MANILA, Philippines – Up until Tuesday, just as 13 members of the Supreme Court were about to make a final deliberation on the fate of Sandiganbayan Justice Gregory Ong, the odds were still slightly in favor of the magistrate who, at one time, aspired to be a member of the High Tribunal.
Just before they sat down for their en banc deliberation, the Court was still evenly split down the line on what penalty to impose. Six wanted to sustain retired SC Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez’ recommendation of dismissal and another 6 wanted only to impose the lighter penalty of suspension. (READ: SC dismisses anti-graft court justice linked to Napoles)
Gutierrez began the probe on Ong in January 2014 and submitted her report to the en banc as early as May. She recommended Ong’s dismissal after finding evidence of gross misconduct, dishonesty, and impropriety resulting from his association with Napoles.
One justice wanted the case reinvestigated, which would have been a good sign for the embattled anti-graft justice.
Two justices – Teresita Leonardo-de Castro and Diosdado Peralta – had earlier recused from participating in Ong’s case because he was a former colleague of theirs in the anti-graft court.
That the Court could not arrive at a majority decision on Ong’s case, and even postponing voting several times, reflected the division in the justices’ respective positions.
When the vote was counted, 8 magistrates voted for dismissal. They were Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, and Justices Antonio Carpio, Arturo Brion, Martin Villarama Jr, Estela Perlas-Bernabe, Marvic Leonen, Mariano del Castilo and Francis Jardeleza.
The dissenting 5 who voted for suspension were Justices Presbitero Velasco, Lucas Bersamin, Jose Perez, Jose Mendoza, and Bienvenido Reyes.
Who were the two justices who delivered the final blow to Ong? They were Justices Jardeleza and Del Castillo.
Revert to Gutierrez
Considered a swing vote, the newly-appointed Jardeleza had wanted the case returned to Gutierrez to determine whether Ong actually received bribes from Napoles as alleged by pork barrel principal whistleblower Benhur Luy.
Luy had claimed that Ong was Napoles’ contact in the Sandiganbayan and was the key behind the tempered ruling on the Marines’ Kevlar helmet case where Napoles was also dragged.
Based on Jardeleza’s position before Tuesday’s vote, he was still unconvinced that Ong was guilty as charged.
Del Castillo, for his part, was perceived to be with the group favoring mere suspension for Ong, but had not yet made up his mind. But like Jardeleza, he voted with the majority.
A court insider told Rappler it was Villarama who argued for dismissal while Bersamin took up the cudgels for Ong. After the deliberation and just before the voting, it was still anybody’s guess which side would prevail.
In the end, Del Castillo and Jardeleza voted for Ong’s dismissal.
Last minute bargaining
What could have prompted the change of position for Del Castillo and Jardeleza to tilt balance against Ong?
Ong had reportedly sought to negotiate a graceful exit based on his own terms, which, according to a Sandiganbayan justice, was “ill-advised.”
Ong wrote a letter to the SC offering to resign provided he “be cleared” first. He also told the Court he would hang his robe ahead of his retirement. Ong is set to retire in May 2023.
“It was a conditional resignation where he was not in a position to negotiate,” commented the Sandiganbayan justice. In the first place, there is no question that Ong is guilty of violating the code of conduct for judicial officials and what was being deliberated on was what penalty to impose.
As early as December 2013, Ong had been advised to make a graceful exit from the Sandiganbayan after reports surfaced about his links with Napoles. Another colleague in the anti-graft court, however, who is a close friend of Ong, advised him “to fight it out.”
It was Ong’s letter, which implies admission of guilt, that gave Chief Justice Sereno additional ground to convince Del Castillo and perhaps, Jardeleza, to vote for his dismissal, the source said.
Victory for judiciary
Sought for comment, Gutierrez said the SC move “is a victory to the entire judiciary” in terms of efforts to clean up.
“It should serve as a reminder to members of the judiciary that we have limitations, that we have to observe the canons of legal ethics,” Gutierrez said.
The campaign against corruption in the judiciary should not stop with Ong, she added.
A member of the anti-graft court however sees Ong’s dismissal as another black-eye for the Court. “By presumption, it casts doubt on the integrity of the other members of the Sandiganbayan,” the magistrate said.
Ong, an appointee of former president Joseph Estrada, is the first Sandiganbayan justice ordered dismissed by the High Court.
This is not the first time that the Court dismissed a high-ranking member. In 2008, Court of Appeals Justice Vicente Roxas was removed from office following the bribery scandal on the GSIS-Meralco row. – Rappler.com
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