Watchdog hails conviction of ex Sarangani gov, 5 others

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/24 August)– Anti-corruption group Sarangani People’s Alliance for Reform and Good Governance (Spare-Go) hailed on Friday the guilty verdict meted by the Sandiganbayan against former Sarangani governor Miguel Escobar and five other provincial officials over the misuse of the province’s fund a decade ago.

Rev. Avelino Sichon, Spare-Go vice chair and one of the five principal complainants in the case, said the guilty ruling issued this week by the Sandiganbayan’s first division on Escobar and his co-accused shows that “the wheels of justice are rolling in Sarangani.”

“We held on to this case because we knew from the start that our evidences are solid and would result to convictions,” he said.

In a 63-page decision issued last Wednesday, Sandigan Associate Justice Rodolfo Ponferrada sentenced Escobar, former Provincial Treasurer Cesar Cagang and Management and Audit Analyst Vivencia Telesforo to a maximum of 18 years imprisonment after finding them guilty of conspiracy when they misused the P300,000 drawn from the Priority Development Assistance Fund of then Rep. Erwin Chiongbian.

Aside from the three, the anti-graft court also convicted former provincial administrator Perla Maglinte, executive assistant III Amelia Carmela Constantino-Zoleta and incumbent provincial board member Eugene Alzate on separate charges of estafa through falsification of public documents.

The three were also meted 10 to 11 years and four months in prison and fined P5,000 each.

The court also ordered all the convicted to jointly indemnify the provincial government of Sarangani the amount of P300,000, corresponding to the sum they siphoned from Chiongbian’s PDAF.

Case records showed that the accused were found to have drawn a check for P300,000 on May 27, 2002, supposedly as financial assistance to the Malungon Market Vendors Association, after the market was ravaged by fire.

Documents showed that the money was requested by “Nema Tamayo,” the supposed leader of the group, while the check was released to “Tita P. Sariño,” the alleged treasurer.

But both names later turned out fictitious based on an investigation conducted by a government special audit team. The fabrication was later upheld by prosecution witnesses Mary Ann Gadian and Sheryl Desiree Jane Tangan, who figured in the transactions as then employees of the provincial government.

Sichon said he and the other Spare-Go leaders monitored thoroughly the progress of the case since they filed it at the Office of the Ombudsman in 2003.

In late 2004, then Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo filed graft charges against Escobar and his co-accused at the Sandiganbayan.

“We attended all the hearings and facilitated the appearances of the witnesses,” Sichon recalled.

Sichon said they were so far satisfied with the court’s decision over the case and expressed confidence of a favorable ruling in case Escobar and his co-accused would appeal the verdict.

“They may even elevate it to the Supreme Court. But it will only be a technical matter since they never showed any new evidence to prove their innocence when the case was still at the Sandiganbayan,” he said.

But Board member Alzate, who maintained his innocence on the case, said he would file a motion for reconsideration at the Sandiganbayan within 15 days.

“It was a shocking decision. What is very surprising and very unusual with the court’s decision was that the crime that I was charged with was malversation, but I was convicted on the crime of estafa,” he said in an interview over a local television station.

Alzate contended that he was on an official travel in Cebu then when the P300,000 check involved in the transaction was encashed.

He submitted a certification to the court that he was then attending a meeting of the Provincial Boardmembers League of the Philippines but the latter ruled the document as a mere alibi. (Allen V. Estabillo/MindaNews)