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Sandiganbayan reduces penalty for former UN representative

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By Czarina Nicole Ong

The Sandiganbayan Fourth Division has affirmed the conviction of former Philippine representative to the United Nations and Chief of Missions of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Lauro Baja Jr., but decided to reduce the prison sentence for his malversation charge.

(MANILA BULLETIN)

(MANILA BULLETIN)


The Sandiganbayan Fourth Division has affirmed the conviction of former Philippine representative to the United Nations and Chief of Missions of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Lauro Baja Jr., but decided to reduce the prison sentence for his malversation charge.

Baja was sentenced to a minimum of 16 years, one month and one day imprisonment and a maximum of 27 years and four months with perpetual disqualification from holding public office. He was also directed to pay back the government the amount of $17,547.27.

In a new ruling, the court maintained the prison sentence for his graft charge, which is six years and one month as minimum to 10 years maximum.

On the other hand, the penalty for his malversation charge was reduced to two years, four months and one day as prison correcional as minimum to seven years, four months and one day of prison mayor as maximum.

The amount he has to pay back to the government remained the same, with perpetual disqualification from holding public office.

Baja filed a motion for reconsideration to his conviction and argued that the evidence presented by the prosecution is not sufficient to prove his guilt.

Baja was faulted for depositing money in his personal PNB account instead of the New York Philippine Mission’s (NYPM) account in the discharge of his official functions, but he reasoned that he did so “only after a recommendation by Finance Officer Tomas Valerio Jr.”

Because of this, Baja said he cannot be accused of acting in bad faith. “We respectfully submit that had the accused been motivated by evident bad faith, he could have easily opened a separate bank account by himself without informing the Finance Officer, designated himself as the sole authorized signatory, and thereafter caused the withdrawal of the funds without informing anyone else,” the MR read.

Baja maintained that transparency was used in the handling of the insurance proceeds, since Valerio counter-signed all withdrawals.

As for his wife’s reimbursement for stolen jewelry and cash, Baja stressed that the insurance proceeds used to cover it are private funds “which should not even be considered in the present case.”

However, the Sandiganbayan ruled that Baja “acted in total disregard of official processes and protocols.” At the same time, his liability cannot be absolved just by pinning the blame on Valerio.

The court also found no reason why Baja had to bypass the proper channels and divert the funds. “Rather than being a badge of good faith, this can be treated as a utility for diverting the said funds from the proper government account to a different one,” the resolution read.

On the other hand, the disbursement made in favor of his wife was not proper, said the court.

“What the ambassador did was to give his wife undue benefit by by-passing the proper processes by which she can be indemnified for the loss of her personal belongings. He was able to do this because of the position that he held,” the court ruled.

The 25-page resolution was penned by Associate Justice Bayani Jacinto with the concurrence of Chairperson Alex Quiroz, Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang, and Associate Justice Efren Dela Cruz.

Associate Justice Reynaldo Cruz offered a dissenting opinion, since he believes Baja should be acquitted.

He said that the proximate cause of the crime is a “misunderstanding” from Valerio’s suggestion, which was prompted further by the urgency of the repairs needed at the official residence.

“It must be pointed out that although the prescribed procedures were not followed, the subsequent action of accused Baja shows that such deviation was remedied by ensuring that the checks of insurance proceeds was still deposited with the PNB, which is the Philippine Mission’s depository bank,” he said.

“In the same vein, there is scarcity of evidence to prove that accused Baja did use the insurance proceeds for his personal benefit when he allowed the withdrawals thereof from the separate PNB account,” he added.

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