The Supreme Court has ordered the Sandiganbayan to dismiss the graft case against Cotabato Governor Nancy Catamco and her former husband Pompey Perez for their alleged involvement in the alleged anomalous government purchase of fertilizers in 2004.
In a decision penned by Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa, the SC’s First Division ruled that the inordinate delay in the resolution by the Office of the Ombudsman of the graft case was unjustified and constituted violation of the accused’s constitutional rights to speedy disposition of cases.
The high court stressed that the almost five years it took for prosecutors to charge Catamco and her co-respondents in court was unjustified, considering that the issues involved were “simple” and “straightforward.”
“The issues in this case are simple, straightforward and are easily determinable considering that only one transaction is involved,” the tribunal held.
“There was also no allegation that the petitioners herein had conspired with those involved in the other so-called ‘Fertilizer Fund Scam’ cases,” the SC added.
Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta and Associate Justices Jose Reyes, Jr., Amy Lazaro-Javier, and Mario Lopez concurred with the ruling.
Court records showed that in 2004, the local government of Poro, Cebu, headed by then-mayor Edgar Rama, purchased liquid fertilizers worth P5 million from a company owned by Perez and Catamco. State auditors would later find, among others, that the fertilizers were overpriced by more than 1,000%.
A complaint was filed against Catamco, Perez, and other public officials in June 2013.
The Ombudsman ordered the respondents to file their counter-affidavits to the allegations, which they complied with from September 2014 to May 2015.
The anti-graft body indicted the respondents for one count of violation of the anti-graft law and two counts of malversation more than two years later, or in July 2017. The charges were filed before the Sandiganbayan in 2018.
Citing inordinate delay, Catamco and Perez asked the Sandiganbayan to dismiss the cases, but the anti-graft court denied their motions on ground that the delay was justified because of the volume of the records involved, the number of respondents, and the “steady stream of cases” reaching the Ombudsman.
However, the high court disagreed.
In a July 28, 2020 decision which was made public on September 22, the Court’s First Division stressed that while the SC recognizes the inevitability of “institutional delay,” this alone does not “justify the Ombudsman’s failure to comply with the periods provided under the rules.”
The SC also noted that the long investigation — over two years, counted from the time the last counter-affidavit was filed — “is still quite unreasonable especially considering that, at the end of the day, the Ombudsman merely relied on, and even adopted as its only facts, the audit findings and previous issuances of the COA (Commission on Audit).”
“In this light, the Ombudsman’s delay in the termination of the preliminary investigation against all respondents was clearly unjustified,” the SC held.
The high court pointed out that the petitioners asserted their right to the speedy disposition of cases at the earliest possible time.