SC defines for the first time ‘betrayal of public trust’

By Ira Pedrasa,

Posted at Oct 07 2012 08:57 PM | Updated as of Oct 08 2012 05:33 AM

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) -- For would-be government prosecutors who intend or have threatened to initiate more impeachment cases in the future, the Supreme Court has already defined the definition for pursuing a “betrayal of public trust” angle against a government official.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Adolfo S. Azcuna gave a meaningful insight on a September 4 decision, which ordered the reinstatement of Deputy Ombudsman Emilio Gonzales III because the “administrative acts imputed to petitioner fall short of the constitutional standard of betrayal of public trust.”

Azcuna said that beyond the discourse on Gonzales’ case, the decision has also become a jurisprudence that should guide legal practitioners. He said that for the first time, the high court has given meaning to the concept of “betrayal of public trust.”

Azcuna is now the chancellor of the Philippine Judicial Academy (PHILJA), which promotes the continuing education for justices, judges, court personnel and lawyers.

The concept of “betrayal of public trust” was a bone of contention in the recent impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona. This was charged against him in several articles of impeachment.

In several instances, however, the newbie prosecutors led by Rep. Niel Tupas Jr. got a tongue-lashing from the senator-judges because of their flimsy accusations, such as partiality and lack of independence, to prove “betrayal of public trust.”

In the end, Corona was removed from office because of “culpable violation of the Constitution” for failure to disclose in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN) some of his bank accounts.

The Gonzales case

In a decision penned by Associate Justice Estelita-Perlas Bernabe, the full court ordered the reinstatement of Gonzales, who allegedly asked for a P150,000 bribe from police officer Rolando Mendoza for the dismissal of his criminal case.

Mendoza took hostage Hong Kong tourists at the Quirino Grandstand. At the end of the nine-hour drama involving the police, Mendoza and several of the tourists ended up dead.

Subsequent investigations eventually pointed to Gonzalez, when Mendoza mentioned his name during the negotiations for the release of the hostages.

Gonzalez denied the accusations, but the Office of the President (OP) dismissed him from office.

In that decision, the high court stressed that the President has the concurrent authority alongside the Ombudsman in removing a Deputy Ombudsman and Special Prosecutor. Still, the decision did not see any intentional wrongdoing on Gozales’ part that was already tantamount to a “betrayal of public trust.”

Would all misconducts result to dismissal from office?

The OP dismissed Gonzales, due to, among others, his failure to act swiftly on Mendoza’s motion for reconsideration. As such, this supposedly caused undue prejudice to the police officer who could have challenged any decision from the Office of the Ombudsman before the proper courts.

The OP also said Gonzales had undue interest in the case of Mendoza on the basis of an unverified complaint-affidavit.

The high court explained that the concept of “betrayal of public trust” was a new ground for impeachment added into the 1987 Constitution. The other existing grounds are: culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption and other high crimes.

It noted, however, that the “catch-all phrase betrayal of public trust that referred to 'all acts not punishable by statutes as penal offenses but, nonetheless, render the officer unfit to continue in office' could be easily utilized for every conceivable misconduct or negligence in office.”

Citing discussions in the drafting of the Constitution, the SC noted that human error and good faith should “preclude an adverse conclusion.”

The SC also cited a discussion among members of the Constitutional Commission. There, the commission described the phrase as: “Acts which are just short of being criminal but constitute gross faithlessness against public trust, tyrannical abuse of power, inexcusable negligence of duty, favoritism, and gross exercise of discretionary powers.”

‘Attended by bad faith’

The SC interpreted this simply: “Acts that should constitute betrayal of public trust as to warrant removal from office may be less than criminal but must be attended by bad faith and of such gravity and seriousness as the other grounds of impeachment.”

Azcuna cited the following as examples of crimes constituting betrayal of public trust: fraudulent act of malversation of funds and falsification of documents.

The SC said the OP’s findings were not anchored on the definition provided.

“The tragic hostage-taking incident was the result of a confluence of several unfortunate events including system failure of government response. It cannot be solely attributed to what Gonzales may have negligently failed to do for the quick, fair and complete resolution of the case, or to his error of judgment…,” the high court said.

It added that the supposed delay in the resolution of Mendoza’s MR cannot be considered a vicious act that already means Gonzales’ removal from office.

The SC said "betrayal of public trust" could have been present had Gonzales unduly delayed the case for having a private grudge against Mendoza.

The same decision also tackled a petition filed by Special Prosecutor Wendell Barreras-Sulit.

She earlier asked the high court to halt the preliminary investigation against her in connection with the plea bargain deal that her office forged with former military comptroller Carlos Garcia.

Unlike a favorable ruling in the case of Gonzales, the SC found enough basis for the OP to proceed with the probe versus Barreras-Sulit.

The SC said the findings of the disciplining authority on the part of the special prosecutor could result to an administrative liability, such as an ouster from office.

“[The] finding of ineptitude, neglect or willfulness on the part of the prosecution [especially Barreras-Sulit], in failing to pursue or build a strong case for the government, in this case, entering into an agreement which the government finds ‘grossly disadvantageous,’ could result in administrative liability…,” the high court noted.