Seares: Issue vs Cortes on Mandaue lots sale survives post-poll amnesia

MOST allegations of crime and other malfeasance against candidates for public office in the heat of the elections are often dismissed as politically motivated, based on flimsy if not fabricated evidence.

Even if the complaint is filed before the ombudsman, with complainants alleging the wrongdoing under oath, the political color blots out traces of credibility. Even if the charge seems supported by believable evidence, the sizzling political climate shreds the question of truth or untruth.

Many voters take the election season potshots as products of strategists and propagandists and least expect them to last beyond the election period.

And when the election is over, the winner gets installed in office and the loser slinks away to heal wounds, those hateful and hated accusations are forgotten as if the end of the battle inflicts collective amnesia on most everyone.

This one isn’t dead

Well, not on all issues and not every person or institution. At least one major issue in Mandue City’s elections last May appears to have survived the blast on the past.

The issue was the sale of a vast tract of reclaimed land by the City Government to a private firm, the EC Ouano Development and Management Corp. (Ecodemcor), in September 2015. A total of 35,821 square meters (sq.m.) of land near the foot of the Sergio Osmena Jr. Bridge was sold for P50 per sq.m., “a ridiculously low price,” according to complainants Abner Aquino and Emmanuel Espermo. The transaction was completed during Jonas Cortes’ term.

Aquino and Espermo’s complaint before the Office of the Ombudsman-Visaya, filed on Sept. 23, 2018, reeked of politics because it was election time and directed principally at then congressman Jonas Cortes, who was revving up his campaign machinery for the comeback to City Hall as mayor.

The election season beclouded whatever merit the charge had.

Cortes’ camp dismissed it as “weaponizing” a valid transaction. Then mayor Luigi Quisumbing lent force to the charge of dirty tactic when his tacticians didn’t stop a radio jingle that called Cortes “korap” and “kawatan” a hundred times to the tune of Rossini’s William Tell overture.

Audit on reclaimed lands

Less than four months after Cortes assumed office June 30, in a report released to the media on Sept. 30, the Commission on Audit (COA), according to a Rappler report, said the government “has been spending on 344 reclaimed lots from illegal activities with zero earnings, with illegal reclaimers reaping financial benefits.”

The audit on Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA) dealt mostly with the illegal reclamations and the losses the government agency suffered and private citizens pocketing the gains. How did the 2015 sale in Mandaue City get into it?

Illegal on two counts

COA said the lots sold to Ecodemcor, a private firm owned by one Olga Ouano, were parcels of land reclaimed by the City Government and, wait for it:

[1] Mandaue City or any private entity “had no authority to sell or reclaim” the lots;

[2] The land sold “had not been appraised or recognized as disposable land” before the sale.

[3] The price was only P50 per sq.m. or P1.8 million for almost 36,000 sq.m. of prime land. Market value, said a complaint for the recovery of the land, was “ridiculously low” because market value at the time of the sale was at least P12,000 per sq.m.

Thus, COA recommended that Cortes, now the mayor, and four other officials be sued by PRA for the illegality of the reclamation and the sale of the land.

Propaganda, not fabricated

Was the issue “weaponized” by Jonas’s rival, Luigi?

It was. Whatever its right name, it was used by Quiusmbing as propaganda.

Was it fabricated? That’s for the ombudsman and the court--before which the COA report said a lawsuit for the recovery of the land is pending--to decide. But given the audit disclosure, there appears to be probable cause.

And unusual for most election charges, the issue has survived and seems to be beyond post-election forgetting, at least for now.

The anti-Jonas camp might want, at the risk of being sued, to play that bastardized Rossini overture again. Even if it won’t resurrect the jingle though, any libel from the 2019 election period has not yet prescribed and may still be tapped by Cortes’ lawyers.


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