Supreme Court sacks Napoles justice
MANILA, Philippines–Judges beware. Fraternizing with litigants can get you disrobed.
For lying and showing “corrupt inclinations” as an officer of the court, Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Gregory Ong got the boot from the Supreme Court on Tuesday, never again allowed to hold a public post for his links with the alleged pork barrel scam brains, Janet Lim-Napoles.
Voting 8-5, the high court found Ong guilty of grave misconduct, dishonesty and impropriety, immediately dismissing him from the service for “fraternizing” with Napoles during the time his sala handled a case against the businesswoman and other accused.
Two justices—Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo-de Castro and Diosdado Peralta—inhibited themselves from the ruling as they formerly served at the Sandiganbayan.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima welcomed the decision.
“Finally deciding to dismiss rather than merely suspend Justice Ong, the Supreme Court affirms that moral integrity is not divisible. It is the highest qualification for judges and justices. Members of the judiciary found lacking in integrity cannot be merely suspended because the character disqualification is permanent, not only incidental,” De Lima said in a statement.
She said the “trust of the people in the justice system is best preserved by maintaining the highest levels of moral integrity in the superior courts.”
The Sandiganbayan said it would immediately implement the order of the Supreme Court removing Ong from the 15-member antigraft court.
First to be dismissed
Ong, 61, became the first Sandiganbayan justice to be dismissed from the service since the court was created by a Marcos-era edict on June 11, 1978.
Appointed by then President Joseph Estrada on Oct. 5, 1998, Ong was the most senior among the 14 associate justices of the antigraft court.
The Supreme Court ruling took away Ong’s retirement benefits, “except for accrued leave benefits.” Ong may never seek reemployment “in any branch, agency or instrumentality of the government, including government-owned and -controlled corporations.”
The tribunal said that while evidence against Ong was “insufficient to sustain the bribery and corruption charges,” it “found credible evidence of Ong’s association with Napoles” after his division handed down a decision clearing the businesswoman of the charges.
Suspicion of partiality
The court noted that such links, established through testimony that he had visited Napoles in her office two times, had fueled the public’s “suspicion of [his] partiality.”
“[The] totality of the circumstances of such an association strongly indicates Ong’s corrupt inclinations that only heightened the public’s perception of anomaly in the decision-making process,” the high court said in a summary of its ruling released on Tuesday.
In administrative proceedings, the court needs only “reasonable ground” through evidence that is “substantial… or that amount of relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
The court also noted that Ong “was not truthful on crucial matters even before the administrative complaint was filed against him,” making him liable for dishonesty.
The ruling “is immediately executory.” Ong may still appeal the decision “but the judgment is carried out pending the appeal,” said court spokesman Theodore Te.
The decision said Ong “was not a first-time offender.” Ong and a fellow Sandiganbayan Justice had been found liable for misconduct in 2011 for violating the Rules of Court. Ong, who lost an appeal to the ruling, was fined P15,000 for “unbecoming conduct.”
“The court noted that Justice Ong was not a first-time offender and that the charges of gross misconduct and dishonesty were both grave offenses; it concluded that Justice Ong was no longer fit to remain as magistrate of the special graft court,” Te said in a press briefing.
The Supreme Court cited how the pork barrel scam bled into the judicial branch because of Ong’s misconduct, as his apparent links with Napoles “had dragged the judiciary into the… controversy, which initially involved only legislative and executive officials.”
“The court found that Justice Ong’s act of voluntarily meeting with Napoles at her office on two occasions was grossly improper and violated Section 1, Canon 4 (propriety) of the New Code of Judicial Conduct,” Te said.
The cited section says “judges shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of their activities.”
“The court emphasized that a judge must not only be impartial but must also appear to be impartial and that fraternizing with litigants tarnishes this appearance. It also stressed that the rule on propriety extended even beyond the time that a judge had already ruled on a pending litigation,” said Te, citing the ruling.
“…[I]t does not matter that the case is no longer pending when improper acts were committed by the judge. Because magistrates are under constant public scrutiny, the termination of a case will not deter public criticisms for acts, which may cause suspicion on its disposition or resolution,” said the high court.
In recent months, the high court had been deliberating on whether to dismiss or merely suspend Ong for his links to Napoles, first disclosed through testimonies of pork barrel scam whistle-blowers Benhur Luy and Marina Sula last year.
The two witnesses said Ong was in contact with Napoles while his division heard graft and malversation cases against the businesswoman, her husband and several others for the delivery of subpar Kevlar helmets to the Philippine Marines worth P3.8 million in 1998.
Visit to Napoles office
Ong’s division in the Sandiganbayan acquitted Napoles and the other accused in a 2010 ruling. In his testimony before the Senate blue ribbon committee on Sept. 26, 2013, Luy said Ong visited Napoles’ Ortigas office in 2012, receiving 11 checks amounting to P3.10 million.
Sula recalled how Napoles told her staff that she had a contact in the Sandiganbayan, and that they should not be worried about possible legal cases arising from their alleged involvement in the pork barrel scam.
Napoles is accused of taking public money through the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), also known as lawmakers’ pork barrel, using dubious nongovernment organizations (NGOs).
The Supreme Court also cited a photograph that “publicly linked” Ong to Napoles and Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, now jailed for his alleged involvement in the PDAF scam.
In a letter he submitted voluntarily to the Chief Justice right after the Senate hearing where he was implicated, Ong denied the charges and denied attending any party or social event hosted by Napoles.
He told the high court that, even while he was not required to explain, he sent the letter “to defend his reputation as a judge and protect the Sandiganbayan as an institution from unfair and malicious innuendos.”
Through a six-page statement in July, Ong decried Inquirer reports about the confidential proceedings, saying these subjected him to “trial by publicity” done in “wanton violation” of his rights.
He said retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez’s findings on the administrative case against him were “only recommendatory in nature and it cannot in any truthful way be equated to the factual findings and eventual disposition that the Supreme Court would make on my case.”
In its ruling, however, the high court upheld Gutierrez’s recommendations. She had recommended that Ong be removed from the court for “serious transgressions” that have “impaired the image of the judiciary to which he owes the duty of loyalty and obligation to keep it at all times above suspicion and worthy of the people’s trust.”
Gutierrez found that Ong had in fact visited Napoles after the Sandiganbayan handed down its ruling on Napoles’ case, acquitting her of the charges. She also noted that Ong, in his Sept. 26 letter, did not disclose the visit to the Chief Justice.
She also found that Luy and Sula gave consistent testimonies when she cross-examined them during the investigation. The investigating retired magistrate found the two were “credible witnesses and their story untainted with bias and contradiction, reflective of honest and trustworthy witnesses.”
The court affirmed Gutierrez’s assessment: “The court noted that the testimonies of Luy and Sula showed that Ong was in contact with Napoles during the pendency of the Kevlar case.”
“By his act of going to Napoles at her office on two occasions, Ong exposed himself to the suspicion that he was partial to Napoles,” the high court said.
Photo of Ong and Napoles
“That Ong was not the ponente of the decision which was rendered by a collegial body did not forestall such suspicion of partiality, as evident from the public disgust generated by the publication of a photograph of Ong together with Napoles and Sen. Jinggoy Estrada,” said the court.
The eight magistrates who voted to dismiss Ong were Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Associate Justices Carpio, Arturo Brion, Mariano del Castillo, Martin Villarama Jr., Estela Perlas-Bernabe, Marvic Leonen and Francis Jardeleza.
The five who dissented were Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco, Lucas Bersamin, Jose Perez, Jose Mendoza and Bienvenido Reyes. It was not clear whether their dissent meant a vote of “not guilty” or a vote not to dismiss and merely suspend Ong, pending the release of the full decision.–With reports from Jerome Aning and Marlon Ramos
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