Cebu and Garcia suspension: Whose battle is it?

The suspension of Cebu Gov Garcia has evolved into a sensational mix of politics, personalities, governance, and the law

'RULE OF LAW.' Embattled Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia cites the rule of law in defying her suspension order but her critics say that's exactly what she is violating in refusing to stand down.

CEBU, Philippines – Gwendolyn “Gwen” Garcia became Cebu’s first female governor in 2004. Now, she again makes history, this time becoming the province’s first governor to face suspension in recent memory.

The feisty governor surprised even local reporters when she said, “I will continue to discharge my functions as governor of Cebu and if they will stop me, then they will have to do that over my dead body.” 

Garcia’s suspension and her defiance of the order sparked a drama at the capitol where both she and acting Governor Agnes Magpale insist on running the province. Tensions ran high in past days that at one point Magpale called the situation a political crisis.

Local pundits said the continuing standoff heats up Cebu’s political climate just 5 months before the May 2013 polls.

What began as an administrative case evolved into an issue where legal-political and local-national dynamics now interplay:  

1. The case: ‘Why now’ vs ‘nothing overnight’

The Office of the President suspended Garcia for 6 months for grave abuse of authority in hiring contractual employees. It stems from a case her late vice governor and political rival Gregorio Sanchez Jr filed before the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).

This is different from the so-called Balili controversy, the subject of a graft case against Garcia at the Sandiganbayan. The Ombudsman questioned the province’s purchase of a P98.9 million land in Naga, Cebu, with parts of the property under seawater. In a separate charge, critics also accused her of tampering with the evidence by backfilling the land. These cases are still pending.

In the Sanchez case, the Office of the President found Garcia guilty in 3 acts:

  1. Encroaching on Sanchez’s appointing authority over employees of the Office of the Vice Governor
  2. Slashing the budget of the Office of the Vice Governor by 61%
  3. Hiring consultants without prior authority from the provincial council

Here is the decision courtesy of Sunstar Cebu:

It is a case that spanned two years and two deaths:

  • November 8, 2010 – Sanchez files the complaint before the DILG
  • April 29, 2011 – Sanchez dies of lung cancer
  • June 2011 – Start of DILG investigation (according to Garcia)
  • August 31, 2011 – End of DILG investigation (according to Garcia)
  • July 26, 2012 – DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo finds Garcia guilty of grave abuse of authority, recommending suspension for 6 months (according to the Office of the President and Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas)
  • July 31, 2012 – The Office of the President receives Robredo’s report
  • August 18, 2012 – Robredo dies in a plane crash off Masbate
  • October 1, 2012 – Mar Roxas assumes post as DILG Secretary
  • December 17, 2012 – The Office of the President in a decision signed by Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr orders Garcia’s suspension
  • December 19, 2012 – With Garcia not around, the DILG Region 7 leaves a copy of the suspension order in her office and posts another copy at the door of her office. The DILG proceeds to swear in Magpale as acting governor. (according to local media)
  • December 20, 2012Garcia files a case asking the Court of Appeals to issue a temporary restraining order (according to Garcia’s daughter and lawyer Christina Frasco)

“[The timing] strikes at the heart of our objection that’s why we have called this order patently illegal because there are certain processes that have to be followed,” Garcia told reporters in Cebu.

She cited the 120-day rule in Section 66 of the Local Government Code: that administrative investigations must be terminated with 90 days, and the Office of the President must issue a decision within 30 days after the end of the probe.

She also invoked Administrative Order 23, saying that the Office of the President must decide on cases 30 days after the transmittal of records from the DILG.

By Garcia’s computation, the Palace’s decision to suspend her came out 474 days after the end of the investigation, and 144 days after Robredo issued his report.

For her, the timing was meant to prevent her from quickly getting legal redress, and to cut short her term ahead of the elections.

In response, Roxas argued that the two year-span gave Garcia the opportunity to respond to the charges and the suspension resulted from “full due process.”

“In short, this was nothing overnight. What we are doing now is simply implementing the order. If we don’t, that would be dereliction of duty,” Roxas said.

The Garcias have raised other legal questions: Can she be deemed suspended without personal service of the order? Why did the case survive Sanchez’s death? Is the 6-month suspension commensurate to the alleged offense?

For the DILG, the order was already served via “substituted service.” On Sanchez’s death, the Office of the President said, “Once an administrative complaint is given due course, the government is transformed as the real aggrieved party, and the complainant’s death will not exonerate the public official of administrative charges.”

The Court of Appeals will have to decide which of them is correct. (Garcia has asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order to lift her suspension.)

'VALID SERVICE.' The DILG insists it already served the suspension order on Garcia but the Garcia camp claims there should have been personal service. Local media reported that the DILG left copies of the order with Garcia's office and taped it on a board. Photo from cebu.gov.ph

2. The politics: Power grab or sympathy votes?

Beyond the timing, the political affiliations of the figures involved became prominent as the issue dragged on.

Once allies of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the Garcia political dynasty is now linked with Vice President Jejomar Binay in the opposition United Nationalist Alliance (UNA). Their local One Cebu party is allied with UNA.

On Sunday, December 23, UNA’s stalwarts — Binay and former President Joseph Estrada, among others — arrived in Cebu City to dramatize their support for Garcia.

The Garcias are running against candidates of the ruling Liberal Party (LP) in 2013. The LP has an alliance with the local Bakud party. Roxas, LP president (on leave), was Binay’s bitter rival in the 2010 vice presidential race and the two will reportedly battle it out again for the presidency in 2016.

'NO PERSECUTION.' Liberal Party officials deny the claim of the United Nationalist Alliance that Garcia was suspended because of political persecution. Garcia is an UNA congressional candidate. File photo from cebu.gov.ph

Here is the political configuration:

  • Gwen Garcia is running to replace her brother, Cebu 3rd District Rep Pablo John “PJ” Garcia, under UNA. She was initially named an UNA senatorial bet but backed out.
  • PJ Garcia is running to replace her sister as Cebu governor. He is up against LP’s Hilario “Junjun” Davide III, son and namesake of the former Chief Justice.
  • Davide’s running mate is Acting Governor Magpale, sister of Aquino classmate and Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras

Garcia explained why she called her suspension a “power grab.” “We have a coming election. This is Cebu. This is vote-rich Cebu!”

Cebu is the province with the biggest voting population. As of 2010, it had 2.43 million voters. It has 8 congressional districts (including the two in Cebu City), 9 cities, and 44 municipalities.

“The LP candidate here, Hilario Davide III, lost to me in the last elections by close to 100,000 votes. Now, his opponent will be my brother and our recent surveys are showing that Cong Garcia is way, way ahead. It’s an independent commissioned survey and I think they know that,” Garcia said.

Garcia has been aggressively campaigning for her brother in past months. The Garcias are perceived to have a bigger campaign war chest than the LP bets.

In an interview with Rappler, Davide said the Garcias cried political persecution “because they have nothing else to say.”

“The decision had to come. The legal process does not stop. It just so happened it came during the election season. She has a battery of lawyers, legal remedies, why say this is connected to politics?”

Garcia’s bitter rival, Cebu City, 2nd District Rep Tomas Osmeña of the LP, said Garcia’s defiance of her suspension is consistent with the charge that she abused her power.

“She truly thinks she is the queen of the province when she really is just the queen of darkness. She cannot accept that the light is beginning to shine,” Osmeña told Cebu Daily News

Magpale ally Cordova Municipality Mayor Adelino Sitoy came to the defense of Davide’s running mate. By rule of succession, Magpale rose from becoming board member to vice governor following Sanchez’s death, and now she is acting governor.

“This is not a battle between the acting governor and the illegitimate governor. This is a battle between the defying governor and the Office of the President. The OP handed down a decision suspending her and that is the penalty imposed on her and she is defying that,” said Sitoy. 

'NOT THEIR BATTLE.' Allies of Acting Governor Agnes Magpale (left) say the Cebu capitol standoff is not a battle between her and Governor Gwen Garcia (right) but between Garcia and Malacañang.

Déjà vu, Robredo and Samuel Co

UNA joined the fray as it defended Garcia and pointed to Roxas and the LP’s supposed “disturbing pattern of political persecution,” on the heels a plunder case against Pangasinan Gov Amado Espino of the Nationalist People’s Coalition. Pangasinan is the second vote-richest province. 

It was déjà vu for the alliance, citing Binay’s similar experience under the Arroyo administration in 2006 when he was suspended as Makati mayor but won a TRO in court. 

Complicating the issue further, the Garcias even questioned the Palace and Roxas’ statement that it was Robredo who recommended the suspension “because Secretary Robredo is no longer here to confirm or deny it.” The Robredo report has yet to be released. 

Rep PJ Garcia cited recognition Cebu got from the DILG under Robredo. “The seal of good housekeeping for transparency and accountability merely makes it highly unlikely that its giver would recommend the maximum period of suspension for abuse of authority on the governor who received it.”

'HIGHLY UNLIKELY.' Cebu Rep Pablo John Garcia says it is unlikely Robredo recommended her sister's suspension after awarding the province with the DILG seal of good housekeeping. Yet the Office of the President said it was Robredo who recommended the suspension.

                                                                           

Malacañang, Roxas and the LP resented claims they were playing politics.

Roxas said there is no double standard because even LP members like Pagadian City Mayor Samuel Co is under investigation for his alleged involvement in the Aman Futures scam.  

“She wants to get the sympathy of the voters. I would call on Governor Gwen to respect the decision of the executive,” LP’s Eastern Samar Rep Ben Evardone said.

“They are making a local issue a national issue, which should not be the case. This should be about the rule of law,” LP officials said.

Final resolution in elections?

What do Cebuanos think of the conflict?

Boboy Belarmino, spokesman of the Cebu Labor Coalition and barangay captain of Southern Poblacion, said the sentiment is mixed.

“Ang iba nag-shift ng allegiance kay Gwen dahil sa pangyayaring ito, para bang gidaog-daog ba, inipit si governor sa politics pero may mga nagsasabi naman iyan talaga ang nangyari dahil may karma dahil si Gov is a high-handed person.” (There are those who shifted allegiance to Gwen because it seems they victimized her but there are those saying that’s what happens because of karma.)

In an editorial, Cebu Daily News said, “Whatever legal protests surround the 6-month suspension of Garcia should be settled in court, and not in the corridors of the Provincial Capitol.”

Sunstar Cebu predicted a long-drawn conflict going beyond Garcia’s ouster. “With the perceived political motivation behind her suspension, the venue of the conflict’s final resolution will therefore be the 2013 gubernatorial polls.”

Belarmino said, “This is a preparation for the political arena. Who holds the resources and power, that is the possible winner. That’s how politics is in the Philippines.” – Rappler.com 

STANDOFF CONTINUES. Both Garcia and Magpale hold office in Cebu's provincial capitol. Garcia refuses to leave her office days after a suspension order was released. The capitol is the province's seat of power.