A MANILA court has issued an arrest warrant against billionaire and 1-Pacman party-list Rep. Michael Romero for allegedly stealing P3.4 million from his family’s Harbour Centre Port Terminal Inc.
The order was issued by Manila RTC Branch 11 Judge Cicero Jurado Jr., who recommended no bail for Romero and his two co-accused, Edwin Jeremillo and Felicia Aquino, for qualified theft.
Jurado also denied Romero’s motion for re-determination of probable cause, with an appeal to withhold the issuance of arrest warrant and to dismiss the case outright or suspend proceedings.
The lawmaker has been embroiled in a bitter legal battle with his own father, businessman Reghis Romero II, for the control of HCPTI, which operates the Manila North Harbor terminal. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
Jerome Canlas, corporate secretary under Romero’s father, has accused the estranged son of conspiring with Jeremillo and Aquino to stealing corporate funds by issuing 18 cheques—with each bearing the amount of P200,000 for a total of P3.4 million—supposedly for “marketing expenses” and payable to the “National Food Authority and/or Felicia Aquino.”
In a resolution dated July 1, 2016, Manila City prosecutors found probable cause to hold the three accused liable for qualified theft for issuing the cheques on April 27, 2007 to non-existent payees.
But in September last year, the Department of Justice reversed the resolution to indict Romero and his co-accused before the Manila RTC Branch 28.
Canlas then successfully appealed for the presiding judge of Branch 28 to inhibit himself from the case, which was then raffled off again to Branch 11.
“The court rules to deny the urgent Motion for Re-determination of Probable Cause, considering that there is really no re-determination to be spoken of because the RTC of Manila has not yet issued a [previous] warrant of arrest against accused. Hence, there is nothing to re-determine,” Jurado said in his order.
“The urgent motion is denied. Let a warrant of arrest be issued,” the judge added.
It was Romero and Jeremillo who signed and issued the cheques.
Manila prosecutors, in their earlier resolution, noted that the transactions for which the cheques were issued appeared to be bogus because no evidence was presented to show that NFA had any transactions with Harbour Centre.
The prosecutors also found that all cheques were encashed not by the NHA but by Aquino herself.
In a separate case, the Justice department last year ordered the indictment of Romero and two accomplices for eight counts of qualified theft amounting to P17.9 million committed against HCPTI.
Acting Justice Secretary Emmanuel Caparas under the Aquino administration said the department found probable cause to hold the three for trial for the non-bailable offense.
In a resolution dated June 13, 2016, the DoJ said Romero, as then president of HCPTI, Jeremillo, as chief operating officer for administration and Edwin Joseph Galvez as chief finance officer, “conspired to take funds totaling to P17.9 million belonging to the company and placed the amount to their personal bank accounts.”
“We find that there is enough evidence to show that, more likely than not, the crime of qualified theft has been committed, the respondents committed the crime charged, and they should be held for trial,” Caparas said in an eight-page resolution.
Caparas also directed the Quezon City prosecutor to file the proper information for eight counts of qualified theft against the Romero group.
Romero’s group immediately branded the DoJ ruling as a “midnight resolution” prompting the HCPTI lawyers to protest and to claim that the case against Romero had been dragging for the last two years.
“In the administration of justice, there is no such thing as a midnight resolution. That is the reason why we have inquest cases and criminal cases that have to be resolved. Justice delayed is justice denied and even the Constitution guarantees speedy disposition of cases,” Marlon Cruz, counsel of HCPTI said.
Lawyer Jerome Canlas, who acted as the complainant in the case in behalf of HCPTI, said the complaint filed against Romero has been ongoing for more than two years and that it was unfair to brand it as a midnight resolution.
“The resolution of a criminal case cannot wait for the next administration or the next justice secretary. There are aggrieved parties in a criminal case and that is why you have inquest cases, which should be resolved immediately. In our case, this has been dragging for more than two years and it is only now that it has been properly resolved,” he said.
Romero’s group was accused of issuing and cashing eight company checks on separate occasions between February 2007 to December 2008.
Court records show that Romero, then president of HCPTI, issued and cashed three of the checks, claiming it was for payment for advances he made for the company.
Five of the checks were issued and cashed by Jeremillo and Galvez, on instruction and approval of Romero.
However, Caparas said the group did not present any evidence that they were in payment of legitimate corporate expenses.
“[I]f the subject checks were indeed issued for legitimate corporate expenses, they should have been issued directly to the persons and entities, who are the creditors of HCPTI, and the documents supporting the claimed legal obligations should have been attached to the relevant vouchers,” Caparas said.
“First, it is curious that the eight checks in question indicate Romero and Galvez as the payees. Romero claims three of the checks were issued to him as payee, two were issued for legitimate corporate expenses, while one was issued as payment for advances he made in favor of HCPTI. As pointed out earlier, the duly signed documents underlying the claimed legal obligations, e.g. contracts, were not presented,” he said.
“Romero did not present a credible and justifiable explanation why the purported payment had to be coursed through his bank account and not paid directly to the supposed creditor,” Caparas said.
Caparas added that even the supporting vouchers submitted in support of the supposed advances showed Romero and his two accomplices were the ones who prepared them.
“The purported supporting vouchers and requests for payment were couched in general and ambiguous terms. The signatories to the vouchers were the respondents themselves and the preparation of the request and vouchers were within their control as the responsible corporate officers. Other officers and employees of HCPTI could not have perpetrated the crime charged without the respondents’ direct participation and direction,” the Caparas order explained.
He said the three obviously colluded to take the company funds.
“Because of their positions in HCPTI, all three respondents were able to commit the crime of qualified theft. All told, the records show that there was unlawful taking by the respondents of funds that incontestably belonged to HCPTI,” the order added.
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