G. R. No. 155732 - June 3, 2004
CIVIL SERVICE COMMISSION, Petitioner, vs. DELIA T. CORTEZ, Respondent.
D E C I S I O N
In this petition for review on certiorari under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court, petitioner Civil Service Commission (CSC) seeks to reverse and set aside the decision1 of 23 July 2002 of the Court of Appeals and its resolution2 of 18 October 2002 in CA-G.R. SP No. 65096. The former modified the penalty imposed by the CSC on respondent Delia T. Cortez from dismissal from the service with forfeiture of benefits and disqualification from reemployment in the government service without prejudice to any civil or criminal liability in a proper action to that of being considered resigned from the service with entitlement to all the benefits under the law. The latter denied petitioners motion to reconsider the former.
The antecedent facts follow.
Respondent Delia T. Cortez, Chief Personnel Specialist of the Examination and Placement Services Division (EPSD) of Civil Service Regional Office (CSRO) No. X, Cagayan de Oro City, was formally charged with dishonesty, grave misconduct and conduct grossly prejudicial to the best interest of the service in Resolution No. 99-0039 of the CSC dated 7 January 1999. Pertinent portions of the formal charge read as follows:
Respondent Cortez filed an answer vehemently denying the charges against her. She averred that the application forms submitted to her by June Grace Abina (hereafter, Abina) and Rubielyn Ofredo (hereafter, Ofredo) for the actual applicants were already pasted with stamps. Noticing that the stamps were not the ones being currently sold, she asked Abina and Ofredo where the applicants were and told them to tell the applicants to personally file their application forms since the rules require that applicants must personally thumbmark their application forms in the EPSD. She thereafter removed the stamps so that she could show them to the applicants when they personally would come to file their application forms. After she removed the stamps, Abina and Ofredo ran towards the gate. She waited, but the applicants never came to her office. She denied that she collected money for the stamps and that there was a confrontation between her and the cashier. She branded the charges against her as "brazen lies and concoctions" of some people determined to destroy her more than twenty years of service in the CSC, eight years of which she served as Chief of the EPSD.4
In its resolution of 1 February 1999, the CSC placed respondent under a 90-day preventive suspension pending formal investigation of the serious charges against her.5
During the formal investigation, Abina and Ofredo identified and affirmed their joint-affidavit6 wherein they narrated that upon perusal by a clerk in the Cashiers Office of their aunts and their aunts officemates application forms, they were told to first go to the EPSD for approval of the application forms. Once there, they saw a woman, who was later identified as respondent Delia T. Cortez, attending to three applicants who were in the process of buying examination fee stamps from her. When it was their turn, respondent pasted examination fee stamps worth
Eva S. Alcalde and Angeline P. Lim, clerk and Acting Cashier of CSRO No. X, respectively, also identified and affirmed their affidavits8 supporting the joint-affidavit of Abina and Ofredo.
Eva S. Alcalde affirmed that she told Abina and Ofredo to first go to the EPSD for the approval of their aunts and their aunts officemates application forms before she could issue to them examination fee stamps. However, when the two teenagers went back to the Cashiers Office from the EPSD, Alcalde noticed that the application forms were already pasted with stamps. Puzzled, she referred the matter to her superior, Acting Cashier Angeline P. Lim.9
Acting Cashier Angeline P. Lim affirmed that Alcalde referred to her certain application forms containing stamps whose serial numbers did not correspond to the serial numbers of the stamps the Cashiers Office was authorized to issue for that particular day. Upon information from Abina and Ofredo that the stamps came from the EPSD, Lim, with Abina and Ofredo, immediately proceeded to the EPSD where a confrontation took place between Lim and respondent regarding the questionable stamps. Respondent feigned innocence, saying "Unsa man diay ni day?" ("What is this all about?"). However, after Lim copied the serial numbers of the stamps in front of respondent, respondent detached the stamps and went inside the Records Section of the EPSD. Lim followed her inside the room, and respondent handed to her
Respondent Cortez, for her part, identified and affirmed the contents of her counter-affidavit.11 Her counter-affidavit contained almost the same averments as that in her answer, that is, that the application forms were already pasted with stamps when presented to her by Abina and Ofredo and that the charges against her were "brazen lies." In addition, respondent alleged in her counter-affidavit that Acting Cashier Lim concocted the charges against her in order for Lim to be promoted.12
After carefully evaluating the evidence of the parties, petitioner CSC in its Resolution No. 010499 of 22 February 2001 concluded that the version of the complainants was more credible. It noted that witnesses Abina and Ofredo categorically pointed to respondent as the source of the questionable stamps and material portions of their testimonies were corroborated by two other witnesses, Eva S. Alcalde and Acting Cashier Angeline P. Lim. In contrast, the CSC noted that respondent Cortez relied on mere denials which could not prevail over the clear, positive and categorical testimonies against her. It also pointed out that respondent never presented any competent and credible evidence to show why the witnesses against her, especially Abina and Ofredo, would falsely testify against her. Thus, it ruled that respondent was guilty of illegally selling recycled stamps for her own financial gain, an act which constituted dishonesty, grave misconduct and conduct grossly prejudicial to the best interest of the service. It ordered respondent dismissed from the service with forfeiture of benefits and disqualification from reemployment in the government service, without prejudice to any civil or criminal liability in a proper action.13
Respondent filed a motion for reconsideration, but the CSC denied it in its Resolution No. 010926 of 11 May 2001, on the ground that the motion was a mere rehash of the allegations in her answer and counter-affidavit which had already been passed upon by the Commission in its decision.14
Respondent promptly filed a petition for review before the Court of Appeals under Rule 43 of the Rules of Court. She raised in her petition the issues of violation of administrative due process and the propriety of the penalty of dismissal.15 The appeal was docketed as CA-G.R. SP No. 65096.
In its decision of 23 July 2002, the Court of Appeals granted respondents petition. It ruled that although respondent was properly accorded administrative due process as evidenced by the fact that she was able to file an answer, a counter-affidavit and even a motion for reconsideration, the penalty of dismissal imposed on her was too harsh considering (a) her twenty-one years of service in the government, (b) the fact that it was her first offense and (c) that no damage was sustained by the Government. Accordingly, it modified the penalty imposed on respondent from dismissal from the service with all its accessory penalties to that of forced resignation from the service with entitlement to all the benefits under the law. Pertinent portions of the decision of the Court of Appeals read as follows:
Its motion for reconsideration having been denied by the Court of Appeals for having been filed one day late,17 petitioner filed the petition at bar, assigning the following issue for our consideration:
After the issues were joined, we gave due course to the petition and required the parties to submit their respective memoranda.
To be sure, respondents guilt for the administrative offense charged has long been settled when she did not question before the Court of Appeals the decision of the CSC finding her guilty of dishonesty, grave misconduct and conduct grossly prejudicial to the best interest of the service. What respondent questioned before the Court of Appeals was the penalty of dismissal imposed on her, which she considered to be too harsh considering her length of service in the government and the fact that the offense she was found guilty of was her first offense.18
Petitioner contends that respondent is not entitled to any penalty lesser than dismissal considering the gravity of her offense. Respondents act constituted dishonesty, grave misconduct and conduct grossly prejudicial to the best interest of the service which, under Section 52 in relation to Section 55 of the Uniform Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service, are all grave offenses punishable by dismissal from the service. Based on jurisprudence, dishonesty warrants dismissal from the service, with forfeiture of benefits and disqualification from reemployment in the government service. The mitigating circumstances of length of service and "first offense" invoked by respondent cannot be considered since dismissal is an indivisible penalty. In any case, if length of service is to be considered at all, it should be taken against the respondent because despite her long service in the government, she did not exhibit any sense of loyalty; instead, she abused the governments trust by taking advantage of her position. Petitioner also asserts that the Court of Appeals erred in imposing the penalty of forced resignation on respondent since forced resignation as an administrative penalty is not provided under the Administrative Code of 1987. Besides, the penalty of forced resignation without forfeiture of benefits and disqualification from reemployment in the government service for the grave offenses of dishonesty, grave misconduct and conduct grossly prejudicial to the best interest of the service is reprehensible because this, in effect, would be rewarding an erring employee instead of punishing her for her offense.
Upon the other hand, respondent maintains that dismissal from the service with forfeiture of benefits is not commensurate with the offense she committed and that considering the mitigating circumstances mentioned above, the lesser penalty of forced resignation with entitlement to all benefits under the law is the proper penalty. She emphasizes that the amount involved was only
We rule in favor of petitioner CSC.
Under the Civil Service Law19 and its implementing rules,20 dishonesty, grave misconduct and conduct grossly prejudicial to the best interest of the service21 are grave offenses punishable by dismissal from the service.22 Thus, as provided by law, there is no other penalty that should be imposed on respondent than the penalty of dismissal.
Of course, the rules allow the consideration of mitigating and aggravating circumstances23 and provide for the manner of imposition of the proper penalty: Section 54 of the Uniform Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service provides:
Jurisprudence is abound with cases applying the above rule in the imposition of the proper penalty and even in cases where the penalty prescribed by law, on commission of the first offense, is that of dismissal, which is, as argued by petitioner, an indivisible penalty, the presence of mitigating or aggravating circumstances may still be taken into consideration by us in the imposition of the proper penalty. Thus, in at least three cases,24 taking into consideration the presence of mitigating circumstances, we lowered the penalty of dismissal imposed on respondent to that of forced resignation25 or suspension for 6 months and 1 day to 1 year without benefits.26 This being so, is respondent entitled to a penalty lesser than dismissal, considering (1) her length of service in the government and (2) the fact that the offense she was found guilty of was her first offense?
Under the facts of this case, respondent is not entitled to a lower penalty.
Petitioner CSC is correct that length of service should be taken against the respondent. Length of service is not a magic word that, once invoked, will automatically be considered as a mitigating circumstance in favor of the party invoking it. Length of service can either be a mitigating or aggravating circumstance depending on the factual milieu of each case. Length of service, in other words, is an alternative circumstance. That this is so is clear in Section 53 of the Uniform Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service, which amended the Omnibus Civil Services Rules and Regulations dated 27 December 1991. The title and opening paragraph of Section 53 provides that the attendant circumstances enumerated therein may either be considered as mitigating, aggravating or alternative circumstances by the disciplining body:
The following circumstances shall be appreciated:
In University of the Philippines vs. Civil Service Commission, et al.,27 we did not consider length of service in favor of the private respondent; instead, we took it against said respondent because her length of service, among other things, helped her in the commission of the offense. Thus:
Moreover, a review of jurisprudence shows that, although in most cases length of service is considered in favor of the respondent,28 it is not considered where the offense committed is found to be serious.29 Thus, in Yuson vs. Noel,30 we ruled:
And, in Concerned Employee vs. Nuestro,31 we held:
Applying the above-cited cases to the case at bar, we cannot also consider length of service in favor of the respondent because of the gravity of the offense she committed and of the fact that it was her length of service in the CSC which helped her in the commission of the offense.
Respondent was in the Civil Service Commission for twenty-one years, the last eight years of which (1990-1998) she spent as Chief of the Examination and Placement Services Division (EPSD). Surely, respondent earned the last position because of her length of service in the CSC. As Chief of the EPSD, she naturally had access to the previously processed and approved application forms wherefrom she detached the stamps and later on sold to new civil service examination applicants and pocketed the proceeds of the sale. It is worthy to note that the stamps respondent was caught selling were issued in 1995, the time respondent was already in the EPSD, serving as its chief. Respondents length of service in the CSC, therefore, clearly helped her in the commission of the offense.
As to the gravity of the offense, which is the other factor why we cannot consider length of service in favor of the respondent, it is clear from the ruling of the CSC that respondents act irreparably tarnished the integrity of the CSC. Respondent was the Chief of the EPSD, but despite such important and senior position which should have impelled her to set a good example to her co-employees and other civil servants, respondent flagrantly and shamelessly violated the law by selling, for her own financial gain, used examination fee stamps, right in her own office and during office hours. Such flagrant and shameless disregard of the law by a senior officer seriously undermined the integrity of the CSC, the body mandated by the Constitution to preserve and safeguard the integrity of the civil service.32 She should be a model of honesty and integrity. By irreparably tarnishing the integrity of the Civil Service Commission, respondent did not deserve to stay in the said agency and in the government service.
The gravity of the offense committed is also the reason why we cannot consider the "first offense" circumstance invoked by respondent. In several cases,33 we imposed the heavier penalty of dismissal34 or a fine of more than
Respondent also insists in her memorandum that she is entitled to a penalty lesser than dismissal because no damage was caused to the Government; she returned the money to the complainants and the latter thereafter paid the Cashiers Office for the proper issuance of examination fee stamps. She further emphasizes that the money involved was only six hundred pesos, not a "multi-million pesos scam." These arguments show respondents distorted sense of values. It seems all right for respondent to steal from the government as long as it does not involve millions of pesos.
Respondent should be reminded that a public servant must exhibit at all times the highest sense of honesty and integrity for no less than the Constitution mandates that a public office is a public trust and public officers and employees must at all times be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty and efficiency, act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives.36 This constitutionally-enshrined principles, oft-repeated in our case law, are not mere rhetorical flourishes or idealistic sentiments. They should be taken as working standards by all in the public service. In addition, the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees (R.A. No. 6713) enunciates the State Policy of promoting a high standard of ethics and utmost responsibility in the public service.
To end, it must be stressed that dishonesty and grave misconduct have always been and should remain anathema in the civil service. They inevitably reflect on the fitness of a civil servant to continue in office.37 When an officer or employee is disciplined, the object sought is not the punishment of such officer or employee but the improvement of the public service and the preservation of the publics faith and confidence in the government.38
WHEREFORE, the Decision of 23 July 2002 and the Resolution of 18 October 2002 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 65096 are hereby REVERSED and SET ASIDE. Resolution No. 010499 of the Civil Service Commission dated 22 February 2001, dismissing respondent Delia T. Cortez from the service with forfeiture of leave credits and retirement benefits, cancellation of eligibility and disqualification from reemployment in the government service, without prejudice to civil or criminal liability in a proper action, is hereby REINSTATED.
No pronouncement as to costs.
Davide, Jr., Puno, Vitug, Panganiban, Quisumbing, Ynares-Santiago, Sandoval-Gutierrez, Carpio, Austria-Martinez, Corona, Carpio-Morales, Callejo, Sr., Azcuna, and Tinga, JJ., concur.
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