By Czarina Nicole Ong
The Office of the Special Prosecutor is urging the Supreme Court to reinstate the criminal charges earlier filed against Valenzuela Mayor Rex Gatchalian and two others in connection with the tragic 2015 Kentex factory fire that killed 74 workers.
Gatchalian, together with Business Permits and Licensing Office (BPLO) officer-in-charge Renchi May Padayao, and licensing officer Eduardo Carreon, were earlier cleared by the Sandiganbayan Second Division of their two graft and reckless imprudence charges because of lack of probable cause.
On May 13, 2015, a fire razed the premises of Kentex and claimed the lives of several of its employees. As mayor, Gatchalian was accused of being negligent in issuing business permits to Kentex despite its unsafe conditions and absence of Fire Safety Inspection Certificate (FSIC).
But “considering that the actions of the accused LGU officials were pursuant to existing laws, rules and ordinance, then they could not be said to have acted with manifest partiality, evident bad faith or gross inexcusable negligence,” the court said it is only right to dismiss their charges.
In response, the prosecution filed a petition for certiorari before the Supreme Court and stressed that issuing the business permit to Kentex without the mandatory fire safety inspection certificate (FSIC) translates to criminal and administrative liability.
“Unfortunately, however, the court a quo already decided that the petitioner could not prove the allegations in the Informations even before it could formally introduce any evidentiary proof. Surely, this translates to a denial of state’s ‘fair opportunity to prosecute and convict,'” the prosecution’s reply read.
What is even more “deplorable” for the prosecution is the failure of Gatchalian and the others to ensure the compliance of Kentex with the requirements of the FSIC. Because of this, “the trapped victims were left to fry” because they “were deprived of any access to the most minimum of fire safety precautions.”
“While ordinary people may have the ability to start a fire, the obligation to ensure that such fire may be controlled rests with government officials. The people’s petition seeks accountability for the failure to live up to this obligation,” the prosecution said.
They are urging the SC to reverse and set aside the resolutions of the Sandiganbayan dated December 13, 2016 and June 8, 2017. The first cleared Gatchalian and the others of their charges, while the other one junked the prosecution’s motion for reconsideration.
Meanwhile, the Sandiganbayan did not let Fire Marshal Supt. Mel Jose Lagan and Insp. Edgrover Oculam off the hook in relation to the same case.
For his part, Gatchalian maintained his innocence in a statement and expressed confidence that the SC will come to the same conclusion as the Sandiganbayan.
“As previously stated, my actions and the actions of the city government of Valenzuela are consistent with local and national laws,” he said. “We are confident that the Supreme Court will see the case in the same light as the Sandiganbayan and uphold the decision and actions of the SB. Interestingly, the new ease of doing business law recently passed further bolsters the position of the city government of Valenzuela as the new national law mirrors the business permit procedures of the city.”