EXPLAINER: Why Carmen, Cebu accountant got off on malversation, illegal use of public funds. Cases caution on how one becomes accountable for public money or property.

·5 min read

JUSTICE DELAYED. The criminal charges of malversation of public funds and illegal use of public funds against Virginio E. Villamor and Dina C. Barriga, then mayor and municipal accountant of Carmen, Cebu, involved a total of less than P300,000, committed in 1995 to 1997 or 25 to 27 years ago.

It has taken almost three decades for the justice system to resolve the issue: the Sandiganbayan ruling promulgated just last May 23, 2022 and announced more than a week later. That no longer surprises but still annoys and angers the concerned public.

The mechanism of accountability failed once again because of the delay. The two accused public officers also didn’t get the justice due them because it (a) didn’t resolve the accusation against mayor Villamor -- who died December 25, 2008, prompting the Sandiganbayan to dismiss the charges against him -- and (b) delayed Barriga’s acquittal and thus denied her the justice every person accused of crime deserves.

As it turned out, no one was sanctioned for the loss of public money and/or its alleged misuse. And the cloud of doubt over two public officers hovered over their lives for so long.

NO ‘INORDINATE DELAY.’ The Sandiganbayan recognized the delay –- for eight years the cases were not moving -- and on June 29, 2017 ordered the charges against Barriga dismissed and later denied the prosecutors’ motion to reconsider.

The state went on certiorari to the Supreme Court, which reversed the anti-corruption court’s ruling and ordered it to dispose of the cases on the merits. The reason: Barriga herself was “not faultless” for the delay. Barriga, the SC found, wasn’t cooperative and threw out a lot of motions and petitions to stop the proceeding against her.

Both the state and Barriga contributed to the delay and she was not allowed to benefit from the principle of “inordinate delay,” which has enabled a number of public officials, including a few from Cebu, to get off the hook.

GHOST DELIVERY, DIVERSION. Amounts were allegedly unlawfully paid out by the Municipality of Carmen:

-- in January 1996, P23,000-plus, for five rolls poly-etheline pipes for the town’s water system, purportedly paid to New Carmen Lumber for the town’s water system, but the money was allegedly used for a Christmas party of employees;

-- In November 1995, P1,305, for the spring box of a barangay not covered by the town’s water project funded by CVWSPTF or Central Visayas Water and Sanitation Project Trust Fund;

-- In January 1997, P267,000-plus, for the construction and expansion of a water system, which wasn’t covered by the same trust fund, CVWSPTF.

The town mayor and the municipal accountant were the accused in one case of malversation and two cases of illegal use of public funds.

Only the first spending was a case of ghost delivery: no pipes were delivered, the money was purportedly spent for a Christmas party of “munisipyo” employees. The second and third charges involved alleged use of funds for purpose not covered by the trust fund that paid for them.

WHAT WASN’T PROVED VS. ACCOUNTANT. The anti-graft court said the Ombudsman prosecutors failed to prove that accountant Barriga conspired with mayor Villamor. There was “no overt act” by Barriga, the ruling said. The overt act is the physical activity or deed that indicates “the intention to commit” the crime..

Besides, Barriga was not an accountable officer. Her duty didn’t require “possession or custody of local government funds” to be “accountable and responsible” for their safe-keeping.

When does a public officer become accountable? Because of the nature of one’s functions or because of one’s participation in the application or use of public funds. Accountant Barriga did neither, the Sandiganbayan ruled.

Barriga could have never been accountable then and thus could never commit malversation? Only if she (a) received public money she was bound to account for or (b) conspired with an accountable public officer to commit malversation or illegal use of public funds.

Apparently, neither was proved by the prosecutors. She didn’t misappropriate or consent, through abandonment or negligence, or permit another person to take public funds under her custody. The voucher didn’t show that Barriga received the money or used it to buy Christmas gifts or used it for personal use.

Her signature on the disbursement voucher apparently wasn’t enough to make her liable.

ON ALLEGED DIVERSION OF FUNDS, or their illegal use, Barriga escaped liability because there was no showing that the money had been previously appropriated by law or ordinance for a specific purpose and that it was diverted to another purpose. If erroneous charging occurred, it was not Barriga’s fault.

More destructive against the prosecutors’ case was that the Carmen Sanggunian failed to enact an ordinance for the use of the CVWSPTF. Apparently, it was not enough that when the money was downloaded to Carmen, it specified the source and purpose. The Sandiganbayan must mean the specification of the barangays for which they may be used. Mayor Villamor had testified the ordinance didn’t say the money couldn’t be used for another purpose.

MAYOR’S DEFENSE. Mayor Vllamor served the town, the court said, for 13 years as mayor and three years as vice mayor, cutting short his last term as chief executive when his health failed and he passed away. He testified he didn’t technically malverse the amounts, saying the ordinance didn’t specify that the CVWSPTF could be used only for the “appropriate level of the project.”

An interesting part of his defense was that a mayor couldn’t possibly read all the documents he’d sign; some he read in full, many others he did not. The mayor said he had to rely on assistants and other public officers who went through the documents. Villamor said though he was aware of his liability arising from his signature, without which the money couldn’t be released.

The Sandiganbayan ruling no longer dwelt on the mayor’s liability after it dismissed the charges against him.

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