Sandiganbayan justice linked to Napoles splits Supreme Court

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Supreme Court justices are split down the middle, 6-6, on whether Sandiganbayan Justice Gregory Ong should be dismissed, Rappler has learned.

The justices have agreed that Ong violated the New Code of Judicial Conduct for judicial officials and employees after his links to alleged pork barrel queen Janet Lim Napoles were exposed and confirmed.

He was found guilty of gross misconduct, dishonesty and impropriety for disgracing the integrity of the judiciary, but the justices are in disagreement over what sanction to give him. Court insiders told Rappler the question is whether he should be meted the lighter penalty of suspension or the extreme penalty of dismissal with all his benefits forfeited.

Ong was found guilty in an administrative proceeding conducted by former Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez.

Gutierrez, who was tasked by the SC to look into allegations that the Sandiganbayan justice might have compromised the integrity of the judiciary through his personal ties with Napoles, recommended Ong’s dismissal for “serious transgressions” that have "impaired” the image of the judiciary "to which he owes the duty of loyalty and obligation to keep it at all times above suspicion and worth of the people’s trust.”

Ong, she said, “should not stay in his position even for a moment.”

Of the 14 justices (with one vacancy following the retirement of Roberto Abad), two have inhibited from Ong’s case. Justices Teresita Leonardo-De Castro and Diosdado Peralta begged off from participating in Ong’s case, saying he was a former colleague at the anti-graft court. The High Court has yet to decide with finality on Ong's fate.

Watch this report below.

In a statement released on Thursday, July 10, however (after the publication of this report), Ong said administrative proceedings against members of the judiciary are supposed to be “"strictly private and confidential.”

In a “proper forum,” Ong said he would be willing and capable of refuting the allegations against him.

P100 million to fix Kevlar case

In her report to the SC dated May 15, 2014, Gutierrez found “substantial evidence” that Ong was guilty of the 3 charges slapped against him, and concluded that the justice was Napoles’ main contact at the anti-graft court.

Such connection allowed Napoles to get off the hook in the Kevlar helmet case that was tried by the 4th division which, incidentally, Ong chaired.

“Respondent’s acts of allowing himself to be Napoles’ contact in the Sandiganbayan, resulting in the fixing of the Kevlar case, and of accepting money from her, constitute gross misconduct, a violation of the New Code of Judicial Conduct for the Philippine judiciary,” the report said.

(Read the full report below, a copy of which was obtained by Rappler.)

Napoles is at the center of the country's worst corruption scandal in recent years, dragging in a number of lawmakers who allegedly exchanged their Priority Development Assistance Fund for kickbacks. Three senators – Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, and Ramon "Bong' Revilla Jr – are now in jail after they were charged with plunder before the Sandiganbayan. (READ: 3 PH senators charged with plunder over PDAF scam)

Pork barrel whistleblowers Benhur Luy and Marina Sula testified before the SC probe that Ong was Napoles’ “connect” in the Sandiganbayan, and that Napoles had known beforehand that she would be cleared even before the ruling was handed down. (READ: How Janet Lim Napoles got away)

Luy testified that Napoles and Ong were in constant communication even before the ruling was handed down in 2010.

To fix the Kevlar helmet case, Luy said Napoles spent P100 million, a sum which surprised Luy since the Kevlar helmet case only amounted to P3.8 million. Napoles would tell Luy, who was her former record keeper, “that she gave various amounts to different people during the pendency of the case….”

Napoles said she gave Ong part of the money “but she never mentioned the amount.”

Much as he would want to, in his July 10 statement, however, Ong said Supreme Court rules do not allow him to publicly dispute claims he received a payoff from Napoles in exchange for a favorable ruling in her case.

Luy said he first met Ong sometime in 2012 when the justice and Napoles agreed on a special financial arrangement that allowed the jurist to avail of the 13% interest offered by the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Police Savings and Loan Association Inc (AFPSLAI).

In that meeting, Luy said Ong produced a Banco de Oro check worth P25.5 million for the special arrangement. Napoles however instructed Luy to deposit the check in her personal account with Metrobank and that she would just issue checks each amounting to P282,000 to Ong for the monthly interests. Luy said he prepared 11 checks with the total amount of P3.102 million.

For her part, Sula corroborated Luy’s accounts. She also testified that Napoles had bragged to her former employees not to worry when the pork barrel scandal broke out, since “she has contact with the Sandiganbayan.”

When the former employees mentioned Ong’s name in jest, Napoles said : “Ay 'wag na iyon kasi masyadong mataas ang talent fee (I will no longer get his services, his talent fee is too high).

Ong's defense & the Black Nazarene

In his defense, Ong denied that he was Napoles’ contact in the anti-graft court and that money exchanged hands in connection with the Kevlar helmet case. Ong pointed out that the ruling was a collegial decision, adding that Napoles’ mother, brother, and sister-in-law were convicted. The two other members of the 4th division are Justices Jose Hernandez and Maria Cristina Cornejo.

Ong however admitted that he met Napoles thrice in 2012, but this was two years after the Kevlar helmet case was decided.

The first time was when he attended the birthday party of Senator Jinggoy Estrada on February 17, 2012. In that encounter, he said Napoles introduced herself and thanked him for the acquittal.

The following month, sometime in March 2012, he admitted seeing Napoles twice to personally thank her for facilitating the meeting with former rector of Quiapo Church, Monsignor Josefino Ramirez, for access to the robe of the Black Nazarene.

The report said Ong has been a devotee of the Holy Black Nazarene "since he was a little boy." He was told by Napoles that Ramirez has with him the robe of the Holy Black Nazarene "which has a healing power if one wears it." Ong asked if he could have access to the robe "so he can be cured of his ailment (prostate cancer) which he keeps only to himself and to the immediate members of his family."

Napoles made arrangements with Ramirez until Ong "was able to drape the robe over his body for about one or two minutes in Quiapo Church. He also received a fragrant ball of cotton which he keeps until now to heal any ailing part of his body. That was a great deal for him. So out of courtesy, he visited Napoles in her office and thanked her." This was his first visit to Napoles.

This is where things get more interesting.

Court records showed that on January 21, 2013, or 10 months after the magistrate met with Ong in her JLN office,  the justice signed the probation order that allowed Napoles’ brother, Reynald Lim, and his wife, Anna Marie Dulguime, to escape prison term following their conviction in the Kevlar case. (READ: Noose tightens on fugitive Napoles brother)

This means the meetings between Napoles and Ong already transpired before the probation applications of Napoles’ brother and sister-in-law were approved by the court.

Morally unfit and unworthy

Ong’s alibi, however, fell short as far as Gutierrez was concerned.

In finding Ong also guilty of dishonesty, Gutierrez observed that Ong’s visit to Napoles “supports [Luy’s] assertion that he received money from Napoles.

“According to respondent (Ong), the purpose of his first visit was to thank Napoles for making it possible for him to wear the Holy Black Nazarene’s robe. Even assuming it is true, nonetheless, it is equally true that during that visit, respondent could have transacted with Napoles. Why would Napoles pay respondent an advance interest of P3,102,000 with her own money if it were not a consideration for a favor,” Gutierrez said in her report.

In this instance, “respondent’s transgression pertains to his personal life and no direct relation to his judicial function. It is not misconduct but plain dishonesty. His act is unquestionably disgraceful and renders him morally unfit as member of the judiciary and unworthy of the privileges the law confers on him.”

Gutierrez also found Ong guilty of impropriety when he allowed himself to be photographed with Senator Jinggoy Estrada and Napoles. Rappler published the photo showing a smiling Estrada side by side with Ong and Napoles. (READ: Exclusive: Napoles parties with anti-graft court justice)

While the photo was undated, Ong told Gutierrez the picture could have been taken during Estrada’s birthday celebration on February 17, 2012.

“This incident manifests respondent’s disregard of the dictum that propriety and the appearance of propriety are essential to the performance of all the activities of a judge. This exacting standard of decorum is demanded from justices to promote public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary."

“In joining Senator Estrada and Napoles in a picture taking, respondent gave a ground for reproach by reason of impropriety,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez also brushed aside Ong’s alibi that he did not know Napoles since she did not attend the hearings of the Kevlar case and might have waived her appearance. This was also the explanation given by Ong when Rappler sought to get his side on the photo.

“Respondent’s explanation lacks merit. That court could not have acquired jurisdiction over her if she did not appear personally for arraignment,” Gutierrez said. – Rappler.com