MANILA, Philippines?By his own account, a Court of Appeals justice was offered P10 million to inhibit himself from a case that Manila Electric Co. had filed to stop an attempted takeover by the Government Service Insurance System.
The offer was made to him on July 1 through a Makati businessman, Justice Jose Sabio Jr. said in a letter dated July 26 to Presiding Justice Conrado Vasquez Jr., a copy of which was obtained by the Philippine Daily Inquirer Wednesday afternoon.
In an interview Wednesday morning, Sabio said he would hold nothing back in the court?s en banc session scheduled Thursday to discuss the issue of the Meralco case.
Asked if he had informed Presiding Justice Conrado Vasquez about any bribery offer made to him in relation to the case, Sabio replied: ?Everything, all details, will be discussed. I can just say, no holds barred. If I?m asked to detail everything, I will. I?ll be honest.?
Sabio and Justice Myrna Dimaranan-Vidal of the appellate court?s former 9th Division had protested the issuance of the decision on the Meralco petition on July 23.
In that decision, the court voided the order of the Securities and Exchange Commission stopping the hotly contested May 27 election of the Meralco board, over which the power firm retained control.
Sabio and Vidal described the circumstances surrounding the decision as ?fishy,? adding that they had heard the oral arguments on the case but were not among those who signed the decision.
Those who did sign the decision were Justice Vicente Roxas, the designated ponente, and Justices Bienvenido Reyes and Antonio Bruselas. The three make up the 8th Division, to which Roxas was transferred from the 9th Division, when the case was pending.
According to Sabio, the businessman, whom he has known for some time, requested an urgent meeting and waited to see him until his law classes ended at 8 p.m. on July 1.
?It turned out that he was brokering for Meralco,? Sabio said.
Reached for comment, Meralco treasurer Rafael Andrada, who is serving as the power utility?s spokesperson on the case, said: ?Those are very grave accusations. Meralco does not engage in such practices. Never has, never will.?
?If he?s so sure of his facts, he should name names and not just make innuendos,? Andrada added.
In a text message Wednesday night, Meralco legal counsel and former Justice Jose Vitug said: ?Frankly, I am as dumbfounded as (the) many I have talked to. Did Justice Sabio really mention anybody in particular in his remarks??
?I indeed hope that no unnecessary anxiety will be caused to anyone who has done nothing to deserve even just a hint of impropriety,? Vitug said.
This was how Sabio narrated the turn of events in his letter:
The emissary began by explaining the problem of who between Sabio and Reyes should preside over the Meralco case.
Sabio was surprised that the emissary knew about the matter, ?an internal problem? that happened only ?very recently.?
The emissary said his camp?s lawyers wanted to ?directly challenge? Sabio?s insistence on presiding over the case, but that they were told it might ?become messy.?
It was then that Sabio was offered P10 million, which he rejected.
?So, they were talking of a win-win situation, which meant offering P10 million for me to give way to Justice Reyes. I politely declined that offer and told the emissary that it was not only a matter of principle but that it will [also] affect the integrity of the court. Before he left, he told me that they were still hoping that I could see it their way,? Sabio said.
?In their eagerness to succeed on that aspect,? Sabio said, the emissary got in touch with a family friend in Cagayan de Oro City to convince him to accept the money.
Sabio said that subsequently, he received frantic calls from the emissary.
He continued his account to Presiding Justice Vasquez thus:
In order to put an end to the ?pestering? calls, Sabio told the emissary that his conscience would forever be bothered and he would be unable to face his wife and two daughters if he accepted the offer.
He also told the emissary that taking the money would be contrary to his being a member of the Philippine Judicial Academy?s Ethics and Judicial Conduct Department and Ateneo de Manila University?s pre-bar reviewer in legal and judicial ethics.
The emissary?s ?feeble response? was: ?We are not doing anything illegal since we do not ask you to decide one way or the other.?
His reply was that it was ?a matter of principle.?
Before the conversation ended, the emissary told Sabio that his camp would be forced to employ other ways to ensure that Reyes would chair the division that would decide on the case.
Questions to Reyes
On July 7, Meralco filed an urgent motion for Reyes to assume the chairmanship of the 9th Division, which Sabio described as a ?strange,? even ?stupid,? motion.
Sabio also said in the letter that he had told Reyes of the P10-million offer, and asked the latter certain questions, including:
?If you will insist on assuming the chairmanship, after you have been told of the P10-million offer, what will I think of you now? Why should Meralco insist on you assuming the chairmanship and have me ousted??
?Is it because they are certain of your loyalty and they are uncertain [of] mine??
?Why did they (Meralco) actively participate in the hearing on the 23rd and never raised any question regarding the supposed irregularity of my presiding over the hearing??
Sabio said Reyes? ?feeble? reply to him was: ?I am afraid that they will file a case of nonfeasance against me.? (Nonfeasance means ?the omission of an act that ought to have been performed.?)
No holds barred
Asked earlier if he was referring to the Meralco case when he disclosed in a talk at the University of the Philippines that he had been offered a bribe in relation to a recent case, Sabio said: ?Ask me no other questions, and I will tell you no lies.?
He said copies of his letter to Vasquez and of the letters of Vidal, Roxas, Reyes and Bruselas had been furnished the other justices of the appellate court.
But in an apparent attempt to clarify matters, ponente Roxas issued a statement saying that Sabio had only been called in as a substitute for Reyes who was on leave, and had insisted on taking part in the oral arguments even though the latter had already returned.
Roxas also said Sabio was supposed to have been involved in hearing the case for the duration of Reyes? leave, but refused to leave when oral arguments were heard on July 23.
He said Sabio had embarrassed Reyes by showing up at the hearing and forcing the latter to retreat.
?That incident caused by Justice Sabio was the talk of the Court of Appeals for weeks,? he said.
Roxas also railed against the statements of Sabio and Vidal that were reported in the media, saying that matters pertaining to the case should have been resolved through the cases filed.
?Instead of grandstanding before the media or resorting to media-recourse, Justices Sabio and Vidal should have just filed administrative complaints before the court administrator or the Supreme Court?which are treated confidentially, away from the mob?to preserve the integrity of the innocent and that of the court,? he said.
In this case, no formal complaint has been filed.
Roxas said Thursday?s en banc meeting was a ?disguised investigation? of the 8th Division?s ruling on the Meralco case.
He explained that the mandatory reorganization of the Court of Appeals took place on July 4, and that he was directed to take the Meralco case to his new division.
He said a case followed the ponente to whatever division the ponente went.
According to Roxas, there is also no requirement that the justices who issued the temporary restraining order on the Meralco board election?in this case Sabio, Roxas and Vidal?should also be the ones who should decide on the case.
The rules likewise do not require that the justices who heard the oral arguments should be the ones to decide the case, Roxas said.
?Besides, all hearings in the Court of Appeals are recorded and the members of the 8th Division only need the transcripts of the hearing or the memoranda, briefs, comments and replies of the parties?which are all written,? he said.
Prompt decision required
The rules also require a prompt decision on a case where a TRO has been issued, according to Roxas.
?Deciding the Meralco case early showed the efficient exercise of duty by Justices Roxas, Bruselas and Reyes,? he said.
Roxas also said there was nothing irregular when the Meralco case was decided on July 23. He said that once the justices signed the ruling, it had to be promulgated. With a report from Abigail Ho