THE Sandiganbayan abused its discretion when it dismissed the graft case filed against former Pampanga governor and now Sen. Manuel Lapid in connection with the P728 million fertilizer fund scam, the Supreme Court (SC) has ruled.
In reversing the Sandiganbayan’s decision, the SC Second Division said the right of Lapid and his three co-defendants to a speedy disposition of the graft case filed against them was not violated even if it took three years for the preliminary investigation to be completed.
The ruling was contained in a 17-page decision penned by Associate Justice Jose Reyes Jr. and promulgated last August 19 but released to the media only on Thursday.
“In the absence of vexatious, capricious and oppressive delays in the conduct of the preliminary investigation, there can be no denial of right to a speedy disposition of cases.
In line with the foregoing disquisitions, the Court finds that the Sandiganbayan gravely abused its discretion when it dismissed the criminal case against Lapid et al supposedly due to inordinate delay,” the high court said.
It added that “there was no allegation or proof that the complaint was intended for malicious prosecution or that it was politically motivated. Immediate dismissal of the criminal case on this point is thus, unwarranted. Consequently, the Court must analyze the existence and the cause of the delays.”
The SC directed the Sandiganbayan to “resolve the criminal case with reasonable dispatch.”
The case stemmed from the purchase made by the Lapid-led Pampanga local government from the Malayan Pacific Trading Corporation (MPTC) of 3,880 bottles of macro-micro foliar fertilizers under the Ginintuang Masaganang Ani program of the Department of Agriculture.
Ombudsman investigators said the purchase violated provisions in the Government Procurement Reform Act which bars the government from engaging in acts that would cause undue injury to any party, or from giving any private party unwarranted benefits, advantages or preference in the discharge of his/her official administrative or judicial functions through manifest partiality, evident bad faith or gross inexcusable negligence.
The law likewise prohibits and penalizes any public official who enters into any contract or transaction manifestly and grossly disadvantageous to the government.
The SC said the case against Lapid formally commenced on May 2011 upon the filing of the complaint, pointing out that the period that it took for investigators to finish their fact-finding probe is excluded in determining the alleged extent of delay, if any, in the disposition of the case.
Even the Sandiganbayan, the high court note noted, has observed that there was no evidence that the Ombudsman conducted a fact-finding investigation way back in 2006, as claimed by the defense team.
“On the contrary, the subpoenas which the Ombudsman issued in connection with its fact-finding investigation, which Lapid et al, themselves submitted in evidence, were addressed to various government agencies but not to them. Thus, the fact-finding investigation could not have been vexatious, capricious and oppressive to them,” the high court said.
It noted that the Field Investigation Office-Task Force of the Ombudsman found probable cause to indict Lapid and his co-respondents on September 18, 2013, or two years and four months from the filing of the complaint. It was approved by the Ombudsman on June 3, 2014.
“Thus, from the filing of the formal complaint until the Ombudsman’s approval of the resolution finding probable cause against Lapid et al. the length of time consumed for the preliminary investigation was three years and one month,” the SC said.
It will be recalled that prior to his arraignment on February 2016, Lapid moved to dismiss the criminal case, raising as one of his grounds the alleged inordinate delay of eight years in the preliminary investigation and filing of the case.
Lapid said the delay violated his constitutional right to a speedy disposition of his cases.
The anti-graft court in a ruling on September 2016 affirmed Lapid’s right and dismissed the criminal cases.
The Office of the Ombudsman then filed a motion for reconsideration of the dismissal but the anti-graft court junked the plea, prompting the former to elevate the case to the SC by filing a motion for certiorari alleging grave abuse of discretion on the part of the Sandiganbayan when it issued the order.