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G.R. No. 167828 - THE OMBUDSMAN ETC., ET AL. v. NESTOR S. VALEROSO

G.R. No. 167828 - THE OMBUDSMAN ETC., ET AL. v. NESTOR S. VALEROSO

PHILIPPINE SUPREME COURT DECISIONS

FIRST DIVISION

[G.R. NO. 167828 : April 2, 2007]

THE OMBUDSMAN, FACT-FINDING AND INTELLIGENCE BUREAU, Office of the Ombudsman, and PRELIMINARY INVESTIGATION AND ADMINISTRATIVE ADJUDICATION BUREAU, Office of the Ombudsman, Petitioners, v. NESTOR S. VALEROSO, Respondent.

D E C I S I O N

GARCIA, J.:

Assailed and sought to be set aside in this Petition for Review under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court are the following issuances of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. SP No. 84641, to wit:

1. Decision1 dated December 16, 2004 annulling and setting aside petitioner Ombudsman's Order of June 10, 2004, which placed respondent Nestor S. Valeroso under preventive suspension for six (6) months without pay; andcralawlibrary

2. Resolution2 dated April 13, 2005 denying petitioners' motion for reconsideration.

The facts may be briefly stated as follows:

On 16 January 2004, the Fact-Finding and Intelligence Bureau of the Office of the Ombudsman (OMB) lodged with OMB's Preliminary Investigation and Administrative Adjudication Bureau-B (PIAAB-B) a complaint3 with prayer for preventive suspension against respondent Nestor S. Valeroso in effect charging him criminally with Perjury and administratively with Dishonesty, Falsification of Official Documents and Conduct Prejudicial to the Best Interest of the Service.

It was alleged in said complaint that respondent, then occupying the position of Director II at the Bureau of Internal Revenue, failed to disclose his ownership of several properties, as well as certain business interests of his wife, in his sworn Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) from 1995 to 2002, in violation of Republic Act (R.A.) No. 6713, otherwise known as the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.

In an Order dated 19 February 2004, the PIAAB-B, by authority of the Ombudsman, directed Valeroso to submit his counter-affidavit. He subsequently did so, and followed it with a supplement thereto. Denying the allegations in the complaint that he had failed to disclose his ownership of the properties listed therein, as well as certain business interests of his wife, Valeroso prayed for the dismissal of the charges and the denial of the prayer for his preventive suspension.

Finding the existence of a strong indicia of guilt on the part [of Valeroso] for administrative offense of Dishonesty, and an unexplained increase in his net worth, the Ombudsman, in an Order4 dated 10 June 2004, placed respondent under preventive suspension for a period of six (6) months without pay.

On 17 June 2004, respondent filed with the CA a Petition for Certiorariand prohibition, with a prayer for preliminary injunction and/or temporary restraining order, thereat docketed as CA-G.R. SP No. 84641, seeking to nullify the preventive suspension order against him. Respondent alleged in his petition that the element of strong evidence of guilt was lacking. He also claimed lack of due process since his right to be informed of the nature of the charges against him was allegedly denied when the Ombudsman changed the basis of the complaint.

In its resolution of 02 July 2004, the appellate court initially dismissed CA-G.R. SP No. 84641 on the ground of prematurity and for being the wrong remedy. The appellate court, however, would later change its mind. Thus, in its Resolution of 21 July 2004, the CA granted respondent Valeroso's motion for reconsideration and thus reinstated his certiorari petition and even issued a temporary restraining order enjoining the petitioners from implementing the preventive suspension order above adverted to.

Ultimately, in the herein assailed decision of 16 December 2004, the CA, finding that grave abuse of discretion tainted the issuance of the preventive suspension order in question, granted respondent's petition and accordingly annulled and set aside the said order5 of preventive suspension, to wit:

WHEREFORE, in the light of the foregoing, the extant Petition is GRANTED.

The Order of the Ombudsman, placing the petitioner (now respondent) under preventive suspension for six (6) months without pay, having been issued with grave abuse of discretion is hereby ANNULLED and SET ASIDE.

No pronouncement as to costs.

SO ORDERED.

Explains the CA in its decision:

In the present case, it is clear from the recital of the Complaint and the summary thereof as contained in the assailed Order that the charge was only for the alleged failure to disclose certain properties and not for unexplained wealth or increase in net worth. Consequently, and in view of the above-mentioned rule, [petitioner] Ombudsman could not just arbitrarily expand the original charge of "Dishonesty" for failure to declare certain assets to "Dishonesty" for unexplained wealth or unexplainable increase in net worth.

Secondly, We do not agree with the [petitioner] Ombudsman that the [respondent] was well aware that the charge for failure to disclose certain properties in the Statement of Assets and Liabilities amounted to a charge for ill-gotten wealth. (Words in brackets added.)

In essence, the CA found Valeroso's claim of denial of due process meritorious since he was being made to answer, not only the alleged non-disclosure of certain properties, but also for unexplained increase in net worth, a charge about which, to the CA, Valeroso was denied the opportunity to explain.

Their motion for reconsideration having been denied by the CA in its equally assailed Resolution of 13 April 2005, petitioners are now with this Court on the basic issue of whether or not the CA had erred in finding that grave abuse of discretion attended the issuance of the subject preventive suspension order. It is petitioners' posture that, contrary to the conclusion of the appellate court, respondent Valeroso was accorded due process of law, and that there was no infirmity in the issuance of the disputed preventive suspension order.

We GRANT the petition.

We shall first cut through the procedural technicalities with which each party attempts to trip its opponent, and ultimately decide the case on its substantial merits.

There is no dispute as to the power of the Ombudsman to place a public officer charged with an administrative offense under preventive suspension. That power is clearly confined under Section 24 of R.A. No. 6770, otherwise known as the Ombudsman Act of 1989, which reads:

Sec. 24. Preventive Suspension. - The Ombudsman or his Deputy may preventively suspend any officer or employee under his authority pending an investigation, if in his judgment the evidence of guilt is strong, and (a) the charge against such officer or employee involves dishonesty, oppression or grave misconduct or neglect in the performance of duty; (b) the charges would warrant removal from the service; or (c) the respondent's continued stay in office may prejudice the case filed against him.

The preventive suspension shall continue until the case is terminated by the Office of the Ombudsman but not more than six months, without pay, except when the delay in the disposition of the case by the Office of the Ombudsman is due to the fault, negligence or petition of the respondent, in which case the period of such delay shall not be counted in computing the period of suspension herein provided.

Clear it is from the above that the law sets forth two conditions that must be satisfied to justify the issuance of an order of preventive suspension pending an investigation, to wit:

1. The evidence of guilt is strong; and

2. Either of the following circumstances co-exist with the first requirement:

A. The charge involves dishonesty, oppression or grave misconduct or neglect in the performance of duty;

b. The charge would warrant removal from the service; or

c. The respondent's continued stay in office may prejudice the case filed against him.

Here, respondent was charged with dishonesty, among other administrative and criminal charges, and the Ombudsman particularly found strong evidence to support said charge on the specified ground of "non-disclosure of assets and business interests." Questions on the strength of the evidence to support the preventive suspension order are squarely within the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman. On this score, the following pronouncements of this Court in Yasay, Jr. v. Desierto6 are very much in point:

The rule is that whether the evidence of guilt is strong, as required in Section 24 of R.A. No. 6770, is left to the determination of the Ombudsman by taking into account the evidence before him. In the very words of Section 24, the Ombudsman may preventively suspend a public official pending investigation if "in his judgment" the evidence presented before him tends to show that the official's guilt is strong and if the further requisites enumerated in Section 24 are present. The Court cannot substitute its own judgment for that of the Ombudsman on this matter, absent clear showing of grave abuse of discretion on the part of respondent Ombudsman.

Moreover, the charge of dishonesty is a grave offense which, if duly proven, merits the penalty of dismissal from the service on commission of the first infraction.7

In finding a denial of due process, the CA capitalized on the alleged added ground of "unexplained increase in net worth." At best, however, the supposedly added ground was a superfluity that should bolster or strengthen the charge of dishonesty rather than a reason to invalidate the preventive suspension order.

For sure, even on the said added ground, respondent cannot even rightfully assert denial of due process or deprivation of the right to be informed of the true nature and cause of the charges against him. This is so because the alleged other ground was brought about by his very own posturing in his counter-affidavit of 24 March 2004 that his combined income [with] his wife is more sufficient to cover the cost of acquiring the properties alleged, erroneously, to have been concealed. Since the issue of sufficiency of income was raised by no less than the respondent himself, he should have been barred from questioning the authority and jurisdiction of the Ombudsman in resolving said issue, what with the familiar rule that a party who has invoked the jurisdiction of a court or tribunal is estopped from challenging that jurisdiction after the court or tribunal had decided the case against him.8

Clearly, as the non-disclosure in his SALN of his assets and business interest was understood by respondent himself, such non-disclosure essentially embraced or comprehended concealment of unexplained wealth. No doubt, the provisions of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act (R.A. No. 3019, as amended) recited in paragraph 7.0 of respondent's counter-affidavit refer to no other than the following complementing provisions of Sections 7 and 8 of the same law which respectively read:

Sec. 7. Statement of Assets and Liabilities. - Every public officer, within thirty days after assuming office, and thereafter, on or before the fifteenth day of April following the close of every calendar year, as well as upon the expiration of his term of office, or upon his resignation or separation from office, shall prepare and file with the office of corresponding Department Head, or in the case of a Head Department or chief of an independent office, with the office of the President, a true, detailed and sworn statement of the amounts and sources of his income, the amounts of his personal and family expenses and the amount of income taxes paid for the next preceding calendar year: Provided, That public officers assuming office less than two months before the end of the calendar year, may file their first statement on or before the fifteenth day of April following the close of said calendar year.

Sec. 8. Prima Facie Evidence of and Dismissal Due to Unexplained Wealth. - If in accordance with the provisions of Republic Act Numbered One Thousand Three Hundred Seventy-Nine, a public official has been found to have acquired during his incumbency, whether in his name or in the name of other persons, an amount of property and/or money manifestly out of proportion to his salary and to his other lawful income, that fact shall be ground for dismissal or removal. Properties in the name of the spouse and dependents of such public official may be taken into consideration, when their acquisition through legitimate means cannot be satisfactorily shown. Bank deposits in the name of or manifestly excessive expenditures incurred by the public official, his spouse or any of their dependents including but not limited to activities in any club or association or any ostentatious display of wealth including frequent travel abroad of a non-official character by any public official when such activities entail expenses evidently out of proportion to legitimate income, shall likewise be taken into consideration in the enforcement of this Section, notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary. The circumstances hereinabove mentioned shall constitute valid ground for the administrative suspension of the public official concerned for an indefinite period until the investigation of the unexplained wealth is completed.

Section 8 above, speaks of unlawful acquisition of wealth, the evil sought to be suppressed and avoided, and Section 7, which mandates full disclosure of wealth in the SALN, is a means of preventing said evil and is aimed particularly at curtailing and minimizing the opportunities for official corruption and maintaining a standard of honesty in the public service. "Unexplained" matter normally results from "non-disclosure" or concealment of vital facts. SALN, which all public officials and employees are mandated to file, are the means to achieve the policy of accountability of all public officers and employees in the government. By the SALN, the public are able to monitor movement in the fortune of a public official; it is a valid check and balance mechanism to verify undisclosed properties and wealth.

Respondent cannot claim any right against, or damage or injury that he is bound to suffer from, the issuance of the preventive suspension order in question, in the light of the unbending rule that there is no such thing as a vested right or an estate in an office, or even an absolute right to hold it.9 Public Office is not property but a "public trust or agency."10 While due process may be relied upon by public officials to protect their security of tenure which, in a limited sense, is analogous to property, such fundamental right to security of tenure cannot be invoked against a preventive suspension order which is a preventive measure, not imposed as a penalty.11

The CA's reliance on Yangco v. Board of Public Utility Commissioners12 to prop up its finding of denial of due process is utterly misplaced. The order complained of in Yangco was a final order which disposed of the merits of the complaint in that case. Here, what is at issue is a preventive suspension order, a mere preventive measure during an ongoing administrative investigation.

WHEREFORE, the instant petition is GRANTED and the assailed decision and resolution of the CA are ANNULLED and SET ASIDE.

No pronouncement as to costs.

SO ORDERED.

Endnotes:


1 Penned by Associate Justice Jose L. Sabio, with Associate Justices Eubulo G. Verzola (now deceased) and Noel G. Tijam, concurring; Rollo, pp. 8-28.

2 Id. at 29-31.

3 Id. at 186-189.

4 Id. at 210-218.

5 Id. at 27.

6 G.R. No. 134495, December 28, 1998, 300 SCRA 494, 505-506.

7 De Guzman v. Delos Santos, A.M. No. 2002-8-SC, December 18, 2002, 394 SCRA 210.

8 Arreza v. Diaz, Jr., G.R. No. 133113, Augusto 30, 2001, 364 SCRA 664.

9 National Land Titles and Deeds Registration Administration v. Civil Service Commission, G.R. No. 84301, April 7, 1993, 221 SCRA 145.

10 Cornejo v. Gabriel, 41 Phil. 188, 194 (1920); Section 1, Article 11, 1987 Constitution.

11 Alonzo v. Capulong, G.R. No. 110590, May 10, 1995, 244 SCRA 80; Yabut v. Ombudsman, G.R. No. 111304, June 17, 1994, 233 SCRA 310; Rios v. Sandiganbayan, G.R. No. 129913, September 26, 1997, 279 SCRA 581, 588.

12 36 Phil. 116 (1917).

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