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Managing the harassment risk

(Article published in the Jan 11, 2006 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

Estate planning for most government employees, particularly those in the career service, is fairly straightforward.  Asset inventory is a yearly ritual since they are required by law to file their annual Statement of Assets and Liabilities.  Yearly accretions to wealth, if any, are easily forecasted because increase in net worth is mostly due to compensation and compensation for their services hardly change except for intermittent salary adjustments which come few and far between.  And the gratuity upon retirement is tax-free.  Hence, very little attention is given to the subject by estate planning practitioners.

 Often neglected therefore is the risk unique to the estate of government employees, except for those who may be removed from office only through impeachment, namely, the risk of being hailed unjustifiably before the Office of the Ombudsman.  The Ombudsman was conceived initially as an office that will assist in cutting through bureaucratic red tape in order to expedite the delivery of public services.  Local usage, however, inordinately focused on the prosecutory function of the Office and, in the hands of many, it was often turned into a fearsome instrument of harassment. With Philippine-style media almost invariably portraying respondents as wrong-doers, the mere fact of being asked to answer charges, no matter how baseless, promptly damages the government employee’s reputation and invariably prejudices his career opportunities.

 Fortunately, the Supreme Court recently came out with a decision that hopefully would temper the risk of being without sufficient reason made to answer accusations before the Ombudsman. In the case of Principio v. Barrientos, G.R. No. 167025, promulgated on 19 December 2005, the Supreme Court, through Justice Ynares-Santiago, laid out clearly how the Ombudsman ought to exercise his prosecutory discretion.  If law is a prediction of what the courts would say, then this decision ought to deter harassment-minded accusers from further engaging in the malicious mischief of bringing to the Office of the Ombudsman every government action that is not to their liking.










 

Herminio C. Principio is a bank examiner at the Supervisions and Examination Department IV of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP). On June 25, 2001, Hilario P. Soriano, president and stockholder of the Rural Bank of San Miguel, Inc. (RBSMI) accused him at the Office of the Ombudsman of violation of Section 3(e) of Republic Act (RA) No. 3019. Principio allegedly, through manifest partiality, evident bad faith and gross inexcusable negligence, caused undue injury to RBSMI by reporting that the bank incurred legal reserve deficiencies of P18 million from December 31, 1995 up to August 21, 1996 and P13 million from August 22, 1996 up to September 1, 1996, and by recommending the imposition of a fine in the amount of P2,538,000.00.  The recommendation was adopted by the Monetary Board in its Resolution No. 724 dated June 13, 1997.

 The Ombudsman was of the opinion that sufficient probable cause existed to warrant the filing of the appropriate information (which is legalese for a formal written accusation) in court.  Principio did not agree and the case went upwards through the judicial maze. When it reached the Supreme Court, the justices seized the opportunity exercise both their adjudicatory and teaching functions.

As teacher, for the guidance of bench and bar, the court laid out the principle that while it prefers to leave the Ombudsman to its own discretion in the exercise of its power to determine whether to prosecute or not, it will nevertheless not hesitate, in the exercise of its constitutionally defined “judicial power”, to make its presence felt on certain defined instances. 

 The court then proceeded to restate the instances it had already set out in Brocka v. Enrile (192 SCRA 183): (a) to afford adequate protection to the constitutional rights of the accused; (b) when necessary for the orderly administration of justice or to avoid oppression or multiplicity of actions; (c) when there is a pre-judicial question which is sub judice; (d) when the acts of the officer are without or in excess of authority; (e) where the prosecution is under an invalid law, ordinance or regulation; (f) when double jeopardy is clearly apparent; (g) where the court has no jurisdiction over the offense; (h) where it is a case of persecution rather than prosecution; (i) where the charges are manifestly false and motivated by the lust for vengeance; (j) when there is clearly no prima facie case against the accused and a motion to quash on that ground has been denied; and (k) when preliminary injunction has been issued by the Supreme Court to prevent the threatened unlawful arrest of petitioners. 

 Stressing what is already obvious to courts and lawyers, the Supreme Court cited the cases of Cabahug v. People (426 Phil. 490), Venus v. Hon. Desierto (358 Phil. 675), and Fernando v. Sandiganbayan (212 SCRA 680), where the court in fact substituted its judgment for that of the Ombudsman and ordered the dismissal of the cases that the Ombudsman had filed.  The clear message is that the court, aware of the harrowing experience that persons accused of crimes undergo during trial, think it is unjust to proceed with an unwarranted prosecution.

On the specific case of Principio, the court found that he performed his duties well, in good faith and in accordance with law, in fact vindicated by the acts of his superiors and eventually upheld by the court itself.  Hence, his going through the process of further prosecution made no sense at all.

  It is opportune that the Supreme Court once again took a strong stand against making the prosecutorial and judicial process, regardless of eventual merit of the case, instruments of harassment.  Government personnel, particularly employees and officers of regulatory agencies like the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, whose job it is to protect the public and not bend to the wishes of disgruntled and losing parties, ought to be shielded from malicious prosecution.  They are people too, with legitimate and sacred rights to their good reputation built over time and to the security of their future and their estates meager as they already are.

 

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