MANILA (UPDATE) - Voting 8-5, with 2 abstentions, the Supreme Court (SC) ordered the dismissal from service of embattled Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Gregory Ong, finding him guilty of "gross misconduct, dishonesty, and impropriety under the New Code of Judicial Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary."
The administrative complaint against Ong stemmed from his alleged links to alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles.
Pork barrel scam whistleblowers Benhur Luy and Marina Sula alleged, before a Senate Blue Ribbon Committee hearing in September 2013, that Ong is Napoles' "contact" in the anti-graft court and allegedly received money from Napoles in exchange for favorable rulings in her cases.
Ong is the chairman of the anti-graft court's Fourth Division, which acquitted Napoles in 2010 in the questionable purchase of Kevlar helmets by the Philippine Marines.
The high court ordered Ong investigated and designated retired SC Associate Justice Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez to conduct the probe.
According to the Supreme Court, Gutierrez formulated the charges against Ong in the following manner:
1. Ong acted as contact of Napoles in connection with the Kevlar case while it was pending in the Sandiganbayan Fourth Division wherein he (Ong) is the chairman;
2. Ong, being Napoles' contact in the Sandiganbayan, fixed the Kevlar case resulting in her acquittal;
3. Ong received an undetermined amount of money from Napoles prior to the promulgation of the decision in the Kevlar case, thus, she was sure of her acquittal;
4. Ong visited Napoles in her office where she handed to him eleven checks, each amounting to P282,000.00 or a total of P3,102,000.00, as advanced interest for his P25.5 million BDO check she deposited in her personal account; and
5. Ong attended Napoles' parties and was photographed with Sen. [Jinggoy] Estrada and Napoles.
In her report to the SC en banc, Gutierrez pointed out that:
(a) Ong had visited Mrs. Napoles at her office on two occasions after participating in the decision in the Kevlar case which had resulted in her acquittal; and
(b) Ong had never disclosed his visit in his letter to the Chief Justice dated Sept. 26, 2013 despite his denial that he never partied with Mrs. Napoles.
Gutierrez also found that Luy and Sula, whom she summoned to appear before her, "testified in a candid, straightforward, and categorical manner."
Gutierrez also found their testimonies "instantaneous, clear, unequivocal, and carried with it the ring of truth."
The high court adopted Gutierrez's findings, stressing that only substantial evidence is required in administrative proceedings.
The high court ruled that Ong's "act of voluntarily meeting with Napoles at her office on two occasions was grossly improper and violated Section 1, Canon 4 (Propriety) of the New Code of Judicial Conduct."
"[A] judge must not only be impartial but must also appear to be impartial and that fraternizing with litigants tarnishes this appearance; it is also stressed that the rule on propriety extended beyond the time that a judge had already ruled on a pending litigation... it does not matter that the case is no londer pending when improper acts were committed by the judge.
"Because magistrates are under constant public scrutiny, the termination of a case will not deter public criticisms for acts which may cause suspicion on its disposition or resolution. The Court found that Justice Ong's misconduct could not be considered 'simple' because his association with Napoles had dragged the Judiciary into the 'pork barrel' controversy which initially involved only legislative and executive officials; further, the Court also considered that Napoles contact in the Judiciary turned out to be no less that a justice of the Sandiganbayan, the special court tasked with hearing graft cases," the SC said.
"The Court noted that the 'totality of the circumstances of such association [with Napoles] strongly indicates Ong's corrupt inclinations that only heightened the public's perception of anomaly in the decision-making process.'"
"By his act of going to Napoles at her office on two occasions, Ong exposed himself to the suspicion that he was partial to Napoles. That Ong was not the ponente of the decision which was rendered by a collegial body did not forestall such suspicion of partiality, as evident from the public disgust generated by the publication of a photograph of Ong together with Napoles and Sen. Jinggoy Estrada," the SC said.
The high court said Ong was not a first-time offender and "no longer fit to remain as a magistrate of the special graft court."
In 2010, the high court fined Ong P15,000 for conduct unbecoming for violating the Revised Internal Rules of the Sandiganbayan.
Ong, as chair of the anti-graft court's Fourth Division, allowed the conduct of separate hearings by him and his colleagues, in a case in Davao City, when hearings should be conducted by the division as a collegial body.
The high court ordered the forfeiture of all of Ong's retirement benefits, except accrued leave benefits, and barred him from reemployment in any government office.
The high court's decision is immediately executory.