Garcia questions 'timing' of dismissal: Ombudsman 'singled me out'

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – House deputy speaker Gwendolyn Garcia on Monday, February 12, questioned the Ombudsman's decision to dismiss her from service over years-old charges and linked it to an ongoing impeachment hearing against the Chief Justice. 

"The timing is rather suspect. It does seem as though the Ombudsman has singled me out. An act that was done when I was still governor several years ago, you’d rather wonder whether this was purposely done," said Garcia in a chance interview at the House. 

The Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales ordered Garcia's dismissal from service for grave misconduct over the purchase of a close to P100-million Balili property back in 2008. Half of the property, it turned out, was underwater and part of a mangrove area.

Garcia, who represents the 3rd district of Cebu, was governor of the province when the purchase happened. According to a press statement from the Office of the Ombudsman, the dismissal order against Garcia includes penalties of perpetual disqualification from public office, cancellation of eligibility, and forfeiture of retirement benefits.  

The legislator, among the top leaders in the House, somehow connected this dismissal to an ongoing House committee on justice hearing to determine probable cause in the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.  

"As you saw, I’m very active in this impeachment hearing against Chief Justice Sereno. Be that as it may, I leave it to the leadership, to Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, on his decision as regards to that dismissal order," said Garcia. 

"I will continue to work as hard as I can. It is my duty as elected by my constituents in the third district precisely to represent them and represent their sentiments. I will continue to be active in the impeachment hearing, ongoing against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno," she added. 

As deputy speaker of the House, Garcia sits as an ex-officio member of the powerful justice committee. She was attending the hearing on the impeachment complaint when the Ombudsman's decision was released. 

In a separate chance interview, House Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas said he would have to first look at House rules and then refer to plenary, or the entire House membership.

"Orders such as that, we will have to check if it's valid. It's in our rules, that orders coming from the courts of whatever administrative body, we will have to first determine if the order is valid, is it relevant to our rules and everything. We will then refer it to plenary," he said. 

The House may have precedence in its eventual decision. 

In 2016, the Senate did not implement the Ombudsman's order to dismiss from service Senator Joel Villanueva. The Senate voted to adopt the legal opinion of the Senate counsel. 

Senate legal counsel Maria Valentina Cruz, in her 15-page opinion, said that while the Ombudsman has disciplinary authority over all elective and appointive government officials, the law exempts impeachable officials, members of Congress, and the Judiciary.

Morales tasked House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, leader of the supermajority-dominated House, to implement the order. 

The Ombudsman is an independent office tasked to probe allegations of wrongdoing against public officials, both elected, appointed, and those holding civil service posts. 

Meanwhile, Sereno impeachment complainant and lawyer Larry Gadon echoed Garcia, saying, “It must be noted that the charges against Rep Garcia does not allege any issue of graft which enriches herself nor allegations to the effect that she benefitted and gained personally from the land filling contract.”

In a statement, he said, “The Ombudsman is quick and fast to punish political adversaries of the Noynoy [Aquino] administration, but soft on issues even involving murdered lives of SAF 44 soldiers for which a slap on the wrist of an obscure violation of usurpation of authority was charged on Noynoy.”

This would not be the first time for Garcia to face administrative penalties over alleged anomalies. In 2012, under the Aquino administration, she was suspended because of allegedly anomalous contracts. – Rappler.com