Ex-clerk of court appeals conviction; instead of acquittal, gets stiffer penalty

Published June 8, 2021, 1:11 PM

by Czarina Nicole Ong Ki

Sandiganbayan

A former clerk of court of the municipal trial court (MTC) in Virac, Catanduanes was convicted by the regional trial court (RTC) of misappropriating funds.

She elevated her conviction to the Sandiganbayan in the hope that she would be acquitted.

But the Sandiganbayan did not grant the plea of Aurora Tioxon Zuñiga. The anti-graft court not only affirmed her conviction but also imposed on her a stiffer jail term and, instead of only a fine, was ordered to return to the Supreme Court (SC) the amount misappropriated.

In 2019, Zuniga was sentenced by the RTC to a prison term ranging from four years, nine months and 11 days as minimum to seven years, four months and one day as maximum. She was also ordered to pay a fine of P412,861.85 and barred her perpetually from holding public office.

In denying her appeal, the Sandiganbayan sentenced Zuñiga to a prison term ranging from six years as minimum to seven years and four months as maximum. She was also slapped with perpetual special disqualification from holding public office, and to pay a fine of P412,861.85.

The anti-graft court also ordered her to pay the SC, as her civil liability, P412,861.85 plus interest of six percent per annum.

Zuñiga’s case stemmed from the fund shortages in the books of accounts of the MTC of Virac from Aug. 21, 2003 to June 19, 2007 amounting to P294,797.75. After further investigation, it was discovered that Zuñiga incurred fund shortages of P278,811.85 and P134,050 through unauthorized fund withdrawals.

The SC, in an administrative case in 2014, found her guilty of dishonesty and imposed on her the penalty of dismissal from the service with forfeiture of all her retirement benefits.

Then the Office of the Ombudsman (OMB) found probable cause to indict her criminally in a resolution dated Oct. 6, 2016. She was convicted by the Virac RTC on Sept. 27, 2019.

Zuñiga did not file any motion for reconsideration and immediately filed a Notice of Appeal on Sept. 29, 2019. She told the Sandiganbayan that the RTC erred in finding her guilty since she was not designated as a collecting officer for any legal fees.

She claimed that while she failed to return the fund shortages it is not prima facie evidence that the funds were put to her personal use.

In resolving her appeal, the Sandiganbayan said:

“It is without doubt that accused-appellant Zuñiga, as the Clerk of Court of the MTC of Virac, Catanduanes, is an accountable public officer, primarily responsible for all the funds and revenues of the said Court.

“Upon a careful review of the records of the case, this Court finds that the prosecution clearly established the fund shortages, through documentary evidence admitted during trial and the testimony of auditors who conducted the audit of the books of accounts of the MTC of Virac, Catanduanes.”

Associate Justice Bernelito R. Fernandez wrote the 22-page decision with the concurrence of Presiding Justice Amparo M. Cabotaje-Tang and Associate Justice Ronald B. Moreno.

 
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