Conviction of former Ombudsman prober, cousin on extortion affirmed

    221

    THE Sandiganbayan Third Division has junked the appeal of a former investigator of the Office of the Ombudsman and his cousin, a labor arbiter, seeking reversal of the court’s May 24, 2019 decision that declared them guilty of direct bribery on local government officials of Pangasinan.

    In a 14-page resolution penned by Presiding Justice Ampari M. Cabotaje-Tang, the anti-graft court affirmed the jail terms of two years and four months to four years and two months against Associate Graft Investigation Officer (AGIO) III Leonardo Nicolas, Jr. and his cousin, Labor Arbiter Isagani Laurence Nicolas of the National Labor Relations Commission-Dagupan City Branch. They were also told to pay P6 million each as fine with subsidiary imprisonment if they are unable to pay.

    Associate Justices Bernelito R. Fernandez and Sarah Jane T. Fernandez concurred.

    Agents of the National Bureau of Investigation collared the duo during an entrapment operation on July 21, 2017 in a resort in Lingayen, Pangasinan while in the act of receiving marked money supposedly in exchange for dropping investigations of pending complaints.

    The entrapment was set up at the request of former Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon Gerard Mosquera, who received information that the investigator was trying to extort P3 million from LGU officials in Pangasinan.

    Based on the indictment, AGIO Nicolas contacted Pangasinan officials for a meeting on a pretext that that the Ombudsman was investigating Bugallon Mayor Jumen Anthony Espino. The investigator reportedly insisted on being paid in exchange for the dropping of charges.

    Labor Arbiter Nicolas became involved when he allegedly sent a text on July 14, 2017 to the Pangasinan Provincial Accountant claiming that he knew of someone who could help them facilitate their cases with the Ombudsman and requesting for an appointment.

    Arresting officers likewise found on defendants’ possession a bogus copy of an Evaluation Report purportedly issued by the Field Investigation Office that was presented in exchange for P3 million.

    The former Ombudsman investigator challenged the validity of the entrapment operation, arguing there was a dearth of testimony of various witnesses that there was even an attempt to extort of a demand for a sum of P3 million.

    Where there is no demand of money, he said the entrapment operation lacked reason and was illegitimate.

    His cousin said there is no evidence of conspiracy as prosecutors failed to cite proof that he was animated by the same criminal purpose. He also denied any participation or even knowledge of the transaction, saying he was in the same venue only because he had arranged a meeting with officials of an organization on the same date.

    The Sandiganbayan swept aside all their arguments, saying the presence of conspiracy between the two was convincingly established.

    It noted that the labor arbiter was already aware as early as May 27, 2017 when, by his own account, he advised his cousin that a meeting with the Espinos might cast doubt on his integrity. In addition, the records also showed he was present in both the July 14 and July 21, 2017 meetings.

    “It must be pointed out that as a labor arbiter, he had no business being at the said meetings …much more since both were on weekdays,” the court said.

    On his claim of lack of knowledge of any irregularity, the Sandiganbayan noted that accused is a lawyer and a public official occupying a high position “no doubt possesses the intelligence and learning to discern the subject matter and intention of the meetings.”

    “He cannot now disown his willing actions or exclude himself from liability,” the Sandiganbayan added.

    As to the validity of the entrapment, the court said the video of the procedure and the identity of individuals involved left no doubt on its mind since the NBI agent who participated adequately described what took place.

    At the same time, it said the attempt at extortion was “overwhelmingly proven” by the testimony of witnesses that there was a demand for P3 million.