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PHILIPPINE SUPREME COURT DECISIONS

SECOND DIVISION

[A.M. NO. P-05-2098 December 15, 2005]

(Formerly OCA I.P.I. No. 02-1333-P)

CONCERNED CITIZEN, Complainant, v. ELEUTERIO C. GABRAL, JR., CLERK OF COURT II, MCTC, STA. RITA, SAMAR, Respondent.

D E C I S I O N

CHICO-NAZARIO, J.:

This refers to the Letter-Complaint1 dated 16 July 2001, addressed to the Chief Justice, of a concerned citizen (complainant) charging Eleuterio C. Gabral, Jr., Clerk of Court II, Municipal Circuit Trial Court (MCTC), Sta. Rita, Samar, with tardiness and violations of Republic Act No. 3019, otherwise known as the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

Complainant alleged that she was the wife of the accused in a case for illegal gambling. That his husband paid a fine in said case. Thereafter, it was found out that his husband was innocent, thus, the trial court ordered the respondent to release the money deposited to him, but respondent delayed its release. Similarly, in other cases, the bonds deposited by the parties to the respondent were no longer released. If released, it was made on installment basis. Complainant claimed that respondent was misappropriating the court's funds. Further, she averred that the monies received by the respondent remained unaccounted for because he had been evading the auditor. Lastly, respondent was not observing office hours, he reports late to the court and leaves early therefrom.

To determine the veracity of the accusations, the Court Administrator directed2 the then Executive Judge Jovito O. Abarquez, Regional Trial Court, Basy, Samar, to conduct a discreet investigation on the matter. In compliance with this directive, Judge Abarquez questioned the respondent and the other court employees of the MCTC, Sta. Rita, Samar. On 05 February 2002, Judge Abarquez submitted its report3 finding respondent guilty of the charges and recommended that respondent be suspended for a period of one (1) month, or be fined in the amount equivalent to one (1) month of his salary.

In his Comment4 dated 07 May 2002, respondent Gabral assailed the legality of the investigation conducted by Judge Abarquez. He claimed that the testimonies of the court employees were inadmissible because they were not under oath. Anent his delay in returning the deposited bond, he averred that there must be a court order before he can release it. He denied that he evaded the auditor. He explained that indeed on April 2001, he was not ready for an audit because there was money yet to be entered in the cashbook. Thus, he arranged a meeting with the auditor. He went to the agreed place on the appointed date; however, the auditor had already left when he arrived. Respondent clarified that the money entrusted to him is intact. As to the remaining charge, he admitted that sometimes, he reports to the court late and goes home before 5 p.m. because he merely commutes to the court from his residence which is sixty (60) kilometres from the court.

In a Report Agenda dated 10 October 2002, Office of the Court Administrator submitted its report5 which was adopted by the Court in a Resolution6 dated 04 December 2002, thus:

1. DIRECT a team from the fiscal Monitoring Division, CMO, OCA, to conduct a financial audit at the MCTC, Sta. Rita, Samar, and submit its report on the same within a reasonable time from receipt of notices;

2. HOLD IN ABEYANCE the disposition of this matter and the charge concerning office hours pending submission of the Financial Audit Report and the Summary of Attendance.

In compliance with the Court's directive, a team conducted a financial audit in MCTC, Sta. Rita, Samar from 02 to 12 March 2003. In a Report dated 07 July 2003, the team found that respondent Gabral has accountabilities amounting to One Hundred Sixty Two Thousand Three Hundred Eighty-Five Pesos (P162,385.00), itemized as follows:

NATURE OF FUNDS ACCOUNTABILITIES

Judiciary Development Fund P 30,770.00

Clerk of court General Fund 25,700.00

Clerk of Court Fiduciary Fund 105, 915.00

TOTAL P162,385.00

Based on the audit report, a Memorandum7 dated 07 July 2003 was issued by Deputy Court Administrator Zenaida N. Elepaño directing respondent Gabral to:

1. Restitute the amounts of P30,770.00, P25,700.00 and P105,915.00 representing the shortages in the JDF, General Fund and the Fiduciary Fund, respectively, by depositing the said amounts to the respective accounts, furnishing the Fiscal Monitoring Division, CMO, with the machine validated deposit slips as proof of remittance and to EXPLAIN why no administrative charges be taken (against you) for incurring said shortages;

2. EXLAIN in writing within a period of fifteen (15 days from notice 2.a) (your) failure to submit (your) monthly reports of collections and deposits/withdrawals for the JDF starting July 1999 and for Clerk of court General Fund and Clerk of Court fiduciary Fund since (you) started collecting the said funds, 2.b) why only one remittance amounting to P2,000.00 on October 1997 was made to the JDF for the period October 1995 to February 28, 2003; andcralawlibrary

3. SUBMIT within a period of fifteen (15) days from notice the Statement of the outstanding Balance of the Cash Bonds deposited with the Municipal Treasurer's Office of Sta. Rita, Talalora and Zumarraga, all in the province of Samar as of February 28, 2003 duly certified by the respective Municipal Treasurer and the Municipal Accountant.

In a separate Memorandum of the same date, DCA Elepaño directed8 Judge Nieto A. Delantar, Acting Presiding Judge of MCTC, Sta. Rita, Samar, to relieve respondent Gabral as an accountable officer and to designate a competent and honest court employee to take charge of the collections of judiciary funds and to monitor its proper handling.

On 01 June 2005, we referred this matter to OCA for evaluation, report and recommendation within thirty (30) days from receipt of the record. On 01 July 2005, OCA submitted its report,9 thus:

In view of the foregoing, respectfully submitted for the consideration of the Honorable Court are our recommendations that:

1. Respondent Eleuterio C. Gabral BE DISMISSED from the service for gross misconduct, dishonesty and misappropriation of public funds with forfeiture of all withheld salaries, allowances and benefits, with prejudice to re-employment in any branch or instrumentality in the government, including government - owned and controlled corporations;

2. Respondent Eleuterio C. Gabral BE DIRECTED to restitute the amount of One Hundred Sixty Two Thousand Three Hundred Eighty-Five Pesos (P162,385.00) representing the shortages in the In a Letter to DCA Elepaño dated 27 August 2003following: JDF-P30,770.00; General Fund-P25,700.00; and Fiduciary Fund-P105,915.00;

3. The Employees Leave Division, Office of Administrative Services-OCA, BE DIRECTED to compute the balance of the respondent's earned leave credits and forward the same to the Finance Division, Fiscal Management Office-OCA, which shall compute the money value of the same, the amount, as well as other benefits the respondent may be entitled to, to be included as restitution of the computed shortages; and,

4. The Legal Office of the Office of the Court Administrator BE AUTHORIZED to file criminal charges against the respondent before the appropriate court.

We affirm the findings and recommendations of the OCA.

It is worth noting that at first respondent denied the charges against him when he said that all money entrusted to him are intact and had never been used for his personal gain. It was only after the audit team submitted its report that respondent Gabral admitted in a letter dated 27 August 2003 addressed to DCA Elepaño that he misappropriated the court's funds for the studies of his children and in a civil case which his family got involved in. He stated that because of financial difficulties, he was able to make only one remittance to the JDF in October 1997 for the period 1995 to February 2003. He averred further that the submission of the Statement of the Outstanding Balance of the Cash Bonds deposited with the Municipal Treasurer of Talalora and Zumarraga would be delayed because of their distance from the court. He promised that he will pay all his obligations.

The court finds the explanation unsatisfactory.

It is been ruled that personal problems cannot justify his acts of using the judiciary funds in his custody.10 We have said time and again that those involved in the administration of justice from the highest official to the lowest clerk must live up to the strictest standards of honesty and integrity in the public service11 bearing in mind that the image of a court of justice is necessarily mirrored in the conduct, official or otherwise, of men and women who work thereat.12

Clerks of court are officers of the law who performs vital functions in the administration of justice.13 They are designated custodian of the court's fund and revenues, records, properties, and premises.14 Verily, they are expected to possess a high degree of discipline and efficiency in the performance of these functions.

Indeed, the cats of respondent fell short of the exacting standards extolled by the Court, as he committed numerous infractions.

He issued only one set of official receipts for the collections of all funds, in violation of Item No. 2 of SC Circular No. 22-94 dated 08 April 1994 which prescribes that in issuing official receipt, separate booklet must be used for each fund account for proper accounting and control of collections.

SC Circular No. 32-9215 prescribes the guidelines for the collection and custody of legal dues. This administrative circular was issued to attain maximum efficiency and accountability in the handling of collections and deposits of court funds. It enjoins all clerks of court and accountable officers to submit "monthly reports of collections for all fund . . . not later than the 10th day of each succeeding month.

Respondent clearly violated SC Circular No. 32-93. The audit team unearthed that the last Monthly Report of Collections and Remittances submitted by the respondent for the JDF account was in June 1999 and the last remittance was in October 1997.

Administrative Circular No. 3-2000 dated 15 June 2000 which provides that the aggregate total of the Deposit Slips for any particular month should always be equal to and tally with the total collections for the month as reflected in the Monthly Report of Collections and Deposits and Cash Book. As found by the Audit Team, from March 1985 to September 1995, JDF collections were properly remitted, but, from October 1995 to 28 February 2003, respondent Gabral made only one remittance in October 1997 in the amount of P2,000.00. Clearly, he violated this circular.

As to the Clerk of Court General Fund, respondent Gabral did not maintain an official cashbook nor submit a single report to the Accounting Division of this Office. Collections for this fund were received under receipt intended for the JDF. He also did not remit any collections for the period March 1999 to August 2000.

Circular No. 50-95 dated 11 October 1995 provides that all collections from bailbonds, rental deposits and other fiduciary collections shall be deposited within twenty-four (24) hours by the Clerk of Court concerned, upon receipt thereof with the LBP. Further, in localities where there are no branches of the LBP, fiduciary collections shall be deposited by the Clerk of Court with the Provincial City or Municipal Treasurer. But the audit team found that the court did not maintain an account with the Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP) as required in said Circular.

Up to now, respondent failed to restore the amount which he misappropriated despite the lapse of almost two years from the time the Court through DCA Elepaño required him to do so. Respondent's refusal to obey directive aggravated his legal responsibility. The misappropriation of the court's funds, which respondent admitted, constitutes malversation under Article 217 of the Revised Penal Code. All that is necessary to prove malversation are the following: (a) that the defendant received in his possession public funds or property (b) that he could not account for them and did not have them in his possession when audited; and (c) that he could not give a satisfactory or reasonable excuse for the disappearance of said funds or property.16

As custodian of court funds and revenues,17 Clerks of Court has always been reminded of their duty to immediately deposit the various funds received by them to the authorized government depositories18 for they are not supposed to keep funds in their custody.19 A failure to timely turn over cash deposited with them constitutes, not just gross negligence in the performance of their duty, but gross dishonesty, if not malversation.20 For those who have fallen short of their accountabilities, we have not hesitated to impose the ultimate penalty.21 This Court has never and will never tolerate nor condone any conduct which would violate the norms of public accountability, and diminish, or even tend to diminish, the faith of the people in the justice system.22

There is no doubt that respondent had been delinquent in the performance of his duties as clerk of court with regard to financial concerns. He did not regularly submit his reports. He did not record his cash transactions in the cashbook. Worse, he misappropriated for himself the collections. The act of misappropriating judiciary funds constitutes dishonesty and grave misconduct which are grave offense punished by dismissal.23 Not even full payment of collection shortages will exempt the accountable officer from liability.24 Verily, respondent's grave misdemeanours justify his severance from the service.

As to the charge of tardiness, it was not sufficiently shown that respondent is liable for tardiness. Absent substantial evidence, we are inclined to absolve respondent Gabral from this charge. Besides, the Certification dated 09 March 2005 issued by the Leave Division of this Office shows that respondent Gabral incurred only the following absences:

1999 Jan. 11, 19 2 days with pay

Feb. 1, 8, 15 3 days with pay

2000 None

2001 None

2002 Oct. 21 1 day with pay

The foregoing premises considered, we find respondent guilty of dishonesty. Dishonesty is defined a intentionally making a false statement in any material fact, or practicing or attempting to practice any deception or fraud in securing his examination, registration, appointment or registration.25 In Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation v. Rilloraza,26 dishonesty was understood to imply a "disposition to lie, cheat, deceive, or defraud; unworthiness; lack of integrity.

Section 22(a), Rule XIV of the Omnibus Rules Implementing Book V of Executive Order 29227 as amended by CSC Memorandum Circular No. 19, s. 1999, provides that:

SEC. 22. Administrative Offenses with its corresponding penalties are classified into grave, less grave, and light, depending on the gravity of its nature and effect on said acts on the government service.

The following are grave offenses with corresponding penalties:

(a) Dishonesty

1st Offense-Dismissal

Thus, dishonesty, as a grave offense, warrants the severe penalty of dismissal from service upon the commission of even the first offense.

It is well to remind respondent that dishonesty is a malevolent act that has no place in the judiciary.28 More particularly, we have repeatedly warned Clerks of Court, being next in rank to judges in courts of justice, that dishonesty, particularly that amounting to malversation of public funds, will not be countenanced as they definitely reduce the image of courts of justice to mere heavens of thievery and corruption.29

Parenthetically, Section 56(a) of CSC Resolution No. 99-1936 dated 31 August 1999 provides that the penalty of dismissal shall result in the permanent separation of the respondent from the service, with or without prejudice to criminal or civil liability. Under Section 58(a) of the same resolution, it shall carry with it that of cancellation of eligibility, forfeiture of retirement benefits, and the perpetual disqualification for reemployment in the government service, unless otherwise provided in the decision.

WHEREFORE, respondent Elueterio C. Gabral Jr., having been found guilty of dishonesty and gross neglect of duty is DISMISSED from the service effective immediately, with FORFEITURE of all benefits, except accrued leave credits if any, with prejudice to his reemployment in any branch or instrumentality of the government including government owned and controlled corporation. He is further ORDERED to restitute the amount of P162,385.00 representing the shortages in the following: JDF - P30,770.00; General Fund - P25,700.00; and Fiduciary Fund - P105,915.00. The Employee's Division, Office of the Administrative Services-OCA, is likewise DIRECTED to compute the balance of respondent's earned leave credits and forward the same to the Finance Division, Fiscal Management Office-OCA, which shall compute the money value of the same, the amount, as well as other benefits the respondent may be entitled to, to be included as restitution of the computed shortages. The OCA is also ORDERED to coordinate with the prosecution arm of the government to ensure the expeditious prosecution of the criminal liability of the respondent.

SO ORDERED.


Endnotes:


1 Rollo, p. 7.

2 Rollo, p. 5.

3 Rollo, pp. 2-4.

4 Rollo, pp. 12-16.

5 Rollo, pp. 19-23.

6 Rollo, p. 24

7 Rollo, pp. 50.

8 Rollo, p. 51.

9 Rollo, p.60

10 RE: Report on the Examination of the Cash Accounts of the Clerks of Court of the RTC and MTC of Vigan, Ilocos Sur, A.M.No. 01-1-13-RTC, 400 SCRA 387, 02 April 2003.

11 Solidbank v. Capoon, Jr., A.M. No. P-987-1266, 15 SCRA 1989, 289 SCRA 9.

12 Cajot v. Cledera, A.M. No. P-98-1262, 12 February 1998, 286 SCRA 238.

13 Reyes-Domingo v. Morales, 342 SCRA 6, 04 October 2000.

14 b, Chapter 1, Manual for Clerks of Court.

15 Issued on 09 July 1993.

16 Cabello v. Sandiganbayan, et al., 14 May 1991.

17 Office of the Court Administrator v. Lucio P-96-1206, 11 June 1996, 257 SCRA 287

18 Judiciary Planning Development and Implementation Office v. Calaguas, A.M. No.P-95-1155, 15 May 1996, 256 SCRA 690.

19 Ferriols v. Hiam, A.M. No. 90-414, 09 August 1993, 225 SCRA 205, 209.

20 Judge Veronica A. Dondiego v. Petromi;ia Cuevas,Jr., Clerk of Court, Municipal Trial Court, Tambulig, Zamboanga del Norte, A.M. No. P-03-1681, 398 SCRA 386, citing Re: Report on Audit and Physical Inventory of MTC of Penaranda, Nueva Ecija, 276 SCRA 257.

21 Re: Report on the Judicial and Financial Audit of RTC-Br.4, PAnabo, Davao del Norte, A.M. No. 95-4-143-RTC, 13 March 1998, 287 SCRA 510; Gano v. Leonen, A.M. No. P-92-756,03 May 1994, 232 SCEA 98;Office of the Court Administrator v. Soriano, A.M. No. 2864-P, 16 May 1985, 136 SCRA 461; Estenzo v. Dejano, A.M. No. 2082, 20 September 1979, 93 SCRA 218; In re: Carloto U. Alvizo, A.M. No. 818-TEL.,18 April 1979,89 SCRA 426.

22 Re: Report on the Judicial Audit, RTC-Br.117, Pasay City, A.M. No. 96-5-163-RTC, 18 June 1998, 291 SCRA 1

23 Re: Report on the Examination of the Cash and Accounts of the Clerks of Court of the RTC and MTC of Vigan, Ilocos Sur, 400 SCRA 387.

24 Re: Withholding of Other Emoluments of the Following Clerks of Court: Elsie C. Remoroza, et.al, A.M. No. 01-4-133-MTC, 409 SCRA 574; Re: Report of Regionsl Coordinator Felipe Kalalo on Alleged Anomalies Involving JDF Collections in MTCC, Angeles City and MCTC, Minalin, Pampanga, 326 Phil 703; 256 SCRA 690, 15 May 1996;

25 Abelardo V. Sevilla v. Lorna F. Gocon, G.R. No. 148445, 16 February 2004, citing Aquino v. The General Mgr. of GSIS, 130 Phil 488 (1968).

26 412 SCRA l 114, 133 (2001).

27 The Administrative Code of 1997.

28 Lacurom v. Magbanua, A.M. No. P-02-1646, 22 January 2003, citing Pizarro v. Villegas, A.M. No. P-97-1243, 20 November 2000, 345 SCRA 42.

29 Re: Report Report on the Judicial and Financial Audit of RTC-Br.4, Panabo, Davao del Norte, A.M.. No. 95-1155, 15 May 1996, 256 SCRA 690.




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