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Trial to proceed for BFP officials over Kentex tragedy

Valenzuela Factory Fire

Firetrucks can still be seen inside Kentex Manufacturing Inc at Barangay Ugong, Valenzuela City. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO/RAFFY LERMA

The Sandiganbayan will hold a trial against two Bureau of Fire Protection officials for reckless imprudence charges in connection with the May 2015 tragedy at the Kentex slipper factory.

In a recently-released 13-page resolution dated July 17, the court’s Second Division denied the motion to quash filed by City Fire Marshall Mel Jose Lagan and Senior Insp. Edgrover Oculam, who sought the dismissal of their case on jurisdictional grounds.

Lagan and Oculam argued that the court did not have jurisdiction over them anymore because of its Dec. 13 resolution throwing out the case against Valenzuela City Mayor Rexlon Gatchalian and two officials of the Business Permits and Licensing Office.

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By dropping Gatchalian from the case, they said the highest-ranked among the remaining defendants was Lagan, whose salary grade 25 is two notches below the jurisdictional threshold of SG 27.

However, the Sandiganbayan said the city fire marshall was still within its coverage because he was a city department head under Section 4(a)(1)(b) of Republic Act No. 8249, the law defining the antigraft court’s jurisdiction.

Sections 55 and 56 of Republic Act No. 6975, or the Department of the Interior and Local Government Act of 1990, required each city to have at least one fire station headed by a fire marshall.

The court also disagreed with the contention that there was no probable cause to hold them for trial.

Lagan and Oculam argued that they could not be tried for reckless imprudence because their alleged criminal neglect was not the “proximate cause” of the deadly May 13, 2015 fire. Instead, they pointed to the “welding flux” that ignited the flammable chemicals in the factory.

But, the court said there was sufficient basis to hold the two for trial because Section 5 of the Fire Code mandates BFP to inform local government unit officials of compliance or violations by establishments.

It noted that the BFP’s power to abate fire hazards under Section 9 of the Fire Code “appears to have been not exercised by the accused.”

While Lagan and Oculam insisted that they refused to issue a fire safety inspection certificate and directed Kentex to address its fire code violations, the court said it was a matter of defense best threshed out by presenting evidence in a full-blown trial.

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The court also rejected the argument that it had no jurisdiction over Lagan and Oculam because they were not accused of bribery or causing any damage to the government.

It explained its exclusive original jurisdiction also covered “other offenses and felonies” as long as they were committed by officials in relation to their public office.

Associate Justice Michael Frederick L. Musngi penned the resolution, which got the concurrence of Associate Justices Oscar C. Herrera Jr. and Lorifel L. Pahimna.

Gatchalian, as well as BPLO Officer-in-Charge Renchi May Padayo and licensing officer Eduardo Carreon, avoided trial after the court ruled in its Dec. 13 resolution that their issuance of a business permit despite Kentex’s lack of a fire safety inspection certificate did not directly cause the fire.

The court previously said Gatchalian and the licensing office merely abided by the letter of Valenzuela City’s Ordinance No. 62, series of 2012, which streamlined the processing of business permits in the city.

The May 13, 2015, fire led to the deaths of 74 and the injury of many others. Prosecutors said the victims suffered undue injury amounting to P3.7 million. The fire raised the issue of unsafe “sweatshop” conditions for workers in the country. CBB

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