said they will immediately appeal his client’s conviction and elevate it to the higher courts if necessary.
But he admitted that Alzate and the other convicted Sarangani officials and employees will remain at the New Bilibid Prisons pending the resolution of their appeals.
“That’s the sad part of this. Pending all the appeals processes, they will remain in detention. So let’s also pray for them,” he said. (MindaNews)