MANILA, Philippines (8th UPDATE) – The Supreme Court (SC) on Tuesday, September 23, dismissed an anti-graft court justice linked to alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles.
In its en banc session, the Court voted 8-5-2 declaring Sandiganbayan Justice Gregory Ong guilty of gross misconduct, dishonesty and impropriety. The ruling forfeits all his retirement benefits, "except any accrued leave benefits," the Tribunal said.
Saying the decision "is immediately executory," the High Court affirmed the recommendation made by retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez, who was tasked to probe Ong.
The 8 justices who agreed to dismiss Ong are: Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, Justices Arturo Brion, Mariano del Castillo, Martin Villarama Jr, Estela Perlas-Bernabe, Marvic Leonen and Francis Jardeleza.
The 5 justices who dissented are: Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr, Jose Perez, Jose Mendoza, Lucas Bersamin and Bienvenido Reyes.
On the other hand, Justices Teresita Leonardo-de Castro and Diosdado Peralta, who are both former justices at the anti-graft court, inhibited from the case.
Just last week, those who wanted Ong dismissed did not have the numbers; they counted only 6. At least 5 justices wanted Ong suspended for only 3 months, Court insiders said. They were the 5 dissenters who remained steadfast in their decision until the end.
Those who dissented however admitted Ong was liable but that his transgressions were tantamount to "only simple misconduct."
Eventually Jardeleza and Del Castillo joined the 6 original justices who voted for dismissal. Del Castillo, it turns out, had not yet made up his mind, Court sources said. This explains the final 8-5-2 vote.
Photos on Rappler
Rappler exposed Ong's links to Napoles in August 2013 at the height of the pork barrel scandal which has since become the worst corruption case in recent Philippine history. (READ: Exclusive: Napoles parties with anti-graft court justice)
At the time, when Rappler showed Ong a photo of him with Napoles and Senator Jose "Jinggoy" Estrada, who, like Napoles, is now charged with plunder, the justice denied knowing her. “I do not know her. She did not appear in court. I think she had a waiver of appearance in court,” he replied when reminded that Napoles and her brother, Reynald Lim (alias Reynaldo Francisco), were both respondents in the Kelvar helmet case.
In 2010, Napoles got off the hook in the Kevlar helmet case that was tried by the Sandiganbayan Fourth Division which Ong chaired.
Ong's name was subsequently dragged into the various affidavits submitted to the Senate last year by pork barrel scam whistleblowers-turned-state witnesses Benhur Luy and Marina Sula.
Ong's name also appeared in the digital files submitted by Luy to the Senate. Under disbursements dated November 10, 2004, Ong’s name appeared for a transaction that involved "narra wood parquet-bulletin board.” A voucher numbered 11-2566 listed a small amount of P12,000 as being disbursed. (READ: Anti-graft court justice in pork scam files)
At around this time, the highly irregular Kevlar helmet case involving Napoles and her family was still being tried by Ong’s division in the Sandiganbayan.
The SC Public Information Office told the media Tuesday that the justices took into serious consideration the testimonies of Luy and Sula.
"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 and while the evidence was insufficient to sustain the bribery and corruption charges as both Luy and Sula did not witness Ong actually receiving money from Napoles, the Court nonetheless found credible evidence of Ong’s association with Napoles after the promulgation of the Kevlar case," the SC PIO said.
In January 2014 the High Court, acting on its own in the wake of the whistle-blowers' testimonies, asked Ong to explain the allegations against him. He submitted a written explanation which was apparently not sufficient because the Tribunal still insisted on creating a body to investigate him.
As part of her investigation, Gutierrez summoned other personalities who could shed light on the case against Ong. The former justice also summoned Ong himself who denied any wrongdoing or irregularity but admitted knowing Napoles, according to sources privy to the probe.
Rappler's investigative reporter Aries Rufo was also summoned by Gutierrez about the photo.
Photo obtained by Rappler
Napoles is the alleged brains behind a massive diversion of lawmakers' Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel to ghost projects of non-profit foundations she controlled.
In her report to the SC dated May 15, 2014, Gutierrez concluded that the justice was Napoles' main contact at the anti-graft court. She found “substantial evidence” that Ong was guilty of gross misconduct, dishonesty and impropriety for disgracing the integrity of the judiciary.
Ong was an appointee of ousted president Joseph Estrada in 1998.
When the plunder cases against the younger Estrada and other personalities linked to the pork barrel scam scandal were filed before the Sandiganbayan, Ong inhibited himself from these cases due to the SC probe.
Impact on Sandiganbayan
Sandiganbayan spokesperson Renato Bocar said the SC decision will not affect pending cases before Ong's division.
Sandiganbayan Justice Jose Hernandez is now the acting Fourth Division chairman, he said. Justice Alex Quiroz will then fill in the vacancy in the division as the "warm body" or the special member to fill in vacancies.
The 61-year-old Ong has had a controversial judicial career.
In 2007, his appointment as SC justice was blocked by civil society group Kilosbayan, which claimed that Ong was not a natural-born Filipino citizen, a requirement for members of the SC.
Following the controversy, former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo withdrew her appointment, although a lower court later ruled that Ong was a natural-born Filipino citizen.
Three years later, Ong, together with two other members of the 4th division, faced an administrative complaint for grave misconduct, conduct unbecoming of a justice, falsification of public documents, improprieties in the hearing of cases and manifest impartiality and gross ignorance of the law. This was his first administrative case.
During its investigation, the Court administrator junked the other complaints against the justices but found them liable for violation of the Rules of Court and the Revised Internal Rules of the Sandiganbayan.
Reacting to the SC decision Tuesday, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, who initiated the probe into the pork barrel scam, said: "Finally deciding to dismiss rather than merely suspend Justice Ong, the SC 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. The trust of the people in the justice system is best preserved by maintaining the highest levels of moral integrity in the superior courts." – with reports from Buena Bernal and Aries Rufo/Rappler.com