Anti-graft court justice in pork scam files

Rodneil Quiteles
Anti-graft court justice in pork scam files
The name of Sandiganbayan Justice Gregory Ong appears in the digital files of pork barrel scam whistleblower Benhur Luy
MANILA, Philippines – He first appeared in a photo with the alleged architect of the pork barrel scam, Janet Lim Napoles. Then his name appears among the numerous files of principal whistleblower Benhur Luy.

During the Senate probe into the pork barrel scandal, Luy mentioned anti-graft court Justice Gregory Ong as being among the frequent visitors to Napoles’ office. This prompted the Supreme Court (SC) to probe Ong’s alleged links to Napoles

Besides the photo with Napoles, Ong was also identified in a sworn affidavit by one of the whistleblowers as being a frequent guest in the Discovery Suites office of Napoles herself. Luy had testified before the Senate blue ribbon committee too on the supposed ties between Ong and Napoles.

The results of the SC probe are expected to be made public soon but the investigations might have excluded Luy’s digital files, copies of which were released on May 29, 2014 to the media by the Senate blue ribbon committee.

A thorough search of the files yielded at least one entry that pertained to Ong.

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 highly irregular Kevlar helmet case involving Napoles and her family was still being tried by Ong’s division in the Sandiganbayan. Six years later, in October 2010, Ong cleared Napoles in a graft case involving the procurement of sub-standard Kevlar helmets for the Marines.

Appointed by then president Joseph Estrada to the Sandiganbayan in 1998, Ong is the most senior member of the anti-graft court. The court will hear the plunder cases against Napoles, Senators Jinggoy Estrada, Juan Ponce Enrile, Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr, and their alleged conduits. Ong chairs the 4th division.

Recommendations to SC en banc

Retired SC justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez, who began the probe on Ong in January 2014, has wrapped up the inquiry on the administrative case and has submitted her recommendations to the SC en banc. Reached by phone, Gutierrez refused to disclose her findings, saying the final decision rests on the members of the High Tribunal.

As part of her investigations, 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.

She likewise asked for a copy of the undated photo published by Rappler showing Ong in a party with Napoles and Senator Estrada. (Editor’s note: Rappler’s Aries Rufo, who wrote the story that used the undated photo, was among those summoned by Gutierrez during the investigation.)

This is Ong’s second administrative case in a judicial career that has been marked by more than one controversy.

First controversy: Citizenship 

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.

(READ: SC bars Ong’s appointment as justice)

First administrative case

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.

The case was filed by Assistant Special Prosecutor Rohermia Jamsani-Rodriguez who accused the members of the 4th division of violating procedures in the conduct of trials and hearings which could be prejudicial to judicial interests.

The 3 members of the division allegedly violated collegiality by conducting hearings separately instead of sitting together during hearings and trials, as required by law. The two other members were Justices Jose Hernandez and Rodolfo Ponferrrada, who has since retired.

In her complaint, Rodriguez also accused Ong and Hernandez of gross abuse of authority by embarrassing lawyers and officials of the court in several instances.

On one occasion, Rodriguez recalled being berated by Ong during a hearing in Cebu in 2006. “We are playing gods here. We will do what we want to do, your contempt is already out, we fined you P18,000. Even if you will appeal, by the time I will be there, Justice of the Supreme Court,” Ong was quoted as saying.

In his reply to the complaint, Ong denied uttering such words but admitted to the Court that he occasionally asks lawyers appearing before the Court from what school they come from. He qualified however that such queries were made in jest to break the monotony in court trials.

Fined and warned

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.

The Court administrator also found them guilty of “conduct unbecoming” for improper performance in the court by asking lawyers about their educational background. “We point out that publicizing professional qualifications, no matter how prestigious, might have even revealed, on the part of Justice Ong and Justice Hernandez, their bias for or against some lawyers.”

“Judges should be dignified in demeanor and refined in speech. In performing their duties, they should not manifest bias or prejudice by word or conduct towards any person or group on irrelevant grounds. Their language must be guarded and measured, lest the best intentions be misconstrued,” the Court administrator said. Ong is a law graduate of San Beda College, while Hernandez is from the UP College of Law.

In its ruling dated August 2010, the SC sustained the recommendations of the Court administrator and penalized Ong with P15,000 “with a stern warning that a repetition of the same and similar offense shall be dealt with more severely.”

However, Hernandez and Ponferrada only got a slap on the wrist. Hernandez was admonished with a warning that a repetition of the offense would be dealt with more severely, while Ponferrada was cautioned “about the proper procedure to be taken in proceedings before his court.”

Ong sought a motion for reconsideration, asking the Court to exonerate him from the penalty. Instead, he got harsher words from the Tribunal.

“We have noted in the Decision that in the exercise of his powers, as chairman of the Fourth Division, Justice Ong exuded  an unexpectedly dismissive attitude towards the valid objections of the complainant, and steered his Division into the path of procedural irregularity; and wittingly failed to guarantee that proceedings of the Division that he chaired came within the bounds of substantive and procedural rules,” the High Court reiterated in its final resolution dated April 12, 2011.

Ties with Napoles?

It would not be the last time that Ong would have some explaining to do with the magistrates in Padre Faura.

At the height of the exposé on the abuse of the Priority Development Assistance Fund of lawmakers, Rappler published a photo of Ong partying with Napoles.

While the photo appeared harmless, it spoke volumes, given the context that Napoles and her brother Reynald Lim, aka Reynaldo Francisco, were both respondents in a malversation case involving the procurement of Kevlar helmets before the 4th division in which Ong served as chairman. (READ: Exclusive: Napoles parties with anti-graft court justice). Napoles was acquitted, but Reynald, along with his wife, Evelyn de Leon, were found guilty.

In January 2013, or a few months before the pork barrel scandal broke out, the 4th division granted the probation sought by Lim and De Leon, on grounds that they were first-time offenders. The probation order carried a warning that their temporary liberty would be revoked if they violated the conditions set, including not being involved in any criminal activities.

Lim is now in hiding after being indicted with his sister Napoles for the alleged illegal detention of Luy. A court employee of the 4th division told Rappler that Lim had been ordered by the court to explain why his probation should not be revoked.

It was not clear what action the 4th division had taken since all the documents pertaining to the Kevlar helmet case were secured by the SC. –

See related story:

  • Stacking the Court
    Not a single SC justice voted for Ong when he was nominated to the High Court. At Sandiganbayan, he even experienced being at the receiving end of SC’s admonitions, apart from his being reversed.

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