Seares: Sandiganbayan finds evidence of bribery against Cebu City BIR officer in sole testimony of victim, a Bohol resort owner. Anti-graft court sees common modus of extortion, affirms RTC jail sentence.

It was the word of BIR man against businesswoman. Two courts believe the complainant.
Seares: Sandiganbayan finds evidence of bribery against Cebu City BIR officer in sole testimony of victim, a Bohol resort owner. Anti-graft court sees common modus of extortion, affirms RTC jail sentence.
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WHAT must stand out in the Sandiganbayan decision upholding the local court's conviction of Francis V. Mercado, a former Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) intelligence officer in Cebu City, was that it found credible evidence of corruption in the sole testimony of Leonila Montero, a Bohol resort owner, who complained she was being extorted P60,000 cash in exchange for reducing her business tax.

Of the six witnesses against Francis Mercado -- in a corruption case that also involved Bonifacio D. Ybanez, former chief of Special Investigation Division, and Edgar D. Palgan, a former revenue officer of BIR Region #13, Cebu City -- only Montero, owner of Alona Tropical Beach Resort in Panglao, Bohol, testified to the demand for and payment of money.

She said that for a reduced bribe of P60,000, she was promised she'd be "spared from any investigation or surveillance assessment" by the BIR. She later paid P30,000 at an entrapment in which Ybanez and Palgan were arrested.

(Palgan died. Ybanez was convicted with Mercado at the RTC; Mercado was meted the indeterminate penalty of imprisonment from six years and one month to eight years and perpetual absolute disqualification to hold public office and other accessory penalties under the law. Only Mercado appealed to the Sandiganbayan. The anti-graft court decision affirming the RTC ruling was written by First Division Chairperson Associate Justice Efren N. de la Cruz and concurred with by Associate Justices Geraldine Faith A. Econg and Juliet M. Manalo-San Gaspar.)

COURT DIDN'T THINK COMPLAINANT LIED. There was no other testimony to corroborate Montero's allegation of corruption but the Sandiganbayan, in its ruling promulgated November 7, 2023, concluded from the RTC records that Montero "has been consistent and straightforward in the course of her testimony during trial" and the anti-graft court "sees no cogent reason to overturn" the lower court's findings.

Mercado alleged in his appeal that the RTC erred in "giving full faith and credence" to Montero's testimony because "she can lie through her teeth whenever it would suit or benefit her," such as when she testified she told Palgan that she lost Mercado's calling card as excuse for not paying the initial amount.

Like Montero testifying on the alleged bribery regarding the tax on her beach resort, Francis Mercado was also the sole defense witness on the disputed specific act of corruption. Another witness, his brother Richard Mercado, no longer had to testify after both sides agreed that he'd corroborate Francis's testimony that he gave a call card to Montero on which he had written his bank account number.

The two courts, the RTC and Sandiganbayan, found complainant Montero's story credible and rejected accused Mercado's denial and "alibi." The Sandiganbayan said the credibility of a witness is primarily the function of the trial court, "which had the benefit of observing first-hand the demeanor or deportment of the witness."

STANDARD EXTORTION MODUS. Leonila Montero's testimony told a story of extortion, to which a number of business people who similarly were victimized by, or colluded with, government tax regulators could relate:

The transaction covered the period from March to August in 2005.

In March of that year 2005, her staff told Montero that people from BIR were frequently visiting her resort. On May 9, she received several calls and text messages from Edgar Palgan about the tax on her business. On May 16, she brought resort business records, as instructed, to the BIR regional office in Cebu City, where she met with Mercado, Palgan and Ybanez in the latter's office. On May 24, at Bo's Caf in Ayala Center, Palgan and Mercado presented the amount of her tax liability written on yellow paper. Later, she received by fax a computation of her tax debt: P200,000. Both, she knew, were unofficial computation and demand.

On July 20, Palgan and Mercado met with her at Metro Center Hotel where they offered that she pay the amount to them instead of the BIR and she'd be immune from further investigation and liability. On July 21, Mercado called her, telling the businesswoman they've reduced the amount to P100,000, discounted by 50 percent.

On July 26, at SM Bo's Caf , she met with Mercado, Palgan and Ybanez (who brought along his daughter), and she told them she could afford to pay only P60,000 and would give the first half, and how would she pay the amount? Mercado wrote his bank account number at the back of his call card, telling her to deposit the money to the account.

She didn't deposit any money and instead set up with the help of a former Panglao police chief an entrapment on August 2 at Max's Chicken in Ayala. CIIB police arrested Ybanez and Palgan when they received the cash from Montero. Mercado, who was said to be at the US Embassy at the time, was spared the public arrest.

THE MERCADO CALL CARD on which the BIR intelligence officer wrote his bank account number figured prominently in the appeal. Mercado's "alibi" was that he wrongly wrote the bank account number because he intended to give it to his brother Richard who purportedly lent him money for his trip abroad.

Montero, however, testified that Mercado wrote the number just before he handed the card to her with the instruction that the P30,000 first payment be deposited in that account. The Sandiganbayan ruling called Mercado's excuse "flimsy."

WHAT OTHER STATE WITNESSES TESTIFIED TO. The five other prosecution witnesses testified to records and documents, which proved the other elements of the crime, not the act of demand for and receipt of the bribe money itself. Such matters as:

[] position and duties of accused Francis Mercado (like, he was hired in 1989 and retired as intelligence officer on December 31, 2006);

[] records of the cases against Ybanez and Palgan from Criminal Unit of the Court of Appeals; copy of Mercado's calling card, and copy of the RTC decision on the case, which convicted Mercado and Ybanez;

[] mission order to Palgan and Mercado, along with proof of Mercado's Land Bank account.

Only Montero's testimony of the demand/request/solicitation was presented to prove the alleged corruption, as well as the collusion or conspiracy of the three BIR officials who all had the duty to intervene in the tax investigation.

The testimony of five prosecution witnesses other than the resort owner proved the other elements of the crime, which is violation of section 3(b) of Republic Act 3019 or Anti-graft and Corrupt Practices Act. The offense involves "directly or indirectly requesting or receiving any gift, present, share, percentage or benefit, for himself or any other person, in connection with any contract or transaction between the Government and any other party, wherein the public officer in his official capacity has to intervene under the law."

BLOW AGAINST CORRUPTION. The Mercado case in a way helped diminish the skepticism of people towards prosecuting the corrupt in government. Some of them can still get caught, the story tells us.

Had the resort owner not complained and had she opted to pay up quietly and not colluded with police -- after all she got a basement-sale bargain (P200,000 slashed to P60,000) -- the case could've just dropped into an ocean of similar corruption cases and disappeared.


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