Last week’s article on former SC Chief Justice Art Panganiban elicited quite a few queries about how CJ Art and other SC justices, saved me from going to prison in 1999. Allow me to reprise the story, which earlier appeared in my latest book “Mira and Other Essays”.
For me, the Alabang public market never ceases to evoke mixed memories, initially of defeat and rejection but finally, of triumph and vindication.
On July 26, 1995, the Second Division of the Sandiganbayan, composed of Associate Justices Romeo M. Escareal, chairman; Minita Chico-Nazario and Roberto M. Lagman, rendered the following decision involving me, then-Vice Mayor Jaime R. Fresnedi and some members of the Muntinlupa local council, to wit:
“WHEREFORE, judgment is hereby rendered finding accused Ignacio Bunye y Rivera, Jaime Fresnedi y de la Rosa, Carlos Tensuan y Gutierrez, Roman Niefes y Esporlas, Nemesio Mozo y Rillana, Rufino Joaquin y Bunye, Nolasco Diaz y Lampitoc, Roger Smith y de la Cruz and Rufino Ibe y Lacanilao GUILTY beyond reasonable doubt as co-principals in the violation of Section 3, paragraph (e) of …. the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, and each of them are hereby sentenced to …. imprisonment ranging from SIX (6) YEARS and ONE (1) MONTH, as the minimum, to TEN (10) YEARS and ONE (1) DAY, as the maximum, to indemnify, jointly and severally, the offended party, the Kilusang Bayan sa Paglilingkod Ng Mga Magtitinda ng Bagong Pamilihang Bayan ng Muntinlupa, Inc. (KBMBPM) in the amount of P13,479,900.00 as actual damages, and to pay their proportionate share of the costs of this action.”
I just could not believe it. Here I was, the son of a former prisons director, now possibly going to prison. Earlier, my co-accused and I suffered the humiliation of being jailed overnight at the NBI detention cell until we posted bail. Subsequently, while the case was on-going, we were also preventively suspended for a period of 90 days.
We were charged for alleged violation of the Graft and Corrupt Practices Act. To the laymen, graft and corruption automatically meant we made money. My political opponents immediately went to town proclaiming: “Si Bunye mapi preso na. Nagnakaw kasi!”
But it was farthest from the truth. In fact, my co-accused and I were protecting the interest of the municipal government by trying to undo what was evidently and manifestly a grossly disadvantageous contract which was entered into by my immediate predecessor.
Without public bidding, my immediate predecessor leased the Alabang public market to KBMBPM, a cooperative, for a period of 25 years, automatically renewable for another 25 years. The whole public market, with a footprint of 1.6 hectares, was leased for a measly P35,000 a month, with no escalation from the 6th to the 25th year. Immediately thereafter, KBMBPM flipped the contract and subleased market stalls for a total of P700,000 a month.
The Metro Manila Commission, apprised of the situation, advised me to take legal steps to immediately rescind the contract. The municipal council, after public hearings, enacted Kapasyahan 45, formally rescinding the contract and authorizing the takeover of the market facilities by the local government.
Up to now, I am wondering what law textbooks the Sandiganbayan justices read for them to conclude that we conspired to revoke a valid lease contract, that our takeover was forcible, that we acted clearly in evident bad faith, if not with gross inexcusable negligence, that we caused undue injury to the cooperative and its members, and that we deserved to go to prison.
Section 149, paragraph (3) of Batas Pambansa Blg. 337, the law in force at the time of the execution of the subject contract, provides:
“When any ferry, market, or slaughterhouse belonging to a municipality is to be leased to a private party, it shall be awarded to the highest bidder for a period of not less than one year but not exceeding five years. The lease may be reviewed for a period not exceeding the original lease and under such terms as the sangguniang bayan may impose.”
We appealed our conviction to the Supreme Court. During the pendency of our appeal, we continued to hold office (except during the 90-day preventive suspension period). But our movement became restricted. We needed to get clearance from the Sandiganbayan if we had to travel abroad even on official business.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court had a much better appreciation of the action that we took to protect the interest of the municipality. On May 5, 1999, voting 5-0, Associate Justices Fidel Purisima (the ponente), Flerida Ruth-Romero, Minerva Gonzaga-Reyes, Jose Vitug and Artemio Panganiban, reversed the Sandiganbayan.
Strangely, a leading broadsheet blacked out the news of our acquittal whereas it proclaimed in bold letters our conviction four years earlier. All the other papers reported our acquittal. I voiced my sentimiento to the paper’s editor-in-chief when I called on her years later upon my appointment as Press Secretary.
Atty. Simeon Marcelo, who later on became Solicitor General and subsequently Ombudsman, led a team that handled our case on appeal.
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