November 2008 - Philippine Supreme Court Decisions/Resolutions
G.R. No. 169888 - RAMON Y. TALAGA v. HON. SANDIGANBAYAN, ET AL.
[G.R. NO. 169888 : November 11, 2008]
RAMON Y. TALAGA, JR., City Mayor, Lucena City, Petitioner v. HON. SANDIGANBAYAN, 4th Division, and PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, Respondents.
D E C I S I O N
Herein special civil action for certiorari under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court seeks the nullification of the Resolution1 dated October 3, 2005 of the Sandiganbayan issued in Criminal Case No. 27738 - where Mayor Ramon Y. Talaga, Jr. (petitioner) and the City Councilors are prosecuted for violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act: Republic Act (R.A.) No. 3019, as amended.
The assailed Resolution ordered petitioner's preventive suspension for ninety (90) days in accordance with Section 13 of R.A. No. 3019.
The facts of the case:
Criminal and administrative complaints were filed by Elan Recreation, Inc. (ELAN) against petitioner with the Office of the Ombudsman. The complaints alleged that petitioner, in his capacity as mayor of the City of Lucena, had unlawfully granted favors to a third party with respect to the operation of bingo games in the city, to the damage and prejudice of the complainants.2
On May 23, 2003, the Office of the Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon recommended the dismissal of both the criminal and administrative complaints.3 However, the Ombudsman approved the dismissal of the administrative case but denied the dismissal of the criminal case.
As a result, the Office of the Special Prosecutor recommended the filing of three criminal charges for violation of R.A. No. 3019:
1. Criminal Case No. 27737. For causing undue injury to complainants when petitioner as mayor of Lucena City vetoed an ordinance granting a local franchise to the complainants to operate bingo games in the city;
2. Criminal Case No. 27738. For giving unwarranted benefits to Jose Sy Bang by approving an ordinance granting to Sy Bang a local franchise to operate bingo games in the city; andcralawlibrary
3. Criminal Case No. 27739. For causing undue injury to complainants when petitioner closed down their bingo operations temporarily. (Emphasis supplied)cralawlibrary
Petitioner filed a motion for reconsideration/reinvestigation4 questioning the finding of the Special Prosecutor. The Motion for Reconsideration was denied by the Office of the Ombudsman.
On May 17, 2003, petitioner filed a motion to quash the three informations.5 On February 9, 2004, the Sandinganbayan issued a Resolution6 quashing the Informations in Criminal Cases No. 27737 and 27739. However, it sustained the Information in Criminal Case No. 27738. In the said Resolution, respondent referred Criminal Case No. 27738 back to the Office of the Ombudsman and ordered the latter to conduct further preliminary investigation to determine the possible liability of the members of the City Council which passed Ordinance No. 1963 in said case.7
An Amended Information8 and Second Amended Information9 were filed by the prosecution in the Sandiganbayan. The first included the members of the City Council of Lucena City (City Councilors), as additional accused, while the Second Amended Information (Information) alleged conspiracy between petitioner and the City Councilors. Over the opposition10 of petitioner, the Sandiganbayan admitted both amended informations.11
On February 21, 2005, petitioner and the City Councilors filed a Motion to Quash12 the Information on the ground that there is no valid information on which the Sandiganbayan has a finding of probable cause because the second amended information's allegations do not constitute an offense, there being no violation of Presidential Decree (P.D.) No. 771 as it has no applicability to bingo operations and P.D. No. 771 has been superceded by P.D. No. 1869 and R.A. No 7160. The Sandiganbayna denied13 the petition and it likewise denied petitioner's Motion for Reconsideration.14
On June 29, 2005, petitioner and the City Councilors were arraigned in Criminal Case No. 27738 and all pleaded "not guilty".
On July 5, 2005, the prosecution filed a Motion to Suspend the Accused
x x x
WHEREFORE, the prosecution's motion for suspension pendente lite is hereby GRANTED, and accused Ramon Y. Talaga, Jr., Godofredo V. Faller, Danilo R. Zaballero, Salome S. Dato, Simon N. Aldovino, Wilfredo F. Asilo, and Aurora C. Garcia are hereby directed to CEASE and DESIST from further performing and/or exercising the functions, duties, and privileges of their positions as City Mayor, and City Councilors of Lucena City, respectively, or any other positions they may now or hereafter be holding effective immediately upon receipt hereof and continuing for a total period of ninety (90) days.17
Petitioner then filed the present Petition for Certiorari with an urgent application for the issuance of a temporary restraining order and/or preliminary injunction under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court. The Court issued a Temporary Restraining Order on November 9, 2005 enjoining public respondents from implementing the suspension of petitioner.18
Assailing his suspension, petitioner alleges:
THE PUBLIC RESPONDENT COMMITTED GRAVE ABUSE OF DISCRETION AMOUNTING TO LACK OR EXCESS OF JURISDICTION WHEN IN ABDICATION OF ITS CONSTITUTIONAL DUTY TO RESOLVE A JUDICIAL CONTROVERSY, IT IS MINISTERIAL DUTY TO ISSUE A PREVENTIVE SUSPENSION ORDER AGAINST THE PETITIONER AND THERE ARE NO IFS AND BUTS ABOUT IT.
ASSUMING THAT THE ISSUANCE OF THE PREVENTIVE SUSPENSION IS MANDATORY, THE HONORABLE SANDIGANBAYAN COMMITTED GRAVE ABUSE OF DISCRETION AMOUNTING TO EXCESS OR LACK OF JURISDICTION WHEN IT ORDERED THE SUSPENSION OF THE PETITIONER AS SECTION 13 OF REPUBLIC ACT NO. 3019, WHICH FORMS THE BASIS OF THE ORDER OF SUSPENSION, IS UNCONSTITUTIONAL ON THE GROUND THAT IT IMPINGES UPON THE EXCLUSIVE PREROGATIVE OF THE JUDICIARY.
THE HONORABLE SANDIGANBAYAN COMMITED GRAVE ABUSE OF DISCRETION AMOUNTING TO LACK OR EXCESS OF JURISDICTION WHEN IT ORDERED THE SUSPENSION OF HEREIN PETITIONER DESPITE THE FACT THAT THERE EXISTS NO VALID INFORMATION UNDER WHICH PETITIONER STANDS CHARGED.19
The petition is devoid of merit.
Petitioner argues that respondent committed grave abuse of discretion when in imposing the sanction of suspension, it only relied on the "mandatory" provision of Section 13 insensate to the weight and cogency of the peculiar circumstances of the case before it.20 Moreover, petitioner argues that the bare reliance of respondent on Section 13 without calibrating the weight of diverse and dueling evidence pertinent to the issue of appropriateness of ordering his suspension is a clear abdication of respondent's constitutional duty to exercise its judicial function.21 In addition, petitioner contends that respondent should have looked into the "environmental circumstances" of the case and thus it was unwarranted to apply the presumption in Bolastig v. Sandiganbayan22 that unless the accused is suspended, he may frustrate or commit further acts of malfeasance or do both.
Petitioner asks this Court to first look into the circumstances of the case and thereafter determine the propriety of issuing a suspension order. The Court could not be more explicit than its ruling in Segovia v. Sandiganbayan,23 thus:
Petitioners would now have this Court strike down these resolutions because supposedly rendered in excess of jurisdiction or with grave abuse of discretion. The Court will not do so. In no sense may the challenged resolutions be stigmatized as so clearly capricious, whimsical, oppressive, egregiously erroneous or wanting in logic as to call for invalidation by the extraordinary writ of certiorari . On the contrary, in promulgating those resolutions, the Sandiganbayan did but adhere to the clear command of the law and what it calls a "mass of jurisprudence" emanating from this Court, sustaining its authority to decree suspension of public officials and employees indicted before it. Indeed that the theory of "discretionary suspension" should still be advocated at this late date, despite the "mass of jurisprudence" relevant to the issue, is little short of amazing, bordering on contumacious disregard of the solemn magisterial pronouncements of the Highest Court of the land.24
x x x
While petitioners concede that this Court has "almost consistently ruled that the preventive suspension contemplated in Section 13 of RA 3019 is mandatory in character," they nonetheless urge the Court to consider their case an exception because of the "peculiar circumstances" thereof. They assert that the evils sought to be avoided by "separating a public official from the scene of his alleged misfeasance while the same is being investigated" - - e.g., "to preclude the abuse of the prerogative of (his) office, such as through intimidation of witnesses,"or the tampering with documentary evidence - - will not occur in the present situation where:
1. The Project has been canceled.
2. (Their) ** official duties no longer pertain, in any manner, to the prequalification of contractors dealing with NPC. Neither are they now involved in any bidding for or awarding of contracts, ** it (being) emphasized (in this connection) that they were merely designated as ad hoc members of the Committee without additional compensation for their additional duties.
3. All the relevant documentary evidence had been either submitted to the Ombudsman or to the Honorable Sandiganbayan.
They conclude that their preventive suspension "at this point would actually be purposeless, as there is no more need for precautionary measures against their abuse of the prerogatives of their office."
The arguments are not new. They have been advanced and rejected in earlier cases. They will again be so rejected in this case.
The Court's pronouncements in Bolastig v. Sandiganbayan, are germane:
x x x The fact is that the possibility that the accused would intimidate witnesses or otherwise hamper his prosecution is just one of the grounds for preventive suspension. The other one is, to prevent the accused from committing further acts of malfeasance while in office.25 (Emphasis supplied)cralawlibrary
Ineluctably, the theory of petitioner that "environmental circumstances" of the case should first be explored has no leg to stand on.
Section 13, R.A. No. 3019, otherwise known as the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, provides:
Suspension and loss of benefits. - Any public officer against whom any criminal prosecution under a valid information under this Act or under the provisions of the Revised Penal Code on bribery is pending in court, shall be suspended from office. Should he be convicted by final judgment, he shall lose all retirement or gratuity benefits under any law, but if he is acquitted, he shall be entitled to reinstatement and to salaries and benefits which he failed to receive during suspension, unless in the meantime administrative proceedings have been filed against him. (Emphasis supplied)cralawlibrary
In Beroña v. Sandiganbayan,26 the Court explicitly ruled:
Section 13 is so clear and explicit that there is hardly room for any extended court rationalization of the law. Section 13 unequivocally mandates the suspension of a public official from office pending a criminal prosecution under R.A. 3019 or Title 7, Book II of the Revised Penal Code or for any offense involving public funds or property or fraud on government. This Court has repeatedly held that such preventive suspension is mandatory, and there are no "ifs" and "buts" about it.
As early as Luciano v. Mariano,27 the Court has set out the guidelines to be followed by the lower courts in the exercise of the power of suspension, to wit:
x x x
(c) By way of broad guidelines for the lower courts in the exercise of the power of suspension from office of public officers charged under a valid information under the provisions of Republic Act No. 3019 or under the provisions of the Revised Penal Code on bribery, pursuant to section 13 of said Act, it may be briefly stated that upon the filing of such information, the trial court should issue an order with proper notice requiring the accused officer to show cause at a specific date of hearing why he should not be ordered suspended from office pursuant to the cited mandatory provisions of the Act. Where either the prosecution seasonably files a motion for an order of suspension or the accused in turn files a motion to quash the information or challenges the validity thereof, such show-cause order of the trial court would no longer be necessary. What is indispensable is that the trial court duly hear the parties at a hearing held for determining the validity of the information, and thereafter hand down its ruling, issuing the corresponding order of suspension should it uphold the validity of the information or withhold such suspension in the contrary case.
(d) No specific rules need be laid down for such pre-suspension hearing. Suffice it to state that the accused should be given a fair and adequate opportunity to challenge the validity of the criminal proceedings against him, e.g., that he has not been afforded the right of due preliminary investigation, the act for which he stands charged do not constitute a violation of the provisions of Republic Act No. 3019 or of bribery provisions of the Revised Penal Code which would warrant his mandatory suspension from office under Section 13 of the Act, or he may present a motion to quash the information on any of the grounds provided in the Rule 117 of the Rules of Court. The mandatory suspension decreed by the act upon determination of the pendency in court or criminal prosecution for violation of the Anti-Graft Act or for bribery under a valid information requires at the same time that the hearing be expeditious, and not unduly protracted such as to thwart the prompt suspension envisioned by the Act. Hence, if the trial court, say, finds the ground alleged in the quashal motion not to be indubitable, then it shall be called upon to issue the suspension order upon its upholding the validity of the information and setting the same for trial on the merits.28 (Emphasis and underscoring supplied)cralawlibrary
Stated differently, the purpose of the law in requiring a pre-suspension hearing is to determine the validity of the information so that the court can have a basis to either suspend the accused and proceed with the trial on the merits of the case, or withhold the suspension and dismiss the case, or correct any part of the proceedings that impairs its validity. That hearing is similar to a challenge to the validity of the information by way of a motion to quash.29 In this case, respondent had determined the validity of the Information when petitioner filed his Motion to Quash. The hearings or proceedings held thereon, in effect, constituted a pre-suspension hearing. Respondent has followed the dictates of the law.
This brings the Court to petitioner's third assigned error that there is no valid Information under which petitioner stands charged.
In effect, petitioner is stating once again that the allegations in the Information do not constitute an offense. Petitioner is holding on to a thin straw in claiming that the Information is fatally defective since it failed to allege that petitioner by enacting and approving Ordinance No. 1963 had "caused injury to any party, whether the government or private party", an essential element in the crime charged.
The Information reads:
That on or about June 5, 2000, or sometime prior or subsequent thereto, in Lucena City, Philippines and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused RAMON TALAGA, JR., being the City Mayor of Lucena, Quezon and GODOFREDO V. FALLER, VICTOR U. PAULO, DANILO R. ZABALLERO, SALOME S. DATO, SIMON N. ALDOVINO, WILFREDO F. ASILO, PHILIP M. CASTILLO, AURORA C. GARCIA, ROMANO FRANCO C. TALAGA, being members of the City Council of Lucena City, while in the performance of their official and/or administrative functions, committing the offense in relation to their office, did then and there willfully, unlawfully, and criminally, with evident bad faith and/or manifest partiality, conspiring, confederating and mutually helping such other, give unwarranted benefit to Jose Sy Bang of Lucena City, by then and there, in conspiracy with each other, by enacting and approving Ordinance No. 1963, series of 2000 dated June 5, 2000 granting unto the said Jose Sy Bang a local franchise to operate a bingo business in Lucena City in violation of Presidential decree No. 771. (Emphasis supplied)cralawlibrary
Section 3(e) of R.A. No. 3019, under which petitioner is charged, provides:
Section 3. Corrupt practices of public officers. - In addition to acts or omissions of public officers already penalized by existing law, the following shall constitute corrupt practices of any public officer and are hereby declared to be unlawful:
x x x
(e) Causing any undue injury to any party, including the Government, or giving any private party any unwarranted benefits, advantage or preference in the discharge of his official, administrative or judicial functions through manifest partiality, evident bad faith or gross inexcusable negligence. This provision shall apply to officers and employees charged with the grant of licenses or permits or other concessions. (Emphasis and underscoring supplied)cralawlibrary
Contrary to the argument of petitioner, the law does not require that the information must allege that the acts in question "caused injury to any party, whether the government or private party." The presence of the word "or" clearly shows that there are two acts which can be prosecuted under Section 3: First, causing any undue injury to any party, including the government, and, Second, giving any private party any unwarranted benefits, advantages or preference. Moreover, in Quibal v. Sandiganbayan,30 the Court ruled that violation of Section 3 (e) of R.A. No. 3019 requires proof of the following facts:
x x x
1. His action caused undue injury to the Government or any private party, or gave any party any unwarranted benefit, advantage or preference to such parties.31
Section 9, Rule 110, Rules of Court provides the guideline for the determination of the validity or sufficiency of allegations in an information, to wit:
SECTION 9. Cause of the Accusation. - The acts or omissions complained of as constituting the offense and the qualifying and aggravating circumstances must be stated in ordinary and concise language and not necessarily in the language used in the statute but in terms sufficient to enable a person of common understanding to know what offense is being charged as well as its qualifying and aggravating circumstances and for the court to pronounce judgment. (Emphasis supplied)cralawlibrary
The test is whether the crime is described in intelligible terms with such particularity as to appraise the accused, with reasonable certainty, of the offense charged. The raison d'etre of the rule is to enable the accused to suitably prepare his defense.32
Based on the foregoing test, the Information sufficiently apprises petitioner of the charges against him. The Information charged the petitioner of evident bad faith and manifest partiality when as Mayor of Lucena City, petitioner, in conspiracy with the City Council, gave unwarranted benefits to Jose Sy Bang. Moreover, it states the specific act which constituted the giving of unwarranted benefits, namely, granting unto the said Jose Sy Bang a local franchise to operate a bingo business in Lucena City in violation of existing laws. These allegations are clear enough for a layman to understand.
Finally, petitioner's second assigned error deserves scant consideration. The validity of Section 13, R.A. No. 3019 may no longer be put at issue, the same having been repeatedly upheld by this Court.33 Basic is the rule that every law has in its favor the presumption of constitutionality, and to justify its nullification, there must be a clear and unequivocal breach of the Constitution, and not one that is doubtful, speculative or argumentative.34
The Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act implicitly recognizes that the power of preventive suspension lies in the court in which the criminal charge is filed; once a case is filed in court, all other acts connected with the discharge of court functions - including preventive suspension - should be acknowledged as within the competence of the court that has taken cognizance thereof, no violation of the doctrine of separation of powers being perceivable in that acknowledgement.35 As earlier mentioned, the court must first determine the validity of the information through a pre-suspension hearing. But once a proper determination of the validity of the information has been made, it becomes the ministerial duty of the court to forthwith issue the order of preventive suspension.36
WHEREFORE, the instant petition is DISMISSED, there being no showing that the Sandiganbayan gravely abused its discretion in issuing its Resolution of October 3, 2005, preventively suspending the petitioner for ninety (90) days. The Temporary Restraining Order dated November 9, 2005 is lifted.
* In lieu of Justice Consuelo Ynares-Santiago, per Raffle dated October 13, 2008.
** In lieu of Justice Minita V. Chico-Nazario, per Raffle dated October 13, 2008.
*** In lieu of Justice Ruben T. Reyes, per Special Order No. 521.
1 Penned by Associate Justice Rodolfo A. Ponferrada with the concurrence of Associate Justice Gregory S. Ong (Chairman) and Associate Justice Jose. R. Hernandez; rollo, pp. 45-58
2 Rollo, p. 310.
3 Id. at 59-69, 71-82.
4 Id. at 83-108.
5 Id. at 311.
6 Id. at 137-147.
7 Rollo, p. 383.
8 Id. at 166-168.
9 Id. at 169-171.
10 Id. at 172-193.
11 Id. at 194-195.
12 Id. at 196-209.
13 Id. at 217-225.
14 Id. at 226-229.
15 Rollo, pp. 240-244.
16 Id. at 245-249.
17 Id. at 57.
18 Id. at 250.
19 Rollo, pp. 14-15.
20 Id. at 17.
24 Segovia v. Sandiganbayan, supra note 23, at 336.
25 Id. at 340-341.
28 Luciano v. Mariano, supra note 27, at 202-203.
29 Socrates v. Sandiganbayan, 324 Phil. 151 (1996).
31 Quibal v. Sandiganbayan, supra note 30, at 231.
33 Segovia v. Sandiganbayan, supra note 23, at 336.
34 La Bugal-Balaan Tribal Association, Inc. v. Ramos, G.R. No. 127882, January 27, 2004, 421 SCRA 148, 247.
35 Segovia v. Sandiganbayan, supra note 23, at 337.
36 La Bugal-Balaan Tribal Association, Inc. v. Ramos, supra note 34, at 177.