CA leaves it to Ombudsman to resolve P125-M PCG funds mess

Lian Buan

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CA leaves it to Ombudsman to resolve P125-M PCG funds mess
The Court of Appeals 'warns' Coast Guard officers 'not to abuse the court process'

MANILA, Philippines – Because of simultaneous filings by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) officers, the Court of Appeals (CA) has now left it up to the Office of the Ombudsman to decide the fate of those involved in a P125-million ($2.35)* funds mess, as it sets aside an earlier decision that downgraded their charges.

The Ombudsman already cleared Commodores Teotimo Borja Jr and Enrico Efren Evangelista as well as Captains Noli Casino, Ramon Reblora, and Angelito Gil. But it overlapped with a CA decision that only downgraded the charges.

The PCG officers want their Ombudsman exoneration to prevail, but because their simultaneous appeals before the two bodies yielded different results, they will now have to await another decision to befall them.

The CA warned the officers “not to abuse the court processes and to observe candor” after the parties filed simultaneous petitions before the appellate court and the Office of the Ombudsman.

“It is an abuse of the court’s processes and improper conduct that tends to impede, obstruct, and degrade the administration of justice and is punishable by contempt of court,” the CA’s former special 9th Division said in a decision dated June 6, penned by Associate Justice Maria Elisa Sempio Diy, with concurrences from Associate Justices Mariflor Punzalan-Castillo and Ricardo Rosario.

Borja, who was just newly promoted, was suspended on June 1 for a completely different case, according to a document obtained by Rappler.

The P125-million procurement funds issue adds up to the corruption mess that hounds the PCG.

What is the case? In 2010, state auditors flagged the PCG’s use of a P125-million allocation for the procurement of Special Maritime Advance Rescue Team (SMART) equipment.

Auditors said there were irregularities such as short deliveries, inappropriate posting of bids, improper biddings, and grossly disadvantageous deals.

It involved two bids and awards committees or BAC, one headed by retired Admiral Rodolfo Isorena, and the other by Commodore Enrico Efren Evangelista.

What is the issue? In November 2015, the Ombudsman found the officers guilty of grave misconduct and dismissed them from service. They appealed their dismissal. 

They filed a motion for reconsideration before the Office of the Ombudsman, and at the same time, a petition for review at the CA. 

But the CA did not know the simultaneous filing. On June 9, 2017, the appellate court downgraded the administrative charges against them. The CA only suspended them for 6 months for simple misconduct.

As we now know, Borja would go on to be promoted from captain to commodore, even as he faced another suspension order in the P27-million ($507,149.25) cash advances mess.

On June 8, 2017 – one day before the CA decision – the officers were notified that as early as December 21, 2016, the Office of the Ombudsman had granted their appeal and exonerated them completely.

The officers filed a manifestation to the court and requested that they nullify their downgrade of charges, so that what would stand would be their Ombudsman exoneration.

However, sought for comment, the Office of the Ombudsman said that its December 21, 2016 exoneration was not “binding upon the petitioners who filed petitions for review before this Court.”

“This is due to the fact that upon petitioners’ filing of petitions for review sometime in August 2016, jurisdiction over the persons of the petitioners as to the case had been acquired by this Court,” the Ombudsman said.

It added: “The Ombudsman already lost jurisdiction over them at the time the December 21, 2016 order was issued. Accordingly, it is the decision of this Court that should be applied to petitioners.”

What did the CA say? The Ombudsman asked the CA to enforce its June 9, 2017 decision suspending the petitioners for simple misconduct.

The CA said that the simultaneous filing constitutes forum shopping. The CA also said that the petitioners lied in their compliance when they declared that there wasn’t any other pending proceeding.

“This Court finds such conduct and lack of candor appalling,” the CA said.

The CA denied the requests of both the petitioners and the Ombudsman. It also set aside its June 9, 2017 decision. 

The CA did not mention whether it was sustaining the Ombudsman exoneration, which means that the ball is in the court of the Office of the Ombudsman to decide – and with only a month to go before Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales retires.

Commander Ramon Lopez had joined the petition, but the CA said: “For purposes of clarification, we note that petitioner Commander Ramon Lopez is not completely exonerated from administrative charges as he was found by respondent Office of the Ombudsman liable for gross neglect of duty in the Order dated December 21, 2016.”

It is unclear whether the officers were ever suspended back in June 2017. But as of now, Borja, Rear Admiral Athelo Ybañez, Commodore Joselito Dela Cruz, Captains Julius Caesar Victor Marvin Lim, Juancho Marano, Tito Alvin Andal, Commander Christine Pauline Diciano, and Lieutenant Commander Fatima Aleli Angeles are suspended for 6 months, over the P27-million cash advances mess. 

The PCG Commandant enforced the Ombudsman suspension on June 1, only after a month since Morales issued the order on April 30.

*US$1 = P53.24

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.