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Lipa mayor acquitted of graft over broadcasting deal

Suspended Lipa City mayor Meynardo Sabili was ordered reinstated in office after the Sandiganbayan acquitted him of a graft complaint. Facebook/Mayor Meynard A. Sabili

MANILA, Philippines — Suspended Lipa City mayor Meynardo Sabili was ordered reinstated in office after the Sandiganbayan acquitted him of a graft case over a broadcasting deal with his wife's media outfit in 2012.

In an 11-page resolution promulgated on September 29, released to the media on Wednesday, the court's First Division granted Sabili and his wife Bernadette's demurrer to evidence which prayed for the dismissal of their graft case on the ground of the supposed weak evidence of the prosecution team.

“The demurrer to evidence is impressed with merit...Having failed to overcome the constitutional presumption of innocence of the accused, the Court is constrained to grant the accused's demurrer to evidence,” the resolution penned by division chairman Associate Justice Efren De La Cruz read.

The resolution has the concurrence of Associate Justices Geraldine Faith Econg and Edgardo Caldona.

“In view of the acquittal of the accused, the Resolution dated September 8, 2017, ordering the suspension pendente lite (pending litigation) of Accused Meynardo Asa Sabili is hereby lifted and set aside and is considered to be without force and effect,” the court added.

Filed by the Office of the Ombudsman last year, the graft case stemmed from a broadcast contract that the city government entered into with BPS Broadcasting and Media Services in January 2012.

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The contract, amounting P360,000, was for the airing by BPS of the city government's radio program “May Aasahang Serbisyo” from Jan. 7 to Dec. 31, 2012.

The ombudsman's prosecution team said Sabili violated Section (h) of Republic Act 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act which prohibits public official from having financial or pecuniary interest in any contract or transaction that the government is entering into, in which he or she has the official capacity to intervene.

The ombudsman said Sabili has a direct pecuniary interest in the contract as BPS Broadcasting is considered as jointly owned by him and Bernadette Palomares-Sabili, who was at that time, his common-law wife.

The prosecution contends that while Sabili and Palomares only got married on Sept. 28, 2012, they were already cohabiting prior to the signing of the contract in January of that year. The prosecution said the couple, in fact, already have two children at that time.

In its ruling, however, the court noted that BPS Broadcasting was solely registered under Bernadette's name. The court also pointed out that Bernadette's marriage with a certain Jose Bernardo Jr. was still subsisting when the contract was entered into as the marriage was only annulled sometime in mid-2012.

The court cited Article 148 of the Family Code which states that “in cases of cohabitation wherein parties are incapacitated to marry each other, only the properties acquired by both of the parties through their actual joint contribution of money, property or industry shall be owned by them in common proportion to their respective contributions.”

The court said the prosecution failed to present any evidence which shows that Sabili has actual contributions to BSP.

“Instead of presenting evidence to prove accused Meynardo's actual contribution to BPS Broadcasting, the prosecution focused solely on establishing that the accused were cohabiting prior to the execution of the contract,” the court said

“However, pursuant to law and jurisprudence, even if it can be shown that the accused indeed cohabited and lived together as husband and wife, there must be proof of accused Meynardo's actual contribution to BPS Broadcasting in order to conclude that it is in fact co-owned by the accused,” it added.

The court also gave weight on the testimony of one of the prosecution's own witnesses, Lipa City treasurer Doroteo Rosales, who admitted that Sabili ordered the cancellation of the contract when he married Bernadette on September 28.

“Such change in relations between the accused (Sabili and Bernadette) required BPS Broadcasting to return to the city government, which it did, the payment received for the months of October to December 2012,” the court noted.

Following their acquittal, the court ordered the lifting of the hold departure order it earlier issued against the Sabili couple. The court also ordered the return of the bail bond they previously posted for their provisional liberty.

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