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Ombudsman corrected itself

Bencyrus Ellorin .

THE latest ruling of the Ombudsman on the 2013 Ajinomoto tax settlement case versus Cagayan de Oro Mayor Oscar Moreno bodes well for the mayor who is facing over 50 cases filed by his political opponents.

The ruling signed by Anthony Ludalvi A. Vista, assistant special prosecutor at the Office of the Ombudsman dated Jan. 22, 2019 may signal the end of the mayor’s legal woes.

The Ombudsman in October 2015 dismissed Mayor Moreno and disqualified him from holding public office perpetually for grave misconduct for entering into a tax settlement with Ajinomoto without authorization from the City Council.

In his 6 years as mayor of the city, the Ajinomoto case has been thought as the most serious legal and political challenge the mayor had faced. This case involved a substantial legal question whether tax assessments and settlements are contracts entered into by local chief executives and the local treasurer that need authorization from the local legislature.

The recent ruling of the Ombudsman did not discuss the merits of the case. The legal question was actually thoroughly deliberated in the Oct. 13, 2016 ruling of the Court of Appeals.

In that ruling, the appellate minced no words to correct what it found as a “brusque” decision. The same decision called the accuser, former Taglimao barangay chairman William Guialani, “charlatan” who is “quick to quack.”

The Court of Appeals said there could have been no case for the Ombudsman to start with, adding while the “Ombudsman’s view that the settlement agreement was unlawful” its action may have “amounted to undue non-judicial modification of an immutable judgment of a court of law.”

The 26-page decision stated that there was no substantial evidence that Moreno, who was reelected in the May 2016 elections, had participated in the execution of the settlement or evidence of a misconduct or a grave one “meriting a brusque dismissal of the city mayor and the treasurer from the service.”

It added that since no law was violated, “no grave misconduct was ever committed.”

The ruling also scored the complainant and for being “quick to quack that there is ‘diversion of public funds, and deprivation of tax revenue of about P2.6 million when Dr. Banez compromised the tax assessment to P300,000.00 only” but did not present any proof “other than his charlatan’s claim that the city coffer did not become 2.6 million richer.’”

The appellate court noted that the Ombudsman “quite uncharacteristically seconded that the Settlement Agreement indeed caused ‘prejudice and damage’ to the city government… nor did the Ombudsman identify what evidence was so substantial as to sufficiently support its ‘sentence,’ consisting of the ‘capital’ penalty of dismissal from service.”

The CA also affirmed Moreno’s argument that his right to due process was violated by the Ombudsman when the latter did not consider the submission of his counter-affidavit.

Like his reaction in 2015, Mayor Moreno reiterated this week when he faced the media that the substantive aspects of the case spelled out in clear terms the functions of the city treasurer and he wished this would educate the public and local officials. What was clearly laid out in the CA decision is that in tax settlements, the treasurer and the local chief executive do not need authorization from the local legislature.

Local government treasurers are employees of the Department of Finance-Bureau of Local Government Finance. The mayor only nominates the treasurer.

In gist, the decision reversed the rulings of the Ombudsman on Feb. 23, 2016 and Oct. 20, 2018 which found probable cause to indict the mayor criminally for the Ajinomoto tax settlement in violation of Republic Act 3019.

The Jan. 22, 2019 decision may be viewed as a rectification of the Ombudsman’s legally infirm in the Ajinomoto cases.

The mayor may still face several cases — his chief legal consultant Dale Mordeno has already lost count — but the cases may soon be over in favor of the mayor.

Two things to mind in the cases versus Moreno: (1) these are filed by political opponents; (2) there is no showing Moreno pocketed or misused public funds. Even the 24 cases for entering into equipment rental without bidding has been ruled by the Commission on Audit in Region 10 in clear terms: “It is incontrovertible that services have been rendered, services of equipment not found exceeding the prevailing rental rules, benefits enjoyed by the public, and the accomplishments duly recognized and cited.”

The cases filed by a certain Antonio Nuñez, husband on one of the lawyers of the local political opposition Padayon, has been used by spin doctors to make it appear that if there is no bidding, therefore a transaction is irregular. Yet our procurement laws provide for other means of procurement like “shopping” whenever necessary and if circumstances allow.

The mayor faced 24 dismissals in the equipment rental cases. The decisions are now stayed by a Writ of Preliminary Injunction while some of the criminal aspects of the case had reached arraignment stage in the Sandiganbayan.

A survey done by a prominent university on issues that may affect electoral preference in the May 2019 polls reveal that allegations of graft and corruption is way down their list. More pressing issues are traffic and flood, according to the survey.

Despite all kinds of cases and intrigues lobbed against Moreno, he remains strong based on his solid performance. His political opponents have been reduced to mudslinging 24/4, unfairly calling him “kawatan” at every turn.

But people seem not to be buying it. He defeated a local political kingpin of 15 years not once but twice. Now, he may breeze into a third and last office term versus an opponent whose credentials is his uncanny skills of weaponing the social media (read: fake news).

(The author is a former journalist with experience in managing and editing online news portals here and abroad. He is now a public relations consultant and political campaigner. One of the social media groups he co-administered was a finalist in Globe’s Tatt award in 2012.)

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