Seares: Arias doctrine in Tomas landfill case: Rama needs to prove not just good faith

Pachico A. Seares

ARIAS doctrine,” the “Aguinaldo doctrine” and the “doctrine of inordinate delay.” Three legal defenses that have been the refuge of public officials facing charges of corruption.

Under the “Aguinaldo doctrine,” reelection wipes out the offense. “Inordinate delay” by the prosecution justifies dropping of the case under the theory that justice delayed is justice denied. The “Arias doctrine” gets the public official off the hook with the premise that, acting in good faith, the superior can rely on the work of his subordinates.

Public officials, including a few from Cebu, were charged with graft and walked because of one of those defenses.

The exempting excuses were generously used or abused, which prompted the high court to dump the Aguinaldo doctrine and restrict application of the two others: Inordinate delay and Arias.

Direct contract

In 2017, a year after the election, Mike Rama and his former chief of public services at City Hall, five former members of the bids and awards committee (BAC) and the contractor were charged with corruption in connection with a P25.4 million garbage disposal deal contracted during Rama’s term as mayor. Rama pleaded the defense of good faith under the Arias doctrine. The ombudsman rejected the plea.

A ruling from the Visayas ombudsman, laid down in December 2019 but publicized only last week, finds “probable cause” in the complaint of violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act. The ombudsman has proceeded to indict before the Sandiganbayan Rama and four former BAC members (one member was cleared) and contractor Asian Energy System Corp. (AESC).

The complaint, filed on Aug. 24, 2017 by then mayor Tomas Osmeña, charged Rama and the others with falsification and gross misconduct for directly contracting with AESC, instead of conducting a bidding on the waste disposal service. AESC got two purchase orders in 2013 and 2014 for a total of 36,399 tons of garbage hauled and dumped in its landfill in Consolacion, Cebu.

Rama’s defense

Mike’s defense is that he relied on the finding of Dionisio Gualiza, already deceased and dropped from the case, the head of City Hall’s department of public services, who certified that AESC was the only landfill operator available and the BAC for goods and services headed by Ester Concha adopted Gualiza’s report. Then mayor Mike directly contracted with AESC and signed the deal covered by purchase orders in two years.

In Amado Arias vs. Sandiganbayan (GR#81563, Dec. 19, 1989), the Supreme Court said the head of office is not required to examine every single detail of any transaction from its inception until it is finally approved. “All heads of offices have to rely to a reasonable extent on their subordinates and on the good faith of those who prepare bids, purchase, supplies, or enter into negotiations.”

What must be proved

Would the Arias doctrine help Mike Rama? The vice mayor cited Arias to reporters when news of the ruling broke out. He and his lawyers have to prove in further court battles that the doctrine applies to him.

The ombudsman already rejected the Arias defense in Mike’s case and he will make that pitch again before the anti-graft court and higher courts. And in other big-ticket lawsuits, including those involving public works officials in Mindanao’s autonomous region and former mayor Junjun Binay in Makati City, the Arias doctrine did not benefit the accused.

Not always valid excuse

It might with Mike. But Rama has to prove that there were “no circumstances that should’ve prompted” him “to make further inquiries” about the availability of other landfill contractors.

For instance, when the DPS chief and the BAC certified that there were none, did he not inquire further? The 2017 complaint with the ombudsman against Rama and others attached letters of DENR Environment Management Board: One, denying it had issued a certification to the City that there were no other landfill firms; and two, giving a list of other garbage disposal companies in Cebu.

The sobering note here: A super-busy official can pitch the Arias doctrine but it’s not always a valid excuse. Good faith in the work of subordinates is not enough when there is a need to verify and get more information.

Neglect or failure may not result in private gain or loss to the government. The law still calls it corruption.