Republic of the Philippines
SUPREME COURT
Manila

THIRD DIVISION

G.R. No. 164575             December 6, 2006

ROBERT P. WA-ACON, petitioner,
vs.
PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, respondent.


D E C I S I O N


VELASCO, JR., J.:

The Case

This Petition for Review on Certiorari, under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court, seeks the reversal of the April 22, 2004 Decision1 of the Sandiganbayan convicting petitioner Robert P. Wa-acon of Malversation under Article 217 of the Revised Penal Code for misappropriating PhP 92,199.20, which forms part of his accountabilities as Special Collecting Officer of the National Food Authority (NFA); and the July 23, 2004 Resolution2 of said graft court denying Wa-acon's plea for reconsideration in Criminal Case No. 14375.

The Facts

The information against the accused Wa-acon reads as follows:

That on about the period from July 19, 1979 to September 28, 1981, in the City of Manila, Philippines and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, accused Robert P. Wa-acon, a public officer, being a Special Collecting Officer, National Food Authority (NFA) and stationed at Canonigo, Paco, Manila and as such was accountable and responsible of rice stocks and empty sacks for which he received and entrusted to him, by reason of his official position, did then and there willfully, unlawfully and feloniously, with grave abuse of confidence, misappropriate, misapply, embezzle and convert to his own personal use and benefit the aforesaid stocks of rice and empty sacks with a total aggregate money value of P114,303.00, to the damage and prejudice of the government in the aforementioned amount.

CONTRARY TO LAW.3

The facts of the case as found by the Sandiganbayan are:

On the period from July 19, 1979 to September 28, 1981, accused Robert P. Wa-acon was a Special Collecting Officer of the National Food Authority (NFA) and was assigned at the Kadiwa Center at Moriones, Tondo, Manila. One of his duties was to receive grains, consisting of rice and mongo, which shall then be sold to the public on retail. The proceeds of the sale of the grains shall then be collected by the same accused.

On September 28, 1981, by virtue of a Travel Order, a team of Auditors from the Commission of Audit, composed of Dionisio A. Nillo, as team leader, Mercedes Punzalan, Audit Examiner II, Herminia Gonzales, Audit Examiner II and Raquel Cruz, Clerk II, as members, conducted an examination of the accountabilities of various Special Collecting Officers of the NFA, one of whom was accused Robert P. Wa-acon. The said examination was conducted at the Office of the Regional Auditor, NFA Metro Manila Office at Paco, Manila. In that office, the audit team asked the presence of accused Robert P. Wa-acon by virtue of a demand letter dated September 1981, demanding the latter to produce cash, cash items, stocks and empty sacks and other pertinent papers. As testified by Prosecution witness Dionisio A. Nillo, accused Robert P. Wa-acon told the audit team that "he has no cash on hand at the time pertaining to his accountability as Special Collecting Officer. Hence, it was indicated in the Cash Count Sheet that there was no cash counted during the cash examination.

Based on the examination conducted on the various Warehouse Stock Issues, Empty Sacks Receipts, Official Receipts submitted and the Certificate of Inventory of Stocks and Empty Sacks dated September 18, 1981, containing the signature of accused Robert P. Wa-acon and witnessed by Virgilio Cacanendin, Special Investigator, Manolito Diaz, Bookkeeper, Louie Pastofide, Proceso A. Saavedra, Audit Examiner II and Gloria T. Reyes, Audit Examiner I, the audit team rendered a Report of Examination, Form 74-A of the Cash and Accounts of accused Robert P. Wa-acon. All of the aforementioned documents were submitted by Proceso Saavedra, a resident Audit Examiner of the NFA Metro Manila Office, Paco, Manila, to the Audit team headed by Dionisio A. Nillo. In connection with the Audit conducted, the Audit Team prepared the following Schedules: Schedule 1: Statement of Rice received by Robert A. Wa-acon, Schedule 1-A: Statement of Rice/mongo Received by Robert P. Wa-acon, Schedules 2: Statement of Remittances of Proceeds from Sales of Robert P. Wa-acon, Schedule 3: Statement of Refunds made by Robert P. Wa-acon, Schedule I: Statement of Empty Sacks Returned by Robert P. Wa-acon, and Summary of Empty Sacks Accountability of Robert P. Wa-acon and the Revised Summary of Cash Examination of Robert P. Wa-acon.

The Report of the Examination of the Cash and Accountabilities of accused Robert P. Wa-acon shows that the latter incurred a cash shortage of One Hundred Fourteen Thousand Three Hundred Three Pesos (P114,303.00). In the Revised Summary of the Cash Examination of accused Robert P. Wa-acon, the cash shortage was changed to One Hundred Two Thousand and One Hundred Ninety Nine Pesos and Twenty Centavos (P102,199.20) after deducting the cost of sixty (60) bags of regular milled rice value of Six Thousand Nine Hundred (P6,900.00) and the monetary value of the empty sacks returned by accused Robert P. Wa-acon, which is Five Thousand Two Hundred Three Pesos and Eighty Centavos (P5,203.80). However, accused Robert P. Wa-acon made a refund of the amount of Ten Thousand Pesos (P10,000.00). Therefore, the total shortage amount[ed] to Ninety Two Thousand One Hundred Ninety Nine Pesos and Twenty Centavos (P92,199.20).4

During the trial before the Sandiganbayan, petitioner denied that he misapplied and converted for his personal use the stocks of rice and empty sacks as he had been faithfully remitting all the proceeds of the rice he sold to consumers.5

Petitioner also contended that the shortage discovered by the Audit Team may be attributed to the discrepancy in the actual weight of the rice actually delivered to him and that of the weight reflected in the receipts. In other words, he claimed that the rice delivered to him weighed less than that for which he signed. He alleged that he discovered the shortage of five (5) to ten (10) kilos per sack only upon delivery of the rice to the station/outlet. Petitioner explained that he could not check the weight of the sacks delivered to him as the weighing scale in their office had a maximum capacity of only twelve (12) kilograms. Petitioner claimed that he informed his superiors of such shortage verbally, but was unheeded.6

Petitioner further claimed that the only reason he signed for the sacks of rice, despite the shortage, was because he was told that he would not be paid his salary if he would not sign, added to the fact that he was then hungry—all of which prompted Wa-acon to sign the audit report of the Audit Team.7 As to the missing empty sacks, petitioner argued that those were in the custody of the delivery man who had a logbook where Special Collecting Officers sign as proof that the delivery man had taken the sacks.8

The Sandiganbayan Ruling

Citing the presumption under the last paragraph of Article 217 of the Revised Penal Code that "the failure of the public officer to have duly forthcoming any public funds which he is chargeable upon demand by any duly authorized officer, shall be prima facie evidence that he has put such missing funds or property to personal use" and the inability of accused Wa-acon to "rebut the presumption that he had put the rice stocks and the empty sacks to personal use," the Sandiganbayan found him guilty of malversation of public funds under the Revised Penal Code. In the graft court's April 22, 2004 Decision, the dispositive portion reads:

WHEREFORE, judgment is hereby rendered finding the accused Robert P. Wa-acon, GUILTY beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of Malversation of Public Funds as defined in and penalized by Article 217 of the Revised Penal Code and, there being no modifying circumstance, is hereby sentenced to suffer an indeterminate penalty of from TWELVE (12) YEARS and ONE (1) DAY of reclusion temporal minimum, as the minimum to SEVENTEEN (17) YEARS, FOUR (4) MONTHS and ONE (1) DAY of reclusion temporal maximum, as the maximum and to suffer perpetual special disqualification. The accused Robert P. Wa-acon is likewise ordered to pay a FINE equal to the amount of the funds malversed, which is Ninety Two Thousand One Hundred Ninety Nine Pesos and Twenty Centavos (P 92,199.20) and to indemnify the National Food Authority (NFA) the amount of Ninety Two Thousand One Hundred Ninety Nine Pesos and Twenty Centavos (P92,199.20) with interest thereon.

SO ORDERED.9

Correspondingly, petitioner filed his May 20, 2004 Motion for Reconsideration10 of the Decision, reiterating his defenses raised during the trial.

On July 23, 2004, the Sandiganbayan issued the assailed Resolution denying petitioner's Motion for Reconsideration on the ground that accused Wa-acon raised no new substantial issues and cogent reasons to justify the reversal of the April 22, 2004 Decision.

Thus, Wa-acon filed the instant petition.

The Court's Ruling

Petitioner Wa-acon presented a lone issue to be resolved: his guilt was not proven beyond reasonable doubt; thus, the assailed Decision and Resolution convicting him of malversation must be reversed.

In seeking the recall of his conviction, accused petitioner asserts that the unremitted amounts for the rice stocks and the money allegedly gained from the empty sacks were not used for his personal use and therefore, the fourth element of malversation—that the accused appropriated, took, or misappropriated public funds or property for which he was accountable—was not proven. According to petitioner, while he might have violated certain auditing rules and regulations, this violation is not tantamount to malversation. He leans on the rulings in Madarang v. Sandiganbayan,11 and Agullo v. Sandiganbayan12 that "it is essential to prove that there had been a conversion of public fund to personal use" and that "conversion must be affirmatively proved"; otherwise, the presumption is "deemed never to have existed at all."

Article 217 of the Revised Penal Code whereas provides:

Malversation of public funds or property. – Presumption of malversation. – Any public officer who, by reason of the duties of his office, is accountable for public funds or property, shall appropriate the same, or shall take or misappropriate or shall consent, or through abandonment or negligence, shall permit any other person to take such public funds or property, wholly or partially, or shall otherwise be guilty of the misappropriation or malversation of such funds or property x x x

x x x x

The failure of a public officer to have duly forthcoming any public funds or property with which he is chargeable, upon demand by any duly authorized officer shall be prima facie evidence that he has put such missing funds or property to personal uses (emphasis supplied).

The elements to constitute malversation under Article 217 of the Revised Penal Code are as follows:

The elements common to all acts of malversation – under Article 217 are: (a) that the offender be a public officer; (b) that he had custody or control of funds or property by reason of the duties of his office; (c) these funds were public funds or property for which he was accountable; and (d) that he appropriated, took, misappropriated or consented or through abandonment or negligence, permitted another person to take them.13

Accused petitioner has conceded that the first three (3) elements of the crime of malversation exist but asseverates that the fourth element—that he appropriated, took, or misappropriated the public funds for which he was made accountable by the Commission on Audit (COA) to his own personal use––was not proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Unfortunately, petitioner's postulation has no legal mooring. Article 217, as amended by Republic Act 1060, no longer requires proof by the State that the accused actually appropriated, took, or misappropriated public funds or property. Instead, a presumption, though disputable and rebuttable, was installed that upon demand by any duly authorized officer, the failure of a public officer to have duly forthcoming any public funds or property— with which said officer is accountable—should be prima facie evidence that he had put such missing funds or properties to personal use. When these circumstances are present, a "presumption of law" arises that there was malversation of public funds or properties as decreed by Article 217. A "presumption of law" is sanctioned by a statute prescribing that "a certain inference must be made whenever facts appear which furnish the basis of the interference." This is to be set apart from a "presumption of fact" which is a "[conclusion] drawn from particular circumstances, the connection between them and the sought for fact having received such a sanction in experience as to have become recognized as justifying the assumption."14 When there is a presumption of law, the onus probandi (burden of proof), generally imposed upon the State, is now shifted to the party against whom the interference is made to adduce satisfactory evidence to rebut the presumption and hence, to demolish the prima facie case.

After the government auditors discovered the shortage and demanded an explanation, petitioner Wa-acon was not able to make money readily available,15 immediately refund the shortage,16 or explain satisfactorily the cash deficit.17 These facts or circumstances constitute prima facie evidence that he converted such funds to his personal use.

Prima facie evidence is defined as:

Evidence good and sufficient on its face. Such evidence as, in the judgment of the law, is sufficient to establish a given fact, or the group or chain of facts constituting the party's claim or defense, and which if not rebutted or contradicted, will remain sufficient. Evidence which, if unexplained or uncontradicted, is sufficient to sustain a judgment in favor of the issue it supports, but which may be contradicted by other evidence (emphasis supplied).18

Neither can accused petitioner claim that such presumption under Article 217 violates the constitutional guarantee of presumption of innocence for "the establishment of a prima facie case does not take away the presumption of innocence which may x x x be such as to rebut and control it."19 Such prima facie evidence, if unexplained or uncontradicted, "can counterbalance the presumption of innocence to warrant a conviction."20

Since the facts adduced by the State brought about a prima facie evidence which is considered sufficient to sustain petitioner's conviction under Article 217, it is incumbent upon petitioner Wa-acon to destroy the presumption of law.

In his quest to exculpate himself from the legal assumption of criminal liability for the missing funds, he insisted that: 1) the sacks of rice were less than that declared in the receipts when they were delivered to him; 2) he sold the rice at the older and lower prices, as he was not informed of changes in the prices of the rice; and 3) the empty sacks of rice were in the possession of the delivery men. However, petitioner merely settled for his bare uncorroborated testimony during the trial before the Sandiganbayan. He never bothered to adduce other pieces of evidence to fortify his defenses. Petitioner did not produce the delivery men whom he claims had in their possession the empty sacks or any acknowledgement receipt for said bags. Moreover, petitioner did not bring forward his co-workers to attest to and confirm the practice of, and substantiate petitioner's story of receiving sacks of rice without weighing them and that the bags received weighed less than that reflected in the receipt. The established rule is that "[d]enials, if unsubstantiated by clear and convincing evidence, are deemed negative and self-serving evidence unworthy of credence."21 The court a quo is correct in holding that as compared to credible witnesses like the COA auditors who testified on affirmative matters, the self-serving negative testimony of accused petitioner Wa-acon has no substantial weight or credit.22

"Negative testimony" is made clear as testimony that a fact did not exist, that a thing was not done, that no one did not hear––is admissible and, in the absence of opposing testimony, is usually regarded as of sufficient probative force to sustain a verdict. It is however, a long recognized general rule of evidence that all other things being equal, positive evidence is stronger than negative evidence. 23

Since Wa-acon lamentably fell short of adducing the desired quantum of evidence, his weak and unconvincing testimony standing alone did not overthrow the presumption that he misappropriated public funds.

As a last ditch effort to exonerate himself, petitioner anchored his defense on Madarang24 and Agullo,25 where public employees charged of malversation were cleared of criminal liability.

In these two (2) cases cited by petitioner, we elucidated the legal presumption of assumed criminal liability for accountable funds under the last paragraph of Article 217 of the Revised Penal Code. In Madarang, we explained:

Concededly, the first three elements are present in the case at bar. Lacking any evidence, however, of shortage, or taking, appropriation, or conversion by petitioner or loss of public funds, there is no malversation (Narciso vs. Sandiganbayan, 229 SCRA 229 [1994]). True, the law creates a presumption that the mere failure of an accountable officer to produce public funds which have come into his hand on demand by an officer duly authorized to examine his accounts is prima facie evidence of conversion. The presumption is, of course, rebuttable. Accordingly, if petitioner is able to present adequate evidence that can nullify any likelihood that he had put the funds or property to personal use, then that presumption would be at an end and the prima facie case is effectively negated.26

In Agullo, we amplified that:

Thus, in a string of categorical pronouncements, this Court has consistently and emphatically ruled that the presumption of conversion incarnated in Article 217, paragraph (4) of the Revised Penal Code is — by its very nature — rebuttable. To put it differently, the presumption under the law is not conclusive but disputable by satisfactory evidence to the effect that the accused did not utilize the public funds or property for his personal use, gain or benefit.

Accordingly, if the accused is able to present adequate evidence that can nullify any likelihood that he had put the funds or property to personal use, then that presumption would be at an end and the prima facie case is effectively negated. This Court has repeatedly said that when the absence of funds is not due to the personal use thereof by the accused, the presumption is completely destroyed; in fact, the presumption is never deemed to have existed at all.27

Unfortunately, petitioner's vaunted reliance on Madarang and Agullo does not provide legal relief as the facts in these cases are not on all fours with his case. The accused parties in said cases were able to produce satisfactory evidence ample enough to prove that the missing funds were not converted to their personal uses and thus, the legal presumption was effectively negated.

In Madarang, the accused, based on the COA audit report, was charged with malversation of PhP 20,700.00 representing advance rental payments for the lease of real property owned by the City of Cebu for which he was responsible as a barangay captain. When the accused was asked to account for such missing funds, he introduced convincing evidence that the funds were utilized by the barangay for its projects and for the benefit of his constituents, namely: for materials for the water system of the barangay hall, barangay police uniforms, and payment for medicine. Therefore, the legal presumption was successfully overturned.

Likewise, in Agullo, the accused, who was the disbursing officer of then Ministry of Public Works and Highways, Regional Office No. VIII, Candahug, Palo, Leyte, was charged based on audit, with malversation of PhP 26,404.26 representing the salaries of the personnel in her office. The accused admitted that the funds were lost; however, she was able to prove that she suffered a stroke while going to her office. This was corroborated by the barangay captain of the place where she suffered a stroke, as well as medical certificates to prove the illness. She was acquitted because the loss of funds was not due to malversation.

In contrast, petitioner anchored his defenses solely on his own bare testimony unsubstantiated by other parol, documentary, or object evidence to prop up such self-serving allegations. Without doubt, the rulings in Madarang and Agullo cannot be considered precedents to the case at bar because the facts in said cases are not the same or substantially similar to petitioner Wa-acon's situation.

Without any strong and convincing proof to bring down the disputable presumption of law, the Court is left with no other option but to sustain petitioner's conviction.

WHEREFORE, We DENY the petition and the assailed April 22, 2004 Decision and the July 23, 2004 Resolution of the Sandiganbayan in Criminal Case No. 14375 are AFFIRMED IN TOTO.

No pronouncement as to costs.

SO ORDERED.

Quisumbing, J., Chairperson, Carpio, Carpio Morales, and Tinga, JJ., concur.


Footnotes

1 Penned by Associate Justice Diosdado M. Peralta, with Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo-De Castro (Chairperson) and Roland B. Jurado concurring, rollo, pp. 28-39.

2 Id. at 63-64.

3 Id. at 28-29.

4 Id. at 29-31.

5 Id. at 31.

6 Id. at 31-32.

7 Id. at 32.

8 Id. at 13.

9 Id. at 38.

10 Id. at 40-46.

11 G.R. No. 112314, March 28, 2001, 355 SCRA 525.

12 G.R. No. 132926, July 20, 2001, 361 SCRA 556.

13 L.B. Reyes, The Revised Penal Code 594 (15th ed., 2001).

14 III V. Francisco, Criminal Evidence 1448 (1947), citation omitted.

15 United States v. Feliciano, G.R. No. 5624, February 3, 1910, 15 Phil 144.

16 United States v. Kalingo, G.R. No. 11504, February 2, 1917, 46 Phil 651.

17 De Guzman v. People, G.R. No. L-54288, December 15, 1982, 119 SCRA 337 and People v. Mingoa, G.R. No. L-5371, March 26, 1953, 92 Phil 856.

18 H. Black, et al., Black's Law Dictionary 1190 (6th ed.,1990).

19 Bautista v. Sarmiento, G.R. No. L-45137, September 23, 1985, 138 SCRA 587, 592.

20 Salonga v. Cruz Pano, G.R. No. L-59524, February 18, 1985, 134 SCRA 438, 450.

21 Supra note 1, at 35, citing People v. Villas, G.R. No. 112180, August 15, 1997, 277 SCRA 391, 403 and People v. Palomar, 108183-85, August 21, 1997, 278 SCRA 114, 148.

22 People v. Briones, G.R. No. 140640, October 15, 2002, 391 SCRA 79, 87-88.

23 20 Am. Jur., Evidence, § 1186, citations omitted.

24 Supra note 11.

25 Supra note 12.

26 Supra note 11, at 533.

27 Supra note 12, at 567.


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