THE special division of the Sandiganbayan has acquitted Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia of graft and technical malversation charges in connection with the 2008 purchase of a 24.92-hectare property in Tiga-an, Naga, Cebu for P98.93 million that was partly under water.
In an 81-page resolution, four justices of the anti-graft court voted to grant Garcia’s demurrer to evidence against a lone dissenting vote from Associate Justice and Second Division chairman Oscar C. Herrera Jr.
Voting to dismiss the cases for insufficiency of evidence were Associate Justices Michael Frederick L. Musngi, Maria Theresa V. Mendoza-Arcega, Karl B. Miranda, and Lorifel Lacap Pahimna who penned the majority ruling.
“It is clear that the prosecution failed to muster the required quantum of evidence. There being no sufficient evidence to sustain the indictments, the Court is left with no choice but to dismiss the cases,” the court declared.
Likewise cleared were Garcia’s co-defendants in the first graft case, namely, Sangguniang Panlalawigan member Juan Bolo; Provincial Budget Officer Emme T. Gingoyon; Provincial Appraisal Committee chairman and Provincial Assessor Anthony D. Sususco; Provincial Treasurer Roy G. Salubre; OIC Provincial Engineer Eulogio B. Pelayre, and Amparo Balili, owner of the property.
Based on the information filed in 2012, prosecutors said 19.67 hectares of the property were submerged in water based on verification surveys conducted by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Office of the Ombudsman, meaning only a little over five-hectares can be considered dry land.
The Ombudsman also said there was unlawful diversion of P49,849,200 from the province’s Social Services budget since there was no appropriation for such land acquisition.
However, in her demurrer to evidence, Garcia pounded on the prosecution’s admission that the property was covered by torrens certificates of title which proved that the land in question can be sold and bought “within the commerce of men.”
Her lawyers argued the fact that even as portions of the property were underwater, it does not change the classification of the land as “alienable and disposable.”
The governor said witnesses presented by the prosecution admitted on record that the necessary processes were observed and that the needed approvals were secured before the deed of absolute sale was drawn up.
She added that her participation was limited to signing the documents pertaining to the transaction as she had no inkling about the features of the property as she did not take part in the inspection or negotiation of the location.
Lastly, she noted that the Commission on Audit reviewed the purchase documents but found no reason to invalidate or disallow the acquisition.
In dismissing the case, the court said the prosecution’s evidence fell short of proving the existence of conspiracy among all the defendants or that they colluded with each other to cause injury to the government.
“Without definitive proof that there was a community of conscious and criminal design on the part of the accused to purchase the Balili properties despite the physical condition thereof,…the Court finds discomfort in concluding that the accused were in cahoots to cause undue injury and prejudice to the Provincial Government of Cebu,” the court said.