Ombudsman clears SBMA officials in hotel takeover case

PHOTO: Leciel Hotel

SUBIC BAY FREEPORT — The Office of the Ombudsman has dismissed criminal complaints filed against current and former officials of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) and other private individuals in connection with the takeover of the management of a hotel in this free port.

Upon the recommendation of Zarnette Sanceda, graft investigation and prosecution officer, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales approved the dismissal of criminal complaints filed by the Subic-based company Freeport Elite Resort, Inc. (FERI) against former SBMA Chairman Roberto Garcia, former SBMA Deputy Administrator for Legal Affairs Randy Escolango, former SBMA Legal Department manager Von Rodriguez, former SBMA Law Enforcement Department chief Orlando Maddela, and current SBMA Deputy Administrator for Administration Ruel John Kabigting.

Also cleared by the Ombudsman were Kang Il Chan, Choi Byung Kyu, Benito Natividad, Luis Umali, Jun Gallardo, Leonardo Subiela, Leonardo Bernardo, and several John Does, all of FERI, which owns and operates Ocean Hotel, now known as Leciel Hotel, at the Subic Light Commercial and Industrial Park.

SBMA Chairperson and Administrator Wilma Eisma welcomed the decision of the Ombudsman, saying it only proved that the Subic agency officials “were acting in the interest of fairness for all Subic business locators and investors.”

“We have no authority to intervene in the internal affairs of companies. However, we have the obligation to maintain peace and order in the Freeport,” Eisma pointed out.

The case stemmed from a management dispute in 2015 between two groups of investors seeking control of the then Ocean Hotel.

Sometime in 2015, Kang Il Chan, who was a majority stockholder of FERI, filed a petition before the Regional Trial Court Branch 72 in Olongapo City for accounting and inspection of financial and transfer records, and for the annulment of one Cho Chan Choon’s subscription payments for using company funds.

The court on March 16, 2015, rendered a decision in favor of Kang, whose group later took management control of the hotel.

The decision of the RTC, prompted FERI director Jo Kwang Rae to file before the Office of the Ombudsman complaints against SBMA officials and Kang’s group, who allegedly conspired for the hotel takeover. The complaint was for violation of the Revised Penal Code, specifically Articles 177 (2), or usurpation of authority of official functions, and 286, or grave coercion.

However, the Ombudsman dismissed the complaint, pointing out that the complainant’s allegation of conspiracy between SBMA officials and Kwang’s group does not establish it as a fact since the statements of the witnesses presented by Cho were not sufficient to establish the existence of conspiracy, but were devoid of details.

The Ombudsman also found no substantial evidence to hold the SBMA officials administratively liable since the presence of the respondents at the hotel during the stand-off was only to mediate between the warring factions.

Moreover, the Ombudsman ruled out that FERI guards at the hotel who were under direction of the complainant were from unaccredited agency and did not possess licenses to carry firearms, hence the presence of SBMA police at the premises of the hotel was justifiable to “prevent tension between the warring factions from escalating into an all-out violence.”

Lastly, the ruling declared that the recognition by SBMA officials of Kang’s group as the majority shareholders, and their election of new set of board of directors and officers of FERI, did not constitute usurpation of authority or grave abuse of authority, “as they never employed fraud, pretense or misinterpretation in their actions, (nor acted) with cruelty, severity or excessive use of authority.”

Leciel Hotel is located at Subic’s Central Business District and offers venues for trainings and especial events, as well as fitness center, sauna, and spa. (Dante M. Salvana)

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