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With Due Respect

Show proof or apologize

The recent “exposé” of Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV denouncing an alleged P50-million payoff in the procurement of a temporary restraining order (TRO) and the subsequent writ of preliminary injunction, which both stopped the suspension of Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay Jr., shook the Court of Appeals (CA) like an intensity 7 earthquake.

Unblemished reputation. The attack was especially painful to Justice Jose C. Reyes Jr., who enjoys a heretofore unblemished reputation for honesty and probity. The CA members and employees look up to him as a model of uprightness and competence.

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If for this reason alone, Trillanes should back his attack with some proof. True, it is quite difficult to secure documents like receipts or checks. Most of the time, in bribery cases, cash is passed without documents. But a credible witness will do. Someone who has seen the payoff or listened to incriminating conversations can provide valuable leads.

Sometimes, the consideration is not cash but a precious object, or even some unfriendly persuasion, like a promised promotion, or a complimentary airline ticket, or a paid hospital/medical bill, or a compromising photo. It can be something of value that will show the magistrate as having been infected by what I call the plague of “ships”: kinship, relationship, friendship and fellowship.

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I am sure the Supreme Court, which has been vested with the sole power to discipline members of the judiciary, will welcome some kind of prima facie proof, not necessarily conclusive, to initiate an inquiry.

Trillanes may have been well-intentioned. But his mere say-so with nothing more, however well-meant, is not enough. Otherwise, magistrates will be in constant jeopardy of losing their reputation on unsubstantiated allegations. When wantonly besmirched, they can lose their moral ascendancy to dispense justice.

Motu proprio investigation. The Supreme Court has investigated and penalized members of the judiciary even without formal charges, provided it can be furnished some proof or leads of wrongdoing. After all, the quantum of proof necessary in administrative cases is only “substantial evidence,” not “proof beyond reasonable doubt.”

The case of Sandiganbayan Justice Gregory S. Ong is a good example. Taking a cue from a Senate blue ribbon committee inquiry on the pork barrel scam indicating prima facie violation of the Judicial Code of Conduct, and from an article authored by investigative writer Aries Rufo published in Rappler, showing a photograph of Ong together with Sen. Jinggoy Estrada and Janet Lim Napoles, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno asked the high court to conduct an investigation motu proprio (on its own volition).

After receiving Ong’s “comment,” the Court directed retired Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez to look into Ong’s link to Napoles. Gutierrez  subpoenaed pork barrel whistle-blowers Benhur Luy and Marina Sula, writer Rufo and Ong himself to testify before her.

Gutierrez found that Napoles was acquitted by the Fourth Division of the Sandiganbayan, chaired by Ong, in a criminal case involving the questionable purchase of Kevlar helmets by the Philippine Marine Corps from five companies owned by Napoles.

Luy testified that Napoles told him that she (Napoles) “gave various amounts to different people during the pendency of the case which lasted up to ten years. And before the decision in the Kevlar case was released, she also gave money to respondent (Ong) but she did not mention the amount.”

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In turn, “Sula corroborated Luy’s testimony that respondent visited the office of Napoles twice sometime in 2012 … Sula also testified that every time Napoles talked to her and other employees, she would say that Justice Ong [would] help her in the Kevlar case.”

Despite Ong’s objection that these testimonies were hearsay, Justice Gutierrez held that Luy and Sula “testified in a candid, straightforward and categorical manner. Their testimonies were instantaneous, clear, unequivocal and carried … the ring of truth.”

She ruled that Ong’s “act of allowing himself to be Napoles’ contact in the Sandiganbayan, resulting in the fixing of the Kevlar case, and of accepting money from her, constituted gross misconduct …”

She also said that Ong’s picture with Napoles, an accused in his court, “manifests respondent’s disregard of the dictum that propriety and the appearance of propriety are essential … to promote public confidence in the integrity of the Judiciary.”

Demands of fairness. Upholding her findings, the Supreme Court found Ong “GUILTY of GROSS MISCONDUCT, DISHONESTY and IMPROPRIETY, all in violation of the New Code of Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary, for which he [was] dismissed from the service, with forfeiture of all retirement benefits, except accrued leave credits, if any, and with prejudice to reemployment” in the government (capital letters in original).

I detailed the Ong case to show that the Supreme Court, even without direct evidence but with a modicum of proof showing “only substantial evidence,” has shown willingness to penalize erring magistrates. Several years ago, it disciplined two of its own quite severely. But, by the same passion, I think it will not tolerate and, in fact, will sanction reckless imputations of wrongdoing.

In sum, fairness demands that Senator Trillanes produce some proof to back his serious charge of graft. If he cannot, the least he can do is to admit his lapse promptly and apologize publicly to the CA justices.

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TAGS: Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P. A. Sereno, Court of Appeals, Janet Lim-Napoles, Judicial Code of Conduct, Justice Jose C. Reyes Jr., magistrates, Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay Jr, Sandiganbayan Justice Gregory S. Ong, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, Supreme Court, temporary restraining order
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