THE Sandiganbayan Seventh Division has approved the plea bargain of former Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) 7 director Juanito Abergas, who faced three graft charges over the illegal reimbursement of his official travel expenses amounting to P1.8 million from 2002 to 2005.
Aside from finding Abergas guilty of a lesser offense of failure of accountable officer to render accounts, which is penalized under Article 218 of the Revised Penal Code (from the original charges of violation of Section 3 (e) of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act), the Sandiganbayan also imposed the corresponding penalty of P6,000 for each of Abergas’ criminal offense and a total of P1,484,406.19 as civil liability to be paid to the DPWH 7.
A plea bargain is a process whereby the accused and the prosecution work out a “manually satisfactory disposition” of the case subject to court approval.
In a 20-page decision penned by Associate Justice Ma. Theresa Dolores Gomez-Estoesta on May 7, 2021, she said a plea bargain, though ordinarily made during the pre-trial stage, can also be made during the trial proper and even after the prosecution has finished presenting its evidence and has rested its case.
Upon arraignment on April 26, 2017, Abergas entered a plea of not guilty for the three graft charges. However, during his cross-examination, he proposed a plea bargain with the prosecution, which the latter and the ombudsman approved.
Gomez-Estoesta said plea bargaining is also allowed when the prosecution does not have enough evidence to establish the guilt of the accused.
She said the prosecution for these particular charges against Abergas was “aware of its flaw” having produced only four photocopies of the evidence and failing to produce the original copies of the 52 disbursement vouchers.
The graft charges stemmed from Abergas’ claim of reimbursements including that of travel expenses, extraordinary miscellaneous expenses and actual and incidental expenses.
In 2005, the Commission on Audit 7, during its fact-finding investigation, found that Abergas’ travel expenses amounting to P603,459.55 were reimbursed without submitting documents, such as the certificates of appearance and travel authority.
His extraordinary and miscellaneous expenses amounting to P784,430.94 exceeded the ceiling set by law.
The ombudsman said the amount was disbursed to buy “pasalubong” items, as payment for hotel bills, meals and drinks and other grocery items, which it said were incurred not in the performance of official duty or for the benefit or interest of public service.
Reimbursements of these actual and incidental expenses reached P416,515.70.
Abergas also failed to submit certificates of appearance in all his travels for 2004 and 2005. The COA 7 also discovered that Abergas was not able to present boarding passes for almost all of his trips. (WBS)