MANILA — The Supreme Court has partly granted the plea for clemency of a dismissed Sandiganbayan justice who was pictured in a party with and acquitted known pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles in the controversial Kevlar helmet case.
Former Justice Gregory Ong was dismissed in 2014 for gross misconduct, dishonesty and impropriety after the Supreme Court found that he visited Napoles’ office twice after her acquittal, which created the perception he allegedly “fixed” the case.
He was also pictured in a party with Napoles and former senator Jinggoy Estrada, among those charged for alleged involvement in the scam.
But 5 years after his dismissal, Ong petitioned the Supreme Court for clemency, claiming remorse and citing his contribution to legal scholarship and public service as well as his financial needs.
In a January 19, 2021 ruling released only recently, the Supreme Court through Associate Justice Marvic Leonen partly granted his plea.
“As a measure of mercy, this Court grants his retirement benefits. However, he forfeits two-thirds of his lump sum benefit as penalty. Considering the lapse of more than five years and subject to the usual clearances, Gregory Ong is now entitled to his full pension,” it said.
“His disqualification from reemployment in any branch, agency, or instrumentality of the government, including government-owned or controlled corporations is lifted,” it added.
Ong was the chair of the Sandiganbayan division which acquitted Napoles in 2010 of malversation of public funds and graft.
That issue involved the anomalous sale of 500 US-made Kevlar helmets worth P3.87 million to the Philippine Marine Corps but which were not delivered as specified. What arrived were Taiwan-made helmets.
Among the respondents, only Napoles was acquitted.
Ong’s ties to Napoles would later be revealed when the pork barrel scam issue surfaced in 2013. A former aide of Napoles, Marina Sula, executed an affidavit and testified at the Senate identifying Ong as among Napoles’ visitors in her office and supposedly Napoles’ contact at the anti-graft court.
Napoles also allegedly told her, prior to her acquittal, that she has contacts at the Sandiganbayan and the Office of the Ombudsman who could help clear her name.
At around the same time, news website Rappler also came out with a report showing Napoles in a photo with Ong and Estrada.
In his initial explanation to then Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Ong denied partying with Napoles, claiming the photo must have been taken during Estrada’s birthday party.
He also denied advising Napoles on the Kevlar case.
But during the high court’s investigation, whistleblower Benhur Luy claimed Ong received money from Napoles — 11 checks of ₱282,000.00 each — supposedly as advance payment for Ong’s interests in his supposed P25.5 million investment at the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Police Savings and Loan Association, Inc.
SC 2014 RULING
In its 2014 ruling, the Supreme Court did not find sufficient evidence of bribery or corruption against Ong but found him guilty of gross misconduct and impropriety for voluntarily meeting Napoles twice in her office.
The high court reminded Ong that judges should avoid the appearance of impropriety and this applies to meeting with a former party to a past case.
“[R]espondent's association with Napoles has unfortunately dragged the Judiciary into the ‘Pork Barrel’ controversy which initially involved only legislative and executive officials. Worse, Napoles' much-flaunted ‘contact’ in the judiciary is no less than a Justice of the Sandiganbayan, our special court tasked with hearing graft cases. We cannot, by any stretch of indulgence and compassion, consider respondent's transgression as a simple misconduct,” it said.
The Supreme Court also found Ong guilty of dishonesty for failing to disclose his visits to Napoles’ office in his letter to the chief justice.
SC 2021 RULING
The latest ruling, however, no longer considered Ong’s previous conduct, but only the events that happened after his dismissal from service.
The SC took note of Ong’s remorse and several testimonies on how he participated in socio-civic activities and provided free legal service.
“In his plea, he professes that he respects and accepts the wisdom of the decision, and that he understood the gravity and consequences of his acts. He narrates that he has quietly accepted his dismissal as a sincere expression of his repentance. Moreover, six years have passed since his dismissal, which is a sufficient period to allow him to fully acknowledge his infractions and reform,” it said.
It also noted Ong’s current medical condition.
“The medical abstract he submitted states that his prostate cancer has recurred, which now requires him to undergo an operation and possible chemotherapy. Since his dismissal, he claims to have been having a difficult medical and financial state, and if he will be allowed to again work for the government, he can use his remaining productive years to redeem himself and to be of service to the public,” it said.
But the high court also explained why it could not grant Ong’s plea in full:
“[W]e do not disregard the gravity and consequences of his past misconduct. He has been found guilty of gross misconduct, dishonesty, and impropriety. His acts have caused the ‘public in general to doubt the honesty and fairness of his participation in the Kevlar case and the integrity of our courts of justice.’ Humanity calls us to show benevolence and compassion to those deserving, but this Court has a greater duty toward justice and fairness. Thus, his plea is granted only in part.”
ABS-CBN News is still trying to reach out to the camp of Ong.
Napoles, meanwhile, is currently serving the penalty for her conviction for the crime of plunder in the case involving Sen. Bong Revilla. She faces other plunder charges related to cases against former senators Jinggoy Estrada and Juan Ponce Enrile.
The Sandiganbayan recently granted Revilla's demurrer to evidence, effectively dismissing the last remaining cases against him in relation to his alleged involvement in the scam.