THE Sandiganbayan has acquitted Negros Oriental Gov. Roel Degamo and two other provincial officials of one graft charge and 11 counts of malversation through falsification filed against them by the Office of the Ombudsman in 2016.
Associate Justice Bernelito R. Fernandez penned the 40-page decision that cleared all three defendants of any criminal liability even after an admission on record that they spent P480.775 million in 2012 to pay contractors of public works projects in defiance of a directive from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) not to touch the said funds.
Acquitted together with Degamo were provincial treasurer Danilo Mendez and provincial accountant Teodorico Reyes.
They were accused of causing undue injury to the government when they approved the use of P480.775 million from the province’s 2012 Calamity Fund to pay progress billings of contractors in 11 infrastructure projects.
They did this even if they received a warning from the DBM that special allotment release order (SARO) No. ROVII-12-0009202 authorizing the use of the amount had been recalled, with further instruction to remit the sum back to the national treasury.
The anti-graft court’s Third Division said the provincial officials’ actions did not amount to a criminal offense in the absence any damage caused to the interests of the government or that any of them gained from the transactions involved.
“Although it is clear that the accused resolved to proceed with the subject rehabilitation projects despite the withdrawal of the SARO, this however cannot equate to evident bad faith or gross inexcusable negligence,” Fernandez said in his ponencia.
Presiding Justice Amparo M. Cabotaje-Tang and Ronald B. Moreno concurred.
The court gave credence to the defense position that the decision to use the funds was borne of the defendants’ honest belief that then DBM Undersecretary Mario Relampagos did not have the authority to unilaterally withdraw the SARO.
It also noted that the governor took pains to clarify the matter by sending verification letters to the office of then Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., the Office of the President, and the office of Relampagos himself.
“On the other hand, there can be no injury to the government. Evidently, the 11 contracts were already entered into with various contractors and that the subject rehabilitation projects were already either partially or totally completed as of 203,” the court pointed out.
Furthermore, the Sandiganbayan said the malversation charges cannot stand upon showing by the accused that they had put the funds to their personal use.
Degamo was ordered dismissed from office twice by the Office of the Ombudsman but won reprieve both times from the Court of Appeals, which reversed the dismissal orders.