By Mike Frialde
Wednesday, October 1, 2008 [ philstar.com ]
The Court of Appeals (CA) has affirmed the decision of the Department of Justice (DOJ) to proceed with the criminal prosecution of the developers of the Cherry Hills Subdivision in Antipolo City where a landslide happened in August 1999, killing more than 50 people.
In a 15-page decision penned by Associate Justice Martin Villarama Jr., the CA’s Third Division affirmed the Aug. 27, 2002 resolution issued by then Justice Secretary Hernando Perez that ordered the filing of criminal information against the subdivision’s developers for violation of Presidential Decree 957 (which regulates the sale of subdivision lots and condominiums) in relation to Batas Pambansa Bilang 220 (which sets the standards and technical requirements for economic and socialized housing).
In issuing the resolution, the DOJ reversed the order of the Antipolo City prosecutor’s office that dismissed the criminal complaints filed by several Cherry Hills residents against officials of Philjas, the subdivision’s developer, led by its president Tirso Santillan, general manager Hiroshi Ogawa, and assistant general manager Eliezer Rodriguez.
In a resolution last May 6, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez affirmed Perez’s findings and denied the motion for reconsideration filed by Philjas’ officials.
Santillan, in a petition for certiorari filed before the CA, questioned the validity of the information that the DOJ had ordered to be filed in court.
Santillan argued that they cannot be prosecuted for as many counts for the same offense arising from the same set of facts, as this violates their right against double jeopardy.
The DOJ, according to Santillan, lacks jurisdiction to determine violations of PD 957, saying it is the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HLURB) which has primary jurisdiction to determine violations of housing and subdivision laws.
But the residents argued that double jeopardy could not be invoked considering that there is no conviction yet under the information for violations of PD 957.
The residents also argued that Presidential Decree 1344 did not vest upon the HLURB the authority to entertain cases which are criminal in nature, but merely administrative and civil aspects.
They said the Philjas officers’ petition was intended to delay the speedy prosecution of the cases against them which have been pending since 1999. They noted that Ogawa had already jumped bail.
But the CA ruled there was no grave abuse of discretion on the part of the DOJ in ordering the filing of information against the Philjas officers.
Records show the HLURB had issued to Philjas a license to sell lots at Cherry Hills and was given until July 1992 to finish the development of the project.
For failure to complete the subdivision project, Philjas was granted an extension until March 1999.
Acting on the complaint of lot buyers, the HLURB conducted an inspection and discovered that the developer failed to follow the plan in the contract, including amenities such as landscaping, entrance gate and water tanks that were included in Philjas advertising leaflets.
On July 12, 1999, subdivision resident Bernardo Velos filed a criminal complaint against Ogawa and Rodriguez before the Antipolo City prosecutor’s office for violation of PD 957 in relation to BP 220.
On Aug. 3, 1999, a landslide struck Cherry Hills, killing 58 people and destroying several houses.
This prompted concerned government agencies, including a Senate fact-finding committee, to investigate whether Philjas’ officers should be held liable for the tragedy.
On Nov. 13, 1999, other residents filed similar complaints against Santillan, Ogawa and Rodriguez.
The cases were separately dismissed by the Antipolo City prosecutor’s office, but the DOJ reversed the decision, saying there was probable cause to indict Santillan, Ogawa and Rodriguez.