Seares: Did COA, Sandiganbayan and Cebu public get it wrong? Supreme Court rules there was no overprice, no corruption in 2007 Asean Summit street lamps scandal.

Seares: Did COA, Sandiganbayan and Cebu public get it wrong? Supreme Court rules there was no overprice, no corruption in 2007 Asean Summit street lamps scandal.
SunStar File

[] It was the biggest fraud on the government in late 2000s, condemned by most everyone, with the lamppost seen in Cebu as street symbol of corruption.

[] Supreme Court apparently used different lens in assessing overprice. Lamp sets were priced from P50,000 to P83,250 each. "Hesusmaryosep," as City Mayor Mike Rama would say.

WHAT THE PUBLIC IS JUST TOLD. Last Friday, February 23, 2024, the Supreme Court publicized its October 11, 2023 decision acquitting of the crime of corruption three former officials of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) -- Robert Lala, regional director, and DPWH executives Pureza Fernandez and Augustinito Hermoso -- and Gerardo Surla of supplier Gampik Construction and Development Inc.

RELATED: Seares: Sandiganbayan convicts 4 persons over decorative lamps in Lapu-Lapu, clears all 11 over similar lamps in Mandaue

The SC reversed the September 2020 decision of the Sandiganbayan that convicted the four persons of violating the anti-graft law (Republic Act 3019) and sentencing them to six-to-eight-years in jail for corruption in the purchase and installation of streetlamps and related projects the Department of Foreign Affairs commissioned, by order of then president Gloria Arroyo, for DPWH to implement for the 12th Asean Summit held in Cebu in January 2007.

The prosecutors, the SC said, failed to establish corrupt intent on the part of the DPWH officials. Supplier Gampik, the lowest bidder, "was found to be qualified to perform the services and to complete the lamppost project.

IN SUM, the SC ruled that the rights of the appellant officials to a fair and impartial investigation and to be informed of the nature and cause of the charges against them were not violated. But the court found inadequate evidence of corruption, which dumped the Sandiganbayan conviction and set them free, the underlying purpose of the appeal.

Two of three essential elements of graft were not proved, the SC said: no proof the accused acted "with manifest partiality or evident bad faith, or gross inexcusable negligence" and no proof that their action caused "undue injury to any party including the government, or gave any private party unwarranted benefits, advantage, or preference" while performing their functions.

IN EFFECT, the Ombudsman investigators and prosecutors erred in finding corruption in the 2007 lamppost scandal. The public was wrong in condemning the apparent stealing of public funds. Right? Yes and no; maybe, maybe not.

THE QUESTION OF OVERPRICE. The high court was convinced the prosecutors were "unable to establish all the elements" of the crime because "there was no clear showing of corrupt intent" on the part of any of the four accused-appellants.

The project, the SC said, "was not overpriced, Gampik was able to finish the project, and Gampik was not even paid for its services." Which "undisputed facts reveal," the court said, that the accused-appellants "were not driven by any corrupt intent."

The charges before the Sandiganbayan in one criminal case allege an excess by P11.031 million as against COA violation and in the second criminal case by P12.629 million, beyond 10 percent in the allowable price variance. Apparently, the SC justices of the third division saw the facts of the cases differently from what the Sandiganbayan 6th division found four years ago.

SC STRIKES DOWN SANDIGANBAYAN ARGUMENT, its principal evidence against the accused. And that was the execution of an MOU or memorandum of understanding between DPWH and the supplier Gampik before the public bidding was conducted. Surla, the Sandiganbayan said, conspired with DPWH officials by signing the MOU in behalf of Gampik.

Allowing Gampik to start the project prior to the bidding was "clear indication of manifest partiality to favor Gampik and/or accused Surla over the other contractors or bidders."

The high court, however, said the MOU was "was only resorted to because there was immense pressure that the lamppost installation projects were completed before the Asean summit."

MOST OF US SAW IT AS A SCANDAL. In December 2022, local media reported that the Sandiganbayan convicted former Lapu-Lapu City mayor Arturo Radaza and 12 other former government officials for corruption in connection with the lampposts purchase in that city. It involved another supplier, Fabmik Construction & Equipment Supply Company Inc., represented by Isabelo Braza. The circumstances could be different from the Gampik case whose ruling the SC just announced. ("Fabmik" rhymes with "Gampik," some people noted.)

The Commission on Audit in February 2017 raised the P13.33-million disallowance by COA-7 against Mandaue City and Cebu City officials and Gampik liabilities to P23.97 million, thus reversing the regional office's assessment.

In August 2011, the Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of 14 DPWH officials who were found guilty of grave misconduct for buying 1,800 lampposts for the tri-cities of Cebu, Mandaue and Lapu-Lapu.

There were acquittals, to be sure: In October 2019, the Sandiganbayan dismissed the graft charges against the late Mandaue mayor Thadeo Ouano and another DPWH official, as well as 11 other accused whom the court didn't find guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

Was the public wrong in seeing the lampposts purchase and installation as a huge scandal?

There was enough official information for the public to reasonably suspect a massive fraud, which exploited the hosting for a big foreign event. So maybe not.

SC RULING DIDN'T MEAN THE SCANDAL DIDN'T EXIST and authorities had sufficient basis to prosecute the suspected culprits. The forums where the cases were litigated obviously have different standards in their findings: a criminal trial, for one, requires evidence beyond reasonable doubt while an administrative hearing or civil case requires only preponderance of evidence.

What may stump the public is how the highest court of the land could see overpricing differently: Ombudsman investigators and Sandiganbayan justices must be using the same standards the SC justices use. And the former were supposed to have looked at the case up-closer than the latter.

Ombudsman investigators and prosecuting lawyers based in Cebu who saw the lampposts "with their own eyes" aren't wrong in thinking they must know better than the SC justices in determining whether there was overprice or not.

Eighty nine of the lamps cost P50,000 per set, 300 were priced P83,250 each. And that was in 2007. "Hesusmaryosep," as Cebu City Mayor Mike Rama would say in an outburst of excitement or distress.


No stories found.

Just in

No stories found.

Branded Content

No stories found.
SunStar Publishing Inc.