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EN BANC

A. M. No. P-01-1453 - May 27, 2004
(Formerly A.M. OCA IPI No. 99-636-P)

Executive Judge BENJAMIN M. AQUINO, JR., Complainant, vs. BETHSAIDA M. MIRANDA, Clerk III, Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 54, Navotas, Metro Manila, respondent.

D E C I S I O N

PER CURIAM:

This administrative case originated from a Report dated 13 April 1999 Executive Judge Benjamin M. Aquino, Jr.1 ("Executive Judge Aquino") submitted to then Court Administrator Alfredo L. Benipayo ("Court Administrator Benipayo"). In his Report, Executive Judge Aquino recommended the investigation of respondent Bethsaida M. Miranda ("respondent") for serious misconduct while Clerk III of Branch 54, Metropolitan Trial Court of Navotas, Metro Manila ("MeTC Branch 54").

On 11 March 1999, Executive Judge Aquino conducted an inventory of the records of MeTC Branch 54 on an administrative case2 that led to the dismissal of Judge Reynold Q. Yaneza ("Judge Yaneza"). The Court found that Judge Yaneza irregularly approved bail bonds and irregularly issued release orders in violation of Section 17, Rule 114 of the Rules on Criminal Procedure.

During the inventory, Executive Judge Aquino found pre-signed and pre-notarized bail bonds in blank inside the drawer of respondents filing cabinet. In his Report, Executive Judge Aquino stated:

1. Blank forms of personal bail bonds of Wellington Insurance Company already duly signed by the persons authorized to do so who affixed their signatures over the typewritten words "authorized signature" and "counter signature", with the following Numbers 04196, 04197, 04198, 04199 and 04200, along with forms relative to the application of bail bonds, the latter forms being 20 in number.

Make it also of record that the blank forms of personal bail bonds bear the signature of notary public Atty. Jonas Giovanni Lisaca with all entries on the notarization side of document being in blank but duly sealed already.

In separate envelope was found 1st Indorsement dated July 30, 1998 of Judge Yaneza with certification by Bethsaida Miranda re: bail bond for one Honesim[o] B. Hefi to be sent to the Municipal Trial Judge of Baao, Camarines Sur. Attached to the Indorsement are the personal bail bond posted by Mega Pacific Insurance for accused Hefi in the amount of P12,000.00 duly signed and approved by Judge Yaneza and other supporting papers.

In the third envelope is another containing bail bond No. 01890 for one Allan Castro. In Criminal Case No. 98036 of the Navotas Metropolitan Trial Court, although only a form without signature bearing signatures thereto by the officers of the Wellington Insurance Company.

Also found is another personal bail bond form No. 01886 of the Wellington Insurance Company wherein the name Nenita Salvador has already been typed and obviously for Criminal Case No. 0035 and other forms clearances, warrant for the arrest of Gloria S. Ascano, and a "receipt" dated February 12, 1999 signed by one V. Lontoc for Bethsaida Miranda are the personal bail bonds Nos. 101886 to 01890 (Wellington) and other application forms for bail bond some accomplished and a Certificate of Detention issued by the Jail Warden of Navotas Municipal Jail and supporting papers for the bail bonds (sic).3

Executive Judge Aquino also reported that a court employee saw respondent bring out of the office court records wrapped in newspaper. The court employee saw respondent hand this newspaper-wrapped bundle to another court employee, Armando Aquino. The two then left in a tricycle.

Questioned during the inventory, Armando Aquino admitted receiving the newspaper-wrapped bundle but claimed he did not know its contents. He added, however, that he and respondent met that same day with Judge Yaneza to whom respondent turned over the newspaper-wrapped bundle. When Judge Yaneza opened the newspaper-wrapped bundle in front of them, Armando Aquino was surprised to see that it contained the records of two cases, People v. Conghe and Pascual v. Basbas, et al.

Also during the inventory, Legal Researcher Evelyn Atienza received a phone call from Judge Yaneza who said that he had in his possession the records of two cases that he was working on. But because of his dismissal from the service, Judge Yaneza said he would return the two records to the court. The two cases Judge Yaneza referred to were People v. Conghe and Pascual v. Basbas, et al. Judge Yaneza subsequently returned to MeTC Branch 54 the records of these two cases.

In his Report, Executive Judge Aquino stated that respondents actuations, "while not absolute proof of her complicity in the activities for which Judge Yaneza was dismissed from the service, are strong indications that she engaged in activities relative to the posting of bail bonds." Executive Judge Aquino pointed out that respondents unauthorized removal of court records from court premises, and delivery of the records to a dismissed judge, were clear violations of operating procedures. Executive Judge Aquino recommended that the matter be investigated further.

In his 1st Indorsement dated 21 June 1999, Court Administrator Benipayo directed respondent to comment on the Report of Executive Judge Aquino charging her with grave misconduct.

Respondent filed her Comment on 12 October 1999 maintaining that "not a single piece of concrete evidence was produced to link her to the anomalous conduct involving bail bond transactions that led to the dismissal of Metropolitan Trial Court Judge Reynold Q. Yaneza." Respondent denied the allegations in the Report and denounced it as untrue and without basis. Respondent claimed that the Report is "very vague" and failed to state exactly what it was that she brought outside of court premises. Respondent also alleged that Roman Gatbalite ("Gatbalite"), Clerk of Court of MeTC Branch 54, instigated the complaint because he wanted to blacken her reputation. Finally, respondent maintains that she committed no wrongdoing since all the subject records were eventually recovered.

On 20 November 2000, the OCA recommended re-docketing of the matter as an administrative case and its referral to one of OCAs consultants for investigation, report and recommendation.

On 15 January 2001, the Court resolved to adopt the OCAs recommendations.

The OCA, through its Investigator, retired Court of Appeals Justice Pedro A. Ramirez ("Investigator Ramirez"), issued an Order dated 13 February 2001 setting the case for hearing on the 6th and 13th of March 2001.

The hearing did not push through due to the inability to serve notice on respondent. Investigator Ramirez then issued an Order dated 8 March 2001 directing Gatbalite, the Branch Clerk of MeTC Branch 54, to inform him within ten days of the status or whereabouts of respondent.

On 20 March 2001, Gatbalite wrote Investigator Ramirez that respondent was detailed in the Office of the Clerk of Court, Metropolitan Trial Court of Malabon, Metro Manila ("MeTC Malabon"). Gatbalite explained that Executive Judge Aquino authorized the detail in a Memorandum dated 23 April 1999 on verbal instruction of Court Administrator Benipayo.

Investigator Ramirez then issued an Order dated 22 March 2001 re-setting the case for hearing on the 18th and 19th of April 2001. However, because the notice of hearing was sent erroneously to MeTC Branch 54 in Navotas, Investigator Ramirez ordered the resetting of the hearing to the 26th and 27th of June 2001, which was again reset to the 24th and 25th of July 2001.

Respondent failed to appear on both hearing dates. Thus, in an Order dated 25 July 2001, Investigator Ramirez reset the hearing to the 14th and 15th of August 2001. He also directed Emelita R. Trinidad ("Trinidad"), Clerk of Court of MeTC Malabon, to serve a copy of the Order to respondent, submit a compliance report and inform him on whether respondent continues to report to MeTC Malabon.

On 3 August 2001, the sheriff of MeTC Malabon, Alejandro C. Provido submitted a return stating that he could not serve respondent a copy of the Order dated 25 July 2001 because respondent no longer resided at her address in Navotas.

On 6 August 2001, Clerk of Court Trinidad reported to Investigator Ramirez that respondent, after her detail to MeTC Malabon in April or May 1999, filed an application for leave of absence for the months of April or May until June 1999. Trinidad added that respondent filed an application for optional retirement sometime in May or June 1999, effective 1 July 1999.

Due to respondents repeated failure to appear at the hearings, Investigator Ramirez issued an Order dated 15 August 2001 stating that respondent is deemed to have waived her presence and right to present evidence in her behalf. The Order also stated that Investigator Ramirez would submit the required report based on the records of the case. Copies of this order were sent to all the addresses of respondent available on record, all of them returning unserved.

In his Report dated 12 February 2003, Investigator Ramirez recommended the dismissal of respondent for grave misconduct. He also highlighted respondents repeated failure to attend the hearings of the case. The Report stated in part:

Indeed, respondents unexplained possession in the drawer of the filing cabinet she alone was using of the following:

1. blank forms of personal bail bond of the bonding company already signed by authorized persons, along with twenty (2[0]) application forms of bail bonds;

2. blank forms of personal bail bonds bearing the signature of notary public Jonas Giovanni Lisaca, all entries on the notarization side of the documents in blank but already sealed;

3. first indorsement dated July 30, 1998 of Judge Yaneza with respondents certification of the bail bond for one Honesimo B. Hefi for transmittal to the Judge of the Metropolitan Trial Court of Baao, Camarines Sur; the personal bail bond posted by Mega Pacific Insurance for accused Hefi in the amount of P12,000 approved by Judge Yaneza;

4. bail bond No. 01890 for one Allan Castro in Criminal Case No. 98036 of the Metropolitan Trial Court of Navotas on a form without the signature of the authorized officer of Wellington Insurance Company; and

5. personal bail bond form bearing No. 01886 of Wellington Insurance Company issued in the name of Nenita Salvador typewritten on it obviously to be filed in Criminal Case No. 0035, together with forms for clearances, warrant for the arrest of Gloria S. Ascano and "receipt" dated February 12, 1999 signed by one V. Lontoc for Bethsaida Miranda, personal bail bond Nos. 101886 to 101890 (W[e]llington) and other application forms for bail bond, some accomplished, and a certificate of detention issued by Jail Warden of Navotas Municipal Jail and supporting papers for the bail bonds.

is proof of the misconduct she has committed for which she should be meted out the corresponding penalty.

WHEREFORE, it is respectfully recommended that respondent Bethsaida M. Miranda, Clerk III, Metropolitan Trial Court, Branch 54, Navotas, Metro Manila, be declared guilty of misconduct in office for which she should be dismissed from the service.

We agree with the findings, conclusions and recommendations of Investigator Ramirez.

We adopt the findings of Executive Judge Aquino in his Report dated 13 April 1999. Respondent had several opportunities to refute the charge of serious misconduct against her but respondent chose to disappear. Other than submitting a Comment on the Report of Executive Judge Aquino, respondent lost any interest in substantiating her defense. Her repeated failure to attend the hearings amounts to a waiver of her right to present evidence in her behalf. In any event, the records of this administrative case sufficiently provide a conclusive basis to hold respondent liable for serious misconduct.

Respondents assertion that not a single piece of "concrete evidence" was presented to prove the charge against her is false. This case is an offshoot of the administrative case that led to Judge Yanezas dismissal, respondents superior. That case centered on Judge Yanezas irregular issuance of bail bonds. After Judge Yanezas dismissal, an inventory of his office yielded questionable documents inside the drawer of respondents filing cabinet. These documents consisted of blank forms of bail bonds that were already signed and notarized. These questionable documents belie respondents claim that no "concrete evidence" was presented against her. Respondents bare denial cannot overcome the findings of Executive Judge Aquino, which are based on an inventory of the records of MeTC Branch 54.

Respondent counters that the drawer "had no key and everyone and anyone can put any piece of papers inside." However, the drawer was for respondents exclusive use. The presumption is that respondent placed the documents inside the drawer that was for her exclusive use. Respondent failed to explain adequately why and how anyone would tamper with her filing cabinet. The presence of the questioned documents in her drawer cannot be explained by a mere allegation that they were "planted" by a co-employee.

Respondents allegation that Executive Judge Aquinos findings are based on "self-serving insinuations, surmises, and statements by Gatbalite"4 has a hollow ring. The Report of Executive Judge Aquino was based on the inventory conducted in the presence of his staff as well as the staff of MeTC Branch 54. The Report of Executive Judge Aquino does not mention the name of Gatbalite. There is no evidence on record, other than respondents self-serving claim, that Gatbalite fabricated the complaint to blacken her reputation. Gatbalite was not even a member of the investigating team that conducted the inventory.

Respondent claims that the charge that she brought court records out of court premises is "vague." Respondent asserts that "nowhere in the same report did it state that something that was handed by the herein Respondent was or were really court records (sic)."5 Respondent knows or should know that court employees are not allowed to take court records outside of court premises.6 Respondent now seeks to avoid liability by claiming that the charge failed to say that what she took out were court records. However, paragraph four of the Report of Executive Judge Aquino contradicts respondents claim:

When the inventory was already on-going, Mr. Aquino was asked if it was true that he was handed court records by Ms. Miranda as they were about to board a tricycle and he readily admitted in the presence of some RTC, Branch 72 court personnel who assisted in the inventory [as well as] Navotas METC employees, particularly Sheriff Almeida and Legal Researcher Evelyn Atienza, that he was readily handed something by Ms. Miranda wrapped in an old newspaper which the latter asked him to hold and carry.

To his surprise, Mr. Aquino added that the tricycle on which he and Ms. Miranda rode proceeded to a place where they found Judge Yaneza. To his further surprise, when the bundle given to him by Ms. Miranda was opened by Judge Yaneza or Ms. Miranda herself it revealed records pertaining to the Conghe and Emiliano Pascual cases. Mr. Aquino insisted that he was not aware that what was handed to him by Ms. Miranda were court records and that he also was not aware that the same will be brought to Judge Yaneza.7

Thus, the Report clearly details the charge of serious misconduct against respondent.

Instead of using every available opportunity to clear her name, respondent simply chose to hide. Aside from the Comment she filed, respondent never bothered to contest the findings of Executive Judge Aquino as she failed to attend the OCAs hearings. Respondent filed a leave almost immediately after being detailed to another court. Respondent then filed an application for optional retirement within a month after filing her leave. Finally, the sheriff could no longer find or contact respondent at her addresses on record.

A public servant whose career is on the line would normally want the investigating body to know his or her whereabouts for purposes of notice. The timing of respondents application for leave, for optional retirement, and her sudden unexplained disappearance, taken together, leads us to conclude that hers is not a mere case of negligence. Respondents acts reveal a calculated design to evade or derail the investigation against her. Her silence at the least serves as a tacit waiver of her opportunity to refute the charges made against her.

Neither respondents disappearance nor her retirement precludes the Court from holding her liable. Her disappearance constitutes a waiver of her right to present evidence in her behalf. The Court is not ousted of its jurisdiction over an administrative case by the mere fact that the respondent public official ceases to hold office during the pendency of respondents case.8

Respondents office requires competence and efficiency to insure the publics confidence in the administration of justice.9 The men and women who work in the judiciary must always act with propriety for the image of a court of justice is mirrored in the conduct of its personnel.10

Respondent should know that her actuations reflect adversely on the integrity and efficiency of the judiciary. The conduct of all those involved in the administration of justice from the judge to the lowliest clerk is circumscribed with the heavy burden of responsibility, accountability, integrity, uprightness and honesty.11 Because of the nature of their office, the officials and employees of the judiciary should serve as role models in the faithful observance of the constitutional canon that public office is a public trust. Respondent failed to live up to this standard.

To constitute grave misconduct, the acts complained of should be corrupt or inspired by an intention to violate the law, or constitute flagrant disregard of well-known legal rules.12 We find the totality of respondents acts well within this definition. Respondent failed to live up to the high ethical standards demanded by the office she occupies. Respondent also undermined the integrity of the service and jeopardized the publics faith in the courts. Respondents acts betray her complicity, if not participation, in acts that were irregular and violative of ethics and procedure, causing the removal from the service of her superior, Judge Yaneza.

The penalty for grave misconduct is dismissal from the service,13 with forfeiture of all benefits and with prejudice to re-employment in any branch or agency of the government, including government-owned or controlled corporations.14

WHEREFORE, the Court finds respondent BETHSAIDA M. MIRANDA, Clerk III, Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 54, Navotas, Metro Manila, GUILTY of grave misconduct. The Court DISMISSES respondent BETHSAIDA M. MIRANDA from the service with prejudice to re-employment in any branch or instrumentality of the government, including government-owned or controlled corporations. Her retirement benefits, except accrued leave credits, are FORFEITED.

SO ORDERED.

Davide, Jr.*, Puno**, Vitug***, Panganiban, Quisumbing, Ynares-Santiago, Sandoval-Gutierrez, Carpio, Austria-Martinez, Corona, Carpio-Morales, Callejo, Sr., Azcuna, and Tinga, JJ., concur.


Endnotes:

* On official leave.

** On official leave.

*** Acting Chief Justice.

1 Regional Trial Court, Branch 72, Malabon, Metro Manila.

2 Cruz v. Judge Reynold Q. Yaneza, 363 Phil. 629 (1999).

3 Rollo, pp. 1-4.

4 Rollo, p. 144.

5 Ibid., p. 141.

6 Fabiculana, Sr. v. Gadon, A.M. No. P-94-1101, 29 December 1994, 239 SCRA 543.

7 Rollo, pp. 4-5.

8 Perez v. Abiera, A.C. No. 223-J, 11 June 1975, 64 SCRA 302.

9 Eamiguel v. Ho, 350 Phil. 518 (1998).

10 Chan v. Castillo, A.M. No. P-94-1055, 25 November 1994, 238 SCRA 359.

11 Basco v. Gregorio, 315 Phil. 681 (1995).

12 Amosco v. Magro, A.M. No. 439-MTJ, 30 September 1976, 73 SCRA 107.

13 CSC Memorandum Circular No. 30 dated 20 July 1989; CSC Resolution No. 991936, Rule 52(A) (3), dated 31 August 1999.

14 Ibay v. Lim, A.M. No. 99-1309, 11 September 2000, 340 SCRA 107.




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