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Will SC dismiss anti-graft court justice?

MANILA, Philippines - A probe body created by the Supreme Court (SC) has recommended the dismissal of Sandiganbayan Justice Gregory Ong for his links to alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles, and the High Court is expected to either accept or reject this during its en banc session on Tuesday, July 1.

Rappler learned that on the agenda in Tuesday's en banc session is the recommendation made by retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez to dismiss Ong, an appointee of ousted president Joseph Estrada in 1998, after a 4-month probe into allegations that he served as a contact of Napoles in the anti-graft court.

The Sandiganbayan, created to punish the corrupt in government, is handling its most sensational cases to date - the plunder and graft charges against at least 3 Philippine senators and their alleged conduit Napoles. Ong has inhibited himself from these cases. (READ: Get to know the Sandiganbayan)

The Inquirer published on Monday excerpts from Gutierrez's 34-report to the Supreme Court that contains her findings accusing Ong of dishonesty, impropriety and gross misconduct.

The justices already received the report in May but sought for more time to study it. They agreed to put it on agenda on Tuesday, where they will likely make a decision, Rappler learned from sources.

Ong parties with Napoles

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.

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.

Ong was a member of the Sandiganbayan's Fourth Division that handled the Kevlar helmet case in 2001 and acquitted Napoles of any involvement in that scandal (READ: How Napoles got away)

Ong now heads this division.

Ong's name was also dragged into the various affidavits submitted to the Senate by whistleblowers-turned-state witnesses Benhur Luy and Marina Sula.

SC probe

Acting on its own in the wake of those testimonies, the High Court in January 2014 asked Ong to explain. 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.

Digital files submitted by Luy to the Senate - but which were apparently not covered by the Gutierrez probe – showed that 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. 

At around this time, the Kevlar helmet case involving Napoles and her family was still being tried by Ong’s division in the Sandiganbayan. (READ: Anti-graft court justice in pork scam files)

The Inquirer quoted Gutierrez as telling the High Court: "Respondent, by his serious transgressions, has 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 worth of the people's trust."

Gutierrez recommended – aside from his dismissal and the filing of administrative charges against him – the forfeiture of all his retirement benefits, the Inquirer said.

Strong lobby for Ong?

The question is, will the majority of the 15-member High Court approve Gutierrez's recommendations?

Rappler sources said there's a "strong lobby" for Ong . The justice, who is the most senior in the anti-graft court, is apparently well-connected, considering that he's had to fight one controversy after another and still managed to stay in the judiciary.

This is Ong's second administrative case in a controversial judicial career.

Citizenship issue

The first time the 61-year-old jurist had to defend his qualification before the High Court involved his citizenship.

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. -