Sandigan suspends Umali for graft

MANILA—The Sandiganbayan has ordered the preventive suspension of Governor Alfonso Umali Jr. for 90 days over his alleged illegal release of a P2.5-million loan to a private investor.

The special anti-graft court’s Fourth Division threw out Umali’s contention that the suspension was unnecessary because there was no way he could influence the witnesses or tamper with the evidence as the prosecutors had finished presenting their case against him.

But the court said that suspension in such cases is mandatory under the law. At the same time, it said the order was meant to prevent Umali, a staunch ally of President Benigno Aquino, from committing any unlawful acts while in office.

“The presumption is that, unless the accused is suspended, he may frustrate his prosecution or commit further acts of malfeasance or do both,” the court said in its January 7 resolution.

Umali, together with Representative Rodolfo Valencia, was found guilty of misusing public funds in 1994 when they forged a P2.5 million loan contract with ship owner Alfredo Atienza that the court found to be “grossly and manifestly disadvantageous to the government.” Valencia was Oriental Mindoro’s governor then while Umali was the provincial administrator.

The two, along with Atienza, then vice governor Pedrito Reyes and provincial board members Jose Enriquez and Jose Leynes, were sentenced in September 2008 to imprisonment of up to 10 years. All the provincial officials were barred from holding public office.

The officials argued that the provincial assistance was made to help Atienza repair and maintain the roll-on roll-off vessel MV Ace, which was to ply the Calapan-Batangas route.

They said that the vessel was used by the province in the aftermath of four strong typhoons that hit Oriental Mindoro in 1993.

The Sandiganbayan threw out the arguments of Umali and Valencia but later accepted their re-trial plea, acknowledging that “they may not have indeed understood the meaning and consequence of the waiver of their right to present evidence.”

In preventively suspending Umali, the court granted the prosecutors’ motion to implement the 2005 suspension order issued on the then lawmaker. The House of Representatives, which had the discretion to enforce or not the order, chose not to suspend Umali.

Umali, who heads the League of Provinces of the Philippines, has just been appointed by Aquino as member of the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council.

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