Ombudsman Mindanao orders Valencia mayor's suspension

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/7 Oct) – The Ombudsman ordered the suspension of Valencia City Mayor Leandro Jose Catarata and a village chief for 15 days on charges of “misconduct and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service” in a decision served this week.

Fourteen complainants led by his political rival former mayor Jose M. Galario Jr. charged Catarata of violating Presidential Decree 705 or the Forestry Reform Code of the Philippines when he allowed the release of a 10-wheeler truck transporting undocumented logs in August 2008.

The Ombudsman found respondents administratively liable for conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service.

But the decision also noted that their actions did not constitute misconduct “in the absence of direct proof that they were in bad faith or maliciously motivated to release the said truck to the owner”.

In its 12-page decision, the Office of the Ombudsman in Mindanao favored the position of the complainants saying Catarata did an illegal act that did not help the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in the performance of its function.

MindaNews obtained a copy of the decision Wednesday from the office of Bukidnon Gov. Alex Calingasan, who was asked to implement the suspension.

In a joint affidavit on October 21, 2008, the complainants said that sometime in August that year the City Environment and Natural Resources Office of the DENR apprehended the truck loaded with logs but bearing no transport permit. The truck with logs was impounded in the barangay hall of San Carlos village.

But sometime while the investigation was still in progress, the complainants added, Catarata issued a letter dated August 26 to Cesar Esoy, Valencia CENRO department head, taking custody of the truck.

PD 705, as quoted in the affidavit, provides that all forest products impounded and confiscated, including the vehicle used in the transport of the said questionable forest products, shall remain in the custody of the government unless proper authority shall be given by any authorized office or by competent court.

Arland Canete, San Carlos barangay chair, complied with the mayor’s request. He allowed the truck to be driven away while the logs were kept in the barangay hall’s vicinity, according to the complainants’ affidavit as quoted in the decision.

In a joint counter-affidavit dated December 4, 2008, Catarata and Canete denied and belied the allegations.

They said the logs were planted trees and not forest products and were not taken from any forest based on a certification by the CENRO. The respondents added that the trees were African tulips, mangoes, Falcata, and Antipolo.

The respondents said the truck with logs endangered people, especially children, in case the logs would collapse or slide from the truck.

Canete sought Catarata’s help after the CENRO did not heed his earlier request to remove the truck.

That’s when Catarata did his “immediate response”. He instructed CENRO’s Esoy that he is taking custody of the vehicle. Catarata said in the affidavit that they have secured the guarantee of then Association of Barangay Chairmen (ABC) president and now Vice Mayor Azucena Huervas that the truck owner will not abscond. Huervas, as pointed out in the affidavit, was the neighbor of truck owner Julo Divina.

The respondents argued that their acts were bereft of malice and have never prejudiced or caused damage to any person or to the government because in the act of custody of the truck, they said, Catarata “defended and protected the interest of the government by ensuring that the truck owner will not escape liability.”

They added that the CENRO failed to take any legal action on the matter. They argued that the courts then could not order that the confiscated logs be placed under the custody of appropriate government agency.

“Therefore, the act of taking custody of the vehicle is not only lawful but also commendable,” the respondents added.

In the decision, the Office of the Ombudsman Mindanao said that the intention of the respondents in their act of removing the truck does not necessarily show bad faith. But the Ombudsman argued that the truck should have been transferred to a safer place instead of releasing it to its owner while an investigation is pending at the DENR.

The Ombudsman argued that the respondents’ release of the truck, although of noble purpose, was premature. In the decision, it added that taking custody is different from releasing the truck.

“Thus it would create a sense of impropriety in the eyes of the people. Be that as it may, a public servant must exhibit at all times the highest sense of honesty and integrity,” Vivian Agdeppa Jumilla, graft investigation and prosecution officer, said in the decision signed on February 20, 2009. It was released only this month after it went through the Ombudsman review with the Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon who was last to sign as of June 11.

Respondents can file a motion for reconsideration on decisions on administrative cases in the Ombudsman. (Walter I. Balane / MindaNews)