THREE top officials of Ronda, Cebu, a municipality southwest of Cebu City, were charged after the December 31, 2009 audit showed that then mayor Esteban Ricahuerta Sia “illegally” obtained cash advances totaling P2.063 million and failed to return or liquidate the sum.

ONE OF THREE LEFT. Sia and the two other officials -- treasurer Esperato Aguilar del Socorro and accountant Genara Maribao Kasayan -- were charged with one count each of malversation of public funds (Article 217 of the Revised Penal Code) and corruption (Section 3(e) of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act).

The Sandiganbayan discharged as accused (1) accountant Kasayan whom prosecutors tapped as state witness and (1) mayor Sia who passed away while the trial was pending. Kasaya’s discharge on October 4, 2019 amounted to an acquittal and Sia’s death, confirmed by prosecutors on August 24, 2021, extinguished his liability.

Only treasurer del Socorro, the official who might not have received any of the cash drawn by Sia, was prosecuted to the end and convicted. He had also applied for state witness but was refused, the court comparing in the ruling his acts with those of Kasayan.

Sandiganbayan’s Sixth Division -- in a 125-page decision penned by Associate Justice Kevin Narce Vivero -- found the treasurer guilty of the twin criminal charges, meted him two jail terms of six years to 10 years, a fine of P2.063 million, and

the civil liability of the same amount plus interest until fully paid. Del Socorro was also perpetually disqualified from public office and deemed to have forfeited retirement and other benefits.

From May 6, 2016, when the Office of the Special Prosecutor filed the charges with the Sandiganbayan, until last Tuesday, February 7, 2023, when the court promulgated the decision, it took about seven years. But counted from the COA audit in 2009 and the Municipal Council’s 2010 request to the Visayas Ombudsman to investigate the anomaly further, it took 13 to 14 years.

MESS ON CASH ADVANCES. As the lone accused left, treasurer del Socorro took most of the beating, in the form of the penalties imposed and the court’s criticisms of his conduct.

The ruling disclosed that COA audit on Ronda as of December 31, 2009 found that the agency “failed for several years to conduct a physical count of (the town’s) property, plant and equipment” amounting to P29.68 million. It was only after the 2009 audit that the failure was uncovered, in the same review that exposed the mess involving cash advances (CAs).

The CAs of Ronda officials and employees, totaling P4.19 million, remained unliquidated as of the 2009 yearend. The cashout violated the Government Accounting and Auditing Manual and was considered illegal with respect to (a) casual and job-order workers and (b) elected officials for purposes other than travel.

Mayor Sia piled up the P2.063 million CAs, which included sums for non-travel and allegedly without disbursement vouchers (DVs). Twenty-four checks totaling P563.35 million were issued without DVs and supporting papers, thus the government couldn’t determine whether the transactions were valid. An appropriation to improve the Ronda public market was spent for other purposes, including development of Banlot Spring.

COA’s findings led the Municipal Council in 2010 to seek the Ombudsman investigation, which resulted in the formal complaint against 13 officials and employees, including the mayor, the treasurer and the accountant.

‘THREATS, PRESSURE’ FROM MAYOR. Both treasurer Socorro and accountant Kasayan dwelt on the alleged acts of the mayor -- which the Sandiganbayn called “devil may care attitude and fearsome nature” -- that enabled him to make the allegedly illegal cash advances. They were first raised in their respective counter-affidavits but it wasn’t known if mayor Sia had known about his co-officials’ accusation regarding his conduct.

Socorro said the mayor “asked for cash advances as he desired (roughly, in Cebuano-Bisaya ‘sa iya lang gusto’ )... I didn’t have the nerve to refuse him... out of fear.” The state prosecutors were more blunt, comparing the town treasury as Sia’s “piggy bank.”

Kasayan said he was “at the receiving end of pressure, reprimands and public humiliation when I dared to question his transactions or when vouchers reached my office and I dared to reject it.” The accountant said he ultimately signed them “because of the pressure” and Sia’s “undertaking to assume full responsibility...” He said the mayor would persist despite advice from Kasayan’s provincial head and COA auditors during the exit conference. In his testimony, Kasayan said the mayor “threatened to sue” him for insubordination... I was scolded in front of people.”

WHAT SIA TOLD THE COURT. Mayor Sia didn’t mention in his affidavit the alleged threats and pressure.

He said he always assigned the work of liquidating CAs “to one of my trusted staff”; he was sure his staff submitted the papers to Kasayan: if they were lost, Kasayan “might have lost them,” and he didn’t receive any letter from COA about the CA “which involves a very huge amount.”

SOCORRO DEFENSES REJECTED. As part of his defense, treasurer del Socorro said it was not his duty to withhold cash advances despite pending non-liquidation of prior CAs and “in fact,” he had no personal knowledge of the pending and unliquidated ash advances of the mayor. He also claimed he had “no rudimentary knowledge” of the rules on CAs, although he is a former COA auditor and had been in government service, as of the time of the trial, for 39 years.

Socorro’s claims, said the Sandiganbayan, “dulls one’s credibility.”

The rules are clear, the court said, including provisions that no CAs shall be granted if it is not for travel, there is no disbursement voucher, or the official or employee still has previous unliquidated cash advances. With his background

in government service, the court said, del Socorro “should’ve known better.”

CONSPIRACY. The three -- Sia, Kasayan and del Socorro -- were “principals by indispensable cooperation, considering that their acts are closely related to the commission of the offense of accused Sia.” “The funds were misappropriated by accused Sia would not be released to him without the certifications of accused accountant and treasurer.”

The court found a “conspiracy” between the three accused. And “the death of an accused co-conspirator does not extinguish the guilt against the remaining malefactor.”

“So long as the acquittal or death of a co-conspirator “does not remove the bases of a charge for conspiracy,” the court said, “one defendant may be found guilty of the offense.”

THOSE ‘THREATS’ FROM THE BOSS. Del Socorro said the threats and pressure were “so overwhelming, overpowering” as they came from the chief executive and he was a mere employee. “I am a victim, rather than a criminal.” If he’d be also punished, “it would be the height of injustice.”

The Sandiganbayan didn’t buy it. Del Socorro offered eight letters of Sia to support the alleged “coercion” and “threats” from the mayor. The 2010 letters were irrelevant, the court said, because the cases litigated concern un-liquidated CAs from 2007 to 2009.

How cope with any such pressure, if indeed there was? The Sandiganbayan said, “Any accountable public officer worth his salt should harken to Abraham Lincoln’s words of wisdom: It often requires more courage to dare to do right, than fear to do wrong.”

HOW ABOUT NOT GETTING ‘A SINGLE CENTAVO’? Del Socorro said he had “no hand in Sia’s failure to liquidate” and since he received no money, it follows that he, the treasurer, had no obligation to liquidate.

“Not so fast!” said the Sandiganbayan. Socorro approved vouchers for purposes other than travel and certified the DV and signed the check despite prior knowledge of Sia’s “ballooning” unliquidated CAs, thus abetting the irregular disbursements. “No one shall be called a principal felon,” the court cited the axiom, “except the party actually committing the felony or the party present aiding and abetting in the commission.”

As to not receiving a centavo from the transactions, the court noted that Socorro was among those who had cash advances, in the amount of P325,536.