SC keeps ruling vs Palace power to ax deputy ombudsman

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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

DEPUTY ombudsmen will remain insulated from political pressure in performing their task as graft busters in government.

In an email, Supreme Court (SC) spokesperson Theodore Te said the justices upheld on Tuesday its January 28 decision declaring as unconstitutional the power of the President to discipline a deputy ombudsman under Section 8(2) of the Ombudsman Act of 1989 (Republic Act 6770).

The same decision however maintains the President's jurisdiction over the Office of the Special Prosecutor, saying the position is not "constitutionally within" the Office of the Ombudsman, which enjoys political independence under the Constitution.

The Office of the Solicitor General filed a partial motion for reconsideration while Augusto Syjuco Jr., a former Iloilo lawmaker facing a string of graft and malversation cases in the Sandiganbayan, lodged a petition to end the power of the President to remove a Deputy Ombudsman and Special Prosecutor.

Both pleadings were dismissed on Tuesday.

In its decision, the SC explained that Section 8(2) puts at risk the independence of the Ombudsman, whose deputies are tasked to help the agency carry out its mandate of running after wayward public officials and employees.

"The mere fact that a statutorily-constructed sword of Damocles hangs over the Deputy Ombudsman's head, by itself, opens up all the channels for external pressures and influence of officialdom and partisan politics. The fear of external reprisal from the very office he is to check for excesses and abuses defeats the very purpose of granting independence to the Office of the Ombudsman," the SC said through Associate Justice Arturo Brion.

Congress apparently addressed the concern that a lack of a third party check against the Deputy Ombudsman would result in mutual protection between the Ombudsman and her deputies, the SC said, as it rejected this notion for ignoring existing checks and balances already in place.

The Court said the deputies cannot protect the Ombudsman because she is subject to impeachment by Congress. On the other hand, the Ombudsman’s attempt to cover up the misdeeds of her deputies can be questioned before the SC.

"The same attempt can likewise subject her to impeachment," it said.

The decision stemmed from the petitions filed by then Deputy Ombudsman for the Military and Other Law Enforcement Offices Emilio Gonzales III and former Special Prosecutor Wendell Sulit, who were removed by Malacañang for alleged infractions.

Gonzales was found guilty of gross neglect for sitting on the case of a policeman involved in the bloody Manila hostage-taking in August 2010 while Sulit was kicked out when she allowed her office to enter into a plea bargaining agreement with suspected plunderer retired Major General Carlos Garcia.

The Court reinstated Gonzales to his position, noting that failure to immediately act upon a party's request for early resolution of the case cannot be equated to betrayal of public trust, one of the grounds needed to kick out a Deputy Ombudsman and Special Prosecutor.

The SC said Gonzales endorsed the draft order dismissing the late Senior Inspector Rolando Mendoza from the service for the approval of then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez nine days after the records of the case were forwarded to him.

Gonzales and Sulit anchored their petitions on the unconstitutionality of Section 8(2). (Sunnex)

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