THE Supreme Court (SC) on Tuesday dismissed Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Gregory Ong for gross misconduct, dishonesty and impropriety, saying his links with Janet Lim-Napoles dragged the judiciary into the pork barrel controversy.
It was the first time in the 40-year history of the anti-graft court that a magistrate was stripped of his robes.
Ong, the most senior justice at the Sandiganbayan, was investigated by the tribunal early this year for his alleged ties with Napoles. Pork scam witnesses Benhur Luy and Marina Sula had claimed that Ong was Napoles’ contact at the anti-graft court.
The SC also forfeited Ong’s retirement benefits. The decision is immediately executory.
Ong was also barred from seeking employment in any government office, including government-owned and controlled corporations.
“[A] judge must not only be impartial but must also appear to be impartial and that fraternizing with litigants tarnishes this appearance; it is also stressed that the rule on propriety extended beyond the time that a judge had already ruled on a pending litigation . . . it does not matter that the case is no longer pending when improper acts were committed by the judge,” the High Court said in its decision.
“Because magistrates are under constant public scrutiny, the termination of a case will not deter public criticisms for acts which may cause suspicion on its disposition or resolution. The court found that Justice Ong’s misconduct could not be considered ‘simple’ because his association with Napoles had dragged the judiciary into the ‘pork barrel’ controversy, which initially involved only legislative and executive officials; further, the court also considered that Napoles’ contact in the judiciary turned out to be no less that a justice of the Sandiganbayan, the special court tasked with hearing graft cases,” it added.
The eight justices who voted to dismiss Ong are Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, Justices Arturo Brion, Mariano del Castillo, Martin Villarama Jr., Estela Perlas-Bernabe, Marvic Leonen and Francis Jardeleza.
Five justices dissented—Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr., Jose Perez, Jose Mendoza, Lucas Bersamin and Bienvenido Reyes.
Justices Teresita Leonardo-de Castro and Diosdado Peralta recused themselves since both were former justices at the anti-graft court.
On Monday, Ong submitted a letter to the Supreme Court requesting that he be allowed to retire early. He maintained that he had done no wrong or committed grave misconduct.
Reports on Ong’s alleged links with Napoles prompted the SC to initiate an administrative case against him. The investigation was led by retired Associate Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez.
Ong, who was appointed associate justice by then-President Joseph Estrada on October 5, 1998, is the chairman of the Sandiganbayan’s Fourth Division. In 2010, his division acquitted Napoles in the malversation charges filed against her over the allegedly anomalous purchase of 500 Kevlar helmets in 1998 by the military.
He is scheduled to retire on May 25, 2023 when he reaches 70.
Supreme Court Administrator Theodore Te said the justices took into serious consideration the testimonies of Luy and Sula.
“The court noted that the testimonies of Luy and Sula showed that Ong was in contact with Napoles during the pendency of the Kevlar case and while the evidence was insufficient to sustain the bribery and corruption charges as both Luy and Sula did not witness Ong actually receiving money from Napoles, the court nonetheless found credible evidence of Ong’s association with Napoles after the promulgation of the Kevlar case,” Te added.
The SC decision will be released per curiam (by the court) without naming the ponente.
A court insider, however, said the ponente was Villarama, who adopted the recommendation of Gutierrez to sack Ong.
The SC imposed a heavier penalty against Ong because of his previous infractions.
In 2010, the High Court fined Ong P15,000 for unbecoming conduct for violating the Revised Internal Rules of the Sandiganbayan. He was penalized for holding hearings individually instead of hearing a case as a collegial body in Davao City.
In 2007, then-President Gloria Arroyo named Ong as associate justice of the Supreme Court.
The SC, however, rejected his appointment because questions were raised about his citizenship.It later declared the Sandiganbayan magistrate a natural-born Filipino citizen.
In her report to the SC en banc, Gutierrez pointed out that Ong had visited Napoles in her office on two occasions after handing down the decision in the Kevlar case but the magistrate did not disclose these visits in his letter to the Chief Justice dated September 26, 2013.
Gutierrez’s report also noted that Luy and Sula, who were summoned by the SC, “testified in a candid, straightforward and categorical manner” and their testimonies were “instantaneous, clear, unequivocal and carried with [them]the ring of truth.”
The SC, in its decision, took note of Gutierrez’s findings that Ong’s “act of voluntarily meeting with Napoles at her office on two occasions was grossly improper and violated Section 1, Canon 4 (Propriety) of the New Code of Judicial Conduct.”
“The court noted that the ‘totality of the circumstances of such association [with Napoles]strongly indicates Ong’s corrupt inclinations that only heightened the public’s perception of anomaly in the decision-making process.’”
“By his act of going to Napoles at her office on two occasions, Ong exposed himself to the suspicion that he was partial to Napoles. That Ong was not the ponente of the decision, which was rendered by a collegial body, did not forestall such suspicion of partiality, as evident from the public disgust generated by the publication of a photograph of Ong together with Napoles and Sen. [Jose] “Jinggoy” Estrada,” the High Court said.