THE Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the dismissal of Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Gregory Ong after it found him guilty of gross misconduct, dishonesty and impropriety for associating with Janet Lim Napoles, the alleged mastermind of the pork barrel scam.
Voting 8-5, with two abstentions, the Court affirmed the recommendation of retired Associate Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez, who had been tasked to investigate Ong’s alleged connection with Napoles.
Gutierrez had recommended that Ong be dismissed for violating the New Code of Judicial Conduct and that all his retirement benefits, except accrued leaves, be forfeited.
Ong was investigated after allegations were made against him in a Sept. 26, 2013 hearing of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee on the pork barrel scam.
Ong is the first magistrate of the anti-graft court, the Sandiganbayan, to be dismissed from service.
“In a per curiam decision, voting 8-5-2, the Court found Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Gregory S. Ong guilty of Gross Misconduct, Dishonesty and Impropriety under the New Code of Judicial
Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary and dismissed him from the service, with forfeiture of all retirement benefits, except accrued leave benefits, if any, and with prejudice to reemployment in any branch, agency or instrumentality of the government including government-owned or controlled corporations,” Court spokesman Theodore Te said in a press conference.
“The Court stated that the decision is immediately executory,” Te added.
Before Gutierrez’s probe, Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno asked the Court to investigate claims of pork barrel scam whistle blowers Benhur Luy and Marina Sula that Ong was among those who joined her parties and visited Napoles’ office at the Discovery Suites in Ortigas.
Ong was seen in one photograph partying with Napoles and Senator Jinggoy Estrada, who has been charged with plunder in connection with the pork barrel scam.
In their testimonies before the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, Luy and Sula alleged that Ong, acting as a go-between, fixed a case in the Sandiganbayan against Napoles involving the ghost purchase of 500 Kevlar helmets.
They also claimed that Napoles handed Ong 11 checks totaling P3.1 million during one of his visits to her office.
Ong denied favoring Napoles and said the Kevlar case was dismissed by members of the court’s division that acted as a collegial body.
After receiving Ong’s comment, the Court found possible transgressions of the Code of Judicial Conduct and issued a resolution filing an administrative complaint against him.
The Supreme Court then designated Gutierrez to lead the probe and come up with a report and recommendations.
While the evidence was insufficient to prove bribery and corruption charges against Ong since both Luy and Sula did not witness him receiving money from Napoles, the Court found “credible” evidence of Ong’s association with Napoles after the promulgation of the Kevlar case.
“The Court noted that the ‘totality of the circumstances of such association strongly indicates (Ong’s) corrupt inclinations that only heightened the public’s perception of anomaly in the decision-making process,” the Court said.
Ong’s act of going to Napoles’ office on two occasions only exposed himself to the suspicion that he was partial to Napoles, it added.
“That Ong was not the ponente [author] of the decision which was rendered by a collegial body did not forestall such suspicion of partiality, as evidenced from the public disgust generated by the publication of a photograph of (Ong) together with Napoles and Senator Jinggoy Estrada,” Te said.
Te added that the Court held that Ong’s actions cannot be considered as “simple misconduct” because his association with Napoles had dragged the judiciary into the pork barrel controversy, which initially involved the legislative branch of government.
The high tribunal also considered that Napoles’ contact in the judiciary turned out to be no less than a justice of the Sandiganbayan, the special court tasked with hearing graft cases.
The Court also noted that it was not the first-time that the Court sanctioned Ong for misconduct and dishonesty.
In 2011, the Court affirmed with finality its decisions, which found Ong guilty of conduct unbecoming of magistrate and ordered him to pay a fine of P15,000, while two other associate justices – Jose Hernandez and Rodolfo Ponferrada – were admonished after being found guilty of simple misconduct.
Before his dismissal, Ong was the chairman of the anti-graft court’s 4th Division, while Hernandez and Ponferrada are senior and junior members, respectively.
The case stemmed from a complaint filed by Rohermia Jamsani-Rodriguez, an assistant prosecutor at the Office of the Special Prosecutor, who charged the magistrates with grave misconduct based on the manner by which they conducted provincial hearings for the trial of several cases in Davao City from April 24 to 28, 2006.
The Court agreed with the argument of the complainant that the ability of the 4th Division to function as a collegial body was compromised when not all of the members sat together during the trial proceedings.
The magistrates who voted for dismissal of Ong were Sereno and Associate Justices Antonio Carpio, Arturo Brion, Mariano de Castillo, Martin Villarama Jr., Estela Perlas-Bernabe, Marvic Leonen and Francis Jardeleza.
Those who dissented were Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr., Lucas Bersamin, Jose Perez, Jose Mendoza and Bienvenido Reyes.
Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo-de Castro and Diosdado Peralta took no part because of their previous close association with Ong, having both been former Sandiganbayan associate and presiding justices.
A spokesman for the anti-graft court said Ong could still appeal the Court’s decision.
“The ruling of the SC on the case of Justice Ong, while immediately executory, is not immediately final. So he still has the opportunity to file a motion for reconsideration if he so desires, within 15 days from receipt of the ruling or resolution of the Supreme Court,” Renato Bocar said.
The Sandiganbayan has yet to receive a copy of the Court’s decision.
Ong declined to be interviewed and left his office shortly before the Supreme Court’s announcement. – With Rio N. Araja
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