Multi-million Baguio market racket found

>> Thursday, July 28, 2022

5 city gov’t employees charged; more to follow 

BAGUIO CITY -- More cases are set to be filed against city public market employees  in  what Mayor Benjamin Magalong described as a long-time syndicated corruption involving city market employees and merchants leading to embezzlement of public funds worth millions of pesos.
    The mayor made the warning as five employees of the City Treasury Office assigned at the city market were charged of malversation through falsification of public documents and falsification by public official on July 20 for padding receipts of collections from arrival fees or ‘kwartais’ at the city market.
    The five employees allegedly pocketed most “arrival fees” paid each day by traders delivering meat, fish, poultry, and vegetables sold at the city public market.
    The fees were collected for unloading and delivering goods sold in the market.
    Revenue collector clerks Noel Flora, Benjie Chocyogen, Randy Ricaña, and Gerald Rimando are facing multiple counts of malversation through falsification of public documents and falsification by a public official in the complaint filed before Prosecutor Conrado Catral Jr.
    A fifth employee, Jonathan Lubina, was included in the complaint as an accomplice, for being “remiss in his duty and for repeatedly signing falsified reports, thus making him an accessory to the crime.”
    These employees have yet to issue statements on the allegations.
     The malversation and falsification case against the city employees was filed before the City Prosecutor’s Office by the Baguio City Police Office represented by City Director Glenn Lonogan and Supervising Administrative Officer Marieta C. Alvarez in behalf of the city government.
     The suit stemmed from results of the investigation initiated by the mayor on the alleged connivance involving revenue collectors and supervisors to steal from the market fees collected, among which the arrival fees from merchants to allow them sell their goods as provided under the city’s Tax Code.
    “Halimbawa, ang siningil nila sa merchant ay P4,000 pero ang naka-reflect sa duplicate copy ng resibo na isusumete sa City Treasury ay P70 lang, ibinulsa na nila yung iba,” Magalong said.
    Magalong said four more employees would be charged this week.
    The mayor said a similar case was filed three weeks earlier and another case is being prepared against four more collectors as investigations go high gear to ferret out the truth.
     As this developed, the mayor said the city government has launched another investigation this time on the illegal transactions inside the market particularly on the sub-leasing of market stalls which is prohibited under the city’s Tax Ordinance.
    The mayor said the probe started earlier in May when one merchant brought his receipt and asked for verification of the fees paid. 
    A review of the duplicate receipts was conducted by the City Treasury Office through Alvarez as the head of the market office and discovered discrepancies in the amount indicated in the original receipts from the duplicate copies.
     This prompted the mayor to order a review of all duplicate receipts covering year 2020 until June 2022 which yielded similar findings. 
     The mayor said that based on the findings, it can be assumed that the city government had lost up to P50 million in total revenues from the arrival fees alone.
     “Matagal na ito na nangyayari sa public market at tuloy-tuloy ang ating imbestigasyon kahit pa sa mga nagretire na at dating empleyado.  Sigurado ako lalabas lahat ng ebidensya at hindi sila makakatakbo. Sana makasuhan silang lahat at makulong sa dami ng ninakaw nilang pera ng gobyerno,” Magalong said.
    Alvarez said discrepancies between recorded earnings and original receipts kept in city archives were discovered after they did a review.
    Alvarez said the suspects tried to conceal the theft by padding receipts.
    She said her review covered accounts dating back to 2020, upon the mayor’s instructions.
    The missing income has been too high not to have been noticed by local accountants, Magalong said, adding, more employees may be involved in the scheme which spanned 10 years or more.
    He said about 20 employees were suspected of being involved in the racket, although evidence suggests malversation may have begun much earlier.
    A revamp of the collection team members overseeing market revenues is taking place, Magalong said.
    “We will also require digital payments from merchants,” he said, noting that this would keep better records of market transactions.
    “We first detected this scheme in 2019, but it stopped. They resumed but they were more brazen this time,” Magalong said.
    He said a trader, for instance, would receive a receipt indicating he paid P3,000 but the receipt submitted to the treasury showed the payment was only P120.
    “Or there was a payment of P6,000 but the padded receipt turned over to the treasury shows payments of P4,290,” Magalong said.
    One collector submitted a receipt for P70 but actually received P4,000, he added.
    Baguio vendors were unaware of the scheme and were made to believe they paid their obligations in full, Alvarez said.
    Magalong said the treasury employees in the complaint collected huge amounts of money through the city’s “kwartais” system but they reflected different amounts on the city’s official receipts.
    Magalong cited another example where when stall owners in the public market pay P3,000, the employee who collected the amount will write only P20 on the receipt.
    He said the practice was being done for a long time and it had been a corrupt tradition of erring public servants that cost the city millions and even billions of pesos worth of revenue.
    Magalong said they already caught one before in 2019 and this time, it is of larger quantity.
    Earlier, two employees of the same office had already been charged. Magalong vowed that more cases are expected in the coming days.
    The public market was one of the first institutions put up by the American colonial government after it built and chartered Baguio City in 1909.
    It is the subject of a modernization plan as part of Baguio’s redevelopment. – With reports from JMPS/APR


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