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SC affirms junking of Lopez case vs Marcos crony Benedicto

MANILA, Philippines - The Supreme Court has affirmed the decision of the Office of the Ombudsman that dismissed the criminal complaint filed by the Lopez family against crony Roberto Benedicto in his alleged bid to takeover ABS-CBN Broadcasting Network, following the declaration of martial law in 1972. In a 24-page decision penned by Associate Justice Antonio Eduardo Nachura, the high court’s Third Division denied the petition filed by Eugenio Lopez Jr., Augusto Almeda-Lopez and Oscar Lopez on behalf of ABS-CBN questioning the May 2, 1997 resolution issued by former Ombudsman Aniano Desierto. Desierto, in his assailed ruling, junked the criminal complaint for conspiracy for an illegal takeover of ABS-CBN against Benedicto and three of his associates, Exequiel Garcia, Miguel Gonzales and Salvador Tan. Benedicto, a former ambassador to Japan, was already deceased by the time the case reached the high tribunal. He was principal stockholders of the Kanlaon Broadcasting System (KBS), which operated the television channel Radio Philippines Network (RPN-9). The high court resolved to drop Benedicto and Tan as respondents to the case following their death. Benedicto died on May 15, 2000. The Supreme Court said there was no grave abuse of discretion on the part of the Ombudsman in dismissing the charges on the ground that the allegations of petitioners (Lopez family) are civil in nature and bereft of criminal character. “Apart from a blanket and general charge that remaining respondents herein, Gonzales and Garcia, are officers of KBS/RPN and/or alter egos of Benedicto, petitioners’ complaint-affidavits are bereft of sufficient ground to engender a well-founded belief that crimes have been committed and the respondents, namely, Gonzales and Garcia, are probably guilty thereof and should be held for trial," the Court ruled. The Supreme Court further said that the civil liability of an accused, upon death, is extinguished altogether with his criminal liability, citing a previous ruling of the high court on the case of People vs. Bayotas. “The death of the accused necessarily calls for the dismissal of the criminal case against him, regardless of the institution of the civil case with it. The civil action, which survives the death of the accused must hinge on other sources of obligation provided in Article 1157 of the Civil Code. In such a case, a surviving civil action against the accused founded on other sources of obligation must be prosecuted in a separate civil action," the Supreme Court said. Concurring with the ruling were Associate Justices Consuelo Ynares-Santiago, Ma. Alicia Austria-Martinez, Minita Chico-Nazario and Ruben Reyes. Based on the records of the court, the legal battle between the Lopezes and Benedicto ensued following the declaration of martial law and the simultaneous sequestration of a few private corporations, including the ABS-CBN, owned by the petitioners. On April 18 and 26, 1994, the Lopezes lodged separate complaint-affidavits charging Benedicto, Garcia, Gonzalez and Tan for the alleged illegal takeover of ABS-CBN property on September 22, 1972. They said that just before midnight of September 22, 1972, military troops arrived at the ABS-CBN Broadcast Center in Bohol Avenue, Quezon City, and informed the officers and personnel of the seizure and closure of the premises by virtue of Letter of Instruction (LOI) No. 1 issued by President Marcos ordering the closure of all radio and television stations in the country. LOI No. 1 authorized the Secretary of National Defense to “take over or control, or cause the taking over and control of all . . . newspapers, magazines, radio and television facilities and all other media of communications" throughout the country. Consequently, seven television stations owned and operated by ABS-CBN were shut down by the government. When it became apparent that petitioners would not be granted a permit to re-open, ABS-CBN owners on October 31, 1972, terminated the services of all its employees, giving each employee their retirement benefits. Sometime in November 1972, Eugenio Lopez, Jr., then president of ABS-CBN, wrote then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile, of their desire to sell the network to the government. In that same month, however, Eugenio Lopez, Jr. was arrested by the military, and detained at Fort Bonifacio for almost five years until his escape on September 30, 1977. Subsequently, after the proposal to sell the network to the Marcos government did not materialize, ABS-CBN started negotiations with then Governor of Leyte, Benjamin “Kokoy" Romualdez, who expressed his desire and intention to acquire the former. However, the negotiations with Kokoy Romualdez in 1973 likewise did not result in the sale and re-opening of ABS-CBN. On June 6, 1973, the television and radio stations of KBS on Roxas Boulevard, Pasay City were gutted by fire. KBS was the umbrella corporation of the Benedicto Group of broadcasting companies, including RPN-9, the only television station allowed to continue operating during the early years of the martial law regime. This led to a negotiation and agreement between ABS-CBN and KBS for the temporary use of ABS-CBN’s broadcast studios in Quezon City, from which to operate TV Channel 9, for such period as may be necessary to rebuild KBS’s burned studios. However, the parties were hard pressed to negotiate and fix the monthly rental rate for the use of the ABS-CBN’s studios. Several attempts by Oscar Lopez to set up a meeting with Benedicto for the fixing of the monthly rentals were unsuccessful. After more than four months of trying, a meeting between Oscar and Benedicto finally materialized on October 31, 1973. At that meeting, the discussion not only covered fixing of reasonable rentals for the lease of the ABS-CBN studios, but also included the possibility of an outright sale. In May 1976, then Senator Lorenzo Tañada, as counsel for ABS-CBN, wrote Benedicto telling him to vacate the ABS-CBN Broadcast Center and pay back rentals for the use of the ABS-CBN studios and facilities. Despite several meetings, no agreement was reached between Benedicto and ABS-CBN. Overall, from June 8, 1973, the time KBS occupied the ABS-CBN studios in Quezon City, no rental was paid by the former to the latter. During a military inventory in 1979-1980, and a visit by ABS-CBN executives at ABS-CBN’s radio transmitting stations in Meycauayan, Bulacan, headed by petitioner Augusto on August 13, 1984, ABS-CBN property and massive equipment were found to be missing. The musical records and radio dramas accumulated by ABS-CBN in a span of twenty-five (25) years and stored in its library were also gone. When Corazon Aquino assumed the presidency, she acted on the request of ABS-CBN through Tañada to return the broadcasting facilities to the Lopezes on a gradual and scheduled basis. Petitioners reiterated Benedicto’s over-all ploy, in conspiracy with the other respondents who were officers of KBS or RPN, to use and occupy ABS-CBN property without paying compensation. They maintained that respondents’ grand scheme was to take-over ABS-CBN, albeit ostensibly covered by the letter-lease agreement, giving the takeover a semblance of legality. Benedicto and company, however, denied the charges made by the Lopezes, arguing that the execution of the June 8, 1973 letter-agreement was a free and voluntary act of ABS-CBN, which fully expecting remuneration in the form of rentals. The respondents also invoked the grant of absolute immunity to Benedicto as part of the Compromise Agreement in Sandiganbayan Civil Case No. 34, the sequestration case filed by the Presidential Commission on Good Government against Benedicto. The Ombudsman, in its resolution dated May 2, 1997, dismissed the complaints of the Lopezes, saying circumstances did not give rise to probable cause necessary to indict respondents for the various felonies charged. - GMANews.TV