THE Sandiganbayan has directed accused former Maguindanao governor and now Shariff Saydona Mustapha municipal mayor Datu Sajid Islam Ampatuan to appoint a new lead counsel in his corruption cases after the court barred his lawyer of record from representing him.
In an 11-page resolution, the anti-graft court’s Sixth Division held that defense lawyer Jo Ellaine Collado may no longer be allowed to continue appearing for Ampatuan because of her recent appointment as legal officer of the provincial government of Zambales.
The court barred Collado even if Zambales governor Hermogenes E. Ebdane Jr. granted her official leave to keep her private law practice.
Prosecutors objected to Collado’s continued appearance as counsel for Ampatuan citing conflict of interest since her client’s position is adverse to the government and may be in conflict with section 90 of the Local Government Code (RA 7160).
The defense countered that RA 7160 does not apply since she is not a member of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan. Likewise, it argued that it will be unfair to deprive Ampatuan of his counsel of choice who has represented him from the start of the proceedings.
In addition, defense lawyers pointed to the absence of any claim by Ampatuan against the government that negates any issue of conflict of interest.
In the resolution penned by Associate Justice and Sixth Division chairperson Sarah Jane T. Fernandez, the court acknowledged that there is no general law either allowing or prohibiting private legal practice by lawyers in government service – except for local elected officials, lawyers of the Office of the Solicitor General, judges and lawyers working in the judiciary.
It likewise noted that the Department of Interior and Local Government has previously issued opinions that provincial or city legal officers and other government lawyers under local government units may be authorized to engage in private legal practice based on Civil Service Resolution No. 93-2203 dated June 21, 1993.
However, it said the DILG and the CSC resolution are not binding upon the Sandiganbayan.
At the same time, the Sandiganbayan noted that Ebdane’s approval was couched on the condition that the practice must not conflict or tend to conflict with Collado’s official functions.
“Atty. Collado, by representing accused Ampatuan, is representing interests adverse to the people of the Philippines and the Philippine government in general. This Court finds that Atty. Collado’s continued representation of accused Ampatuan … constitutes conflict of interest,” the court ruled.
It stressed that with her appointment as provincial legal officer of Zambales, Collado, by operation of law, ceased to represent Ampatuan.
Ampatuan stands charged with four counts of graft, four counts of malversation of public funds, and 137 counts of falsification of public documents.
The cases involve allegations that the provincial government’s procurement of P72.256 million worth of construction materials in 2009 for the construction and repair of public school buildings was fraudulent.
Prosecutors said the funds were simply pocketed by Ampatuan and other defendants after it turned out that all four suppliers were non-existent. These were Usman Lumberyard and Construction Supply, Andong Lumberyard and Construction, Nasser Lumberyard and Construction Supply, and Ismael Lumberyard and Construction Supply.
Ampatuan has been convicted of separate charges of graft, malversation and falsification of public documents by the Sandiganbayan Fourth Division in March 2019.
The court found him and his co-accused guilty of conspiracy to defraud the government through ghost procurement of construction materials totaling P35.74 million in 2009 relative to 73 emergency purchases of lumber and plywood from only one supplier – Abo Lumberyard – all in a span of nine months.
The procurement was supposedly intended for the repair of unspecified school buildings in the province. However, Abo Lumberyard proved to be non-existent and the schools were not identified.
They were meted imprisonment of eight to 12 years for the graft case and reclusion perpetua for the malversation charge aside from being ordered to repay the full P35,740,493 equivalent to the amount pocketed.