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DBP execs, Inquirer chief cleared of libel

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MANILA, Philippines—Saying that the statements were true and the commentary fair, a Makati prosecutor dismissed a libel suit filed by a lawyer against four Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP) officials and the Inquirer editor in chief.

In a resolution dated Dec. 18, Makati senior assistant city prosecutor Edgardo Hirang cited “lack of prima facie evidence” in junking the suit filed by lawyer Zenaida Ongkiko-Acorda after the four senior bank officials placed a “public notice” in the Inquirer that questioned Ongkiko-Acorda’s official capacity to speak for the DBP in connection with the bank’s allegedly anomalous lending to former Trade Minister Roberto V. Ongpin.

The prosecutor cleared respondent DBP officials Edgardo Garcia, Benedicto Ernesto Bitonio Jr., Benilda Tejada and Jesus Guevara II as well as the Inquirer’s Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc.

Prima facie refers to evidence that, unless rebutted, would be sufficient to prove a particular proposition or fact.

The prosecutor said the documents submitted by Ongkiko-Acorda, who is associated with the Ongkiko Manhit Custodio and Acorda Law Partnership, did not disprove the information presented by the DBP officials in their public notice.

The controversial public notice stated:

“That (Ongkiko-Acosta) was not in the bank’s plantilla as the bank lawyer or as the DBP’s spokesperson; that the DBP management had no record on file of her engagement; that there was no record of her fees or for the ad she had published (also in the Inquirer) as being paid for by the bank; that the DBP, as a government institution, is not allowed to hire a private lawyer without approval from the Office of the Government Corporate Counsel (OGCC) and clearance from the Commission on Audit (COA) on the corresponding fees; and that the provisions of the Government Procurement Act had not been followed in the supposed engagement of Acorda.”

 

Malicious accusation

At the time of the publication of the public notice, Garcia was DBP’s senior executive vice president and chief operating officer; Bitonio was executive vice president, head of development sector and concurrent head of human resources; Guevara was head of branch banking, and Tejada was chief legal counsel.

In her complaint, Ongkiko-Acorda said the DBP officers “maliciously” accused her of misrepresentation in the Aug. 18, 2011, issue of the Inquirer of which Magsanoc was editor in chief.  Such accusations, she said, caused her “dishonor, discredit or contempt.”

The prosecutor’s resolution said the only evidence of authority presented by Acorda was a certification from the DBP board dated May 16, 2012, that said she was the official spokesperson and that she was asked by the DBP in 2011 to render services as its legal counsel.

But the prosecutor said a board resolution or certification that did not mention the fact of OGCC or OSG approval and COA concurrence was “legally infirm.”

On the elements of libel, the prosecutor said “at the time that the questioned notice was published, all that was stated therein was true.”

“Moreover, the statement that Ongkiko-Acorda’s failure to satisfy the legal requirements before she can properly be authorized to act as DBP spokesperson and legal counsel was a misrepresentation and may constitute a ground for disbarment proceedings is but a logical and fair commentary or opinion that any reasonable man can infer from the facts stated in the notice itself,” the prosecutor said.

The prosecutor also said there was “neither malice in law nor in fact shown in this case,” noting that the “truthful statements” made by respondent DBP officers were insulated from libel.


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