Seares: Bogo City’s P20M mess: what not to argue against being suspended

CRESENCIO Verdida was municipal accountant when the local government disbursed in 2007 P20 million to the Bogo Municipal Employees Multi-Purpose Cooperative, a private corporation. The fund from the Department of Agriculture should’ve been used as agricultural and livelihood aid to farmers and fishermen. The private coop was hardly a “marginalized sector.”

With a number of other officials--mayor, treasurer, budget officer and asst. treasurer--Verdida was charged with violation of two counts of the anti-graft and corruption law.

He was ordered last May 22 to show cause why he shouldn’t be suspended during trial. He filed his answer last July 4.

Well, Sandiganbayan Sixth Division just slapped him with a 90-day suspension, the order published in “Manila Bulletin” last Friday (Aug. 2). The order offers a brief but graphic lesson on what not to argue and why it sucks to the court if the accused does.

Sinning, survival

Councilor Verdida’s arguments:

¦HE CAN NO LONGER SIN. “Impossible” for him, Verdida said, to commit “further malfeasance”: it would take all members of the City Council, “a collective body” to do it. He already resigned as municipal accountant and is now a city councilor, he said.

Wrong. As a city councilor, he even wields more influence at City Hall.

• HOW WOULD HE SURVIVE? His salary as councilor is his only income, he said, “appealing to the humanitarian side” of the court.

Wrong. Judges decide not with the heart but with the mind where the law they learned sits and rules. And potential loss of income by the accused is as lame a defense as can be.

Beware of ‘shall’

Verdida was scaling a formidable wall of the law (Republic Act 3019, Section 13), which provides that “any public officer against any criminal prosecution under a valid information under this act... shall be suspended from office.”

Two “any” and one “shall” in that bunch of legal verbiage, enough to intimidate would-be law offenders. Be careful with “any”: meaning, it does not distinguish, accountant or councilor. And tremble over the mandatory “shall,” which is only a bit less definite than word “must” but in law carries the weight of a sledgehammer.

Chance of escape

The fact is, the chance of eluding a Sandiganbayan suspension order mandated by the anti-graft and corruption law is slimmer than escaping from Guantanamo Bay’s US prison for terrorists.

The Supreme Court has “repeatedly held” that preventive suspension under Section 13 of RA 3019 “is (so) clear and explicit” that there’s “hardly room for any extended court rationalization of the law.” In other words, the law is the law, end of discussion.

An accused though must answer the “show-cause” order from the court. And Verdida’s lawyer had to reach for the bottom of the argument barrel to offer something to the judges whose minds were closed for them by the non-discriminating “any” and imperious “shall” in the law.

Rare exceptions

But wait, there are rare exceptions.

A member of Congress who is ordered suspended by the Sandiganbayan, or even booted out and perpetually disqualified from office, for a past offense may still keep the office. If the senator or House member has the good graces of the congressional leaders, he or she will keep the legislative seat.

Basis is the legal principle that Congress has used to defend its flock while the violator is under its wings: namely, only Congress can discipline its members.

Or the accused manages to stall the suspension, by bribery or otherwise, or seek court relief, again by bribery or otherwise. Some judges have the exceptional skill of finding the law, or creating the principle, to get a favored accused off the hook.

Sometime ago, a Cebu City councilor accused of graft from conflict of interest was provided the ridiculous escape hatch: namely, that the City Council in approving a deal merely advises the mayor on contracts. Untrue and silly but the councilor walked to enjoy his profits and keep his present public office.


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