SC justices face questions on propriety in Romualdez graft case

Posted at 03/14/2009 7:42 AM | Updated as of 03/14/2009 5:29 PM

The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on the graft case of Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez accepting double compensation from government when he was Leyte governor and, at the same time, ambassador from 1976 to early 1986.
 
The main issue in contention is whether the criminal case versus Romualdez, brother of former First Lady Imelda Romualez Marcos, should be dismissed on the ground of “prescription” of the offense. Romualdez was away from the country for 14 years, from 1986 to 2000.
 
The Presidential Commission on Good Government filed the case in 1987.
 
The new element here, as the Supreme Court en banc prepares for the oral arguments, has to do with propriety.
 
Last year, in October, Chief Justice Reynato Puno and Justice Consuelo Ynares Santiago traveled to Leyte, home province of the Romualdezes, to launch the enhanced justice-on-wheels program or EJOW.
 
The EJOW’s main feature is a mobile court that is meant to dispense justice in remote areas without courts. Puno and Ynares Santiago visited Tacloban City, which has nine courts, data from the SC’s Court Management Office show.
 
Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez and Leyte Rep.Martin Romualdez were enthusiastic hosts of the justices. Martin is the son of Benjamin Romualdez while Alfred is the latter’s nephew, son of Alfredo, Benjamin’s brother.
 
The practice in the EJOW is: local governments partner with the Supreme Court. This means the LGUs host the justices and staff and provide the venue for the Chief Justice’s meeting with the barangay officials.
 
Puno and Ynares Santiago, together with Supreme Court staff, were booked at the Leyte Park Hotel.
 
Mayor Romualdez assembled around 5,000 barangay officials in the Tacloban Astrodome, venue for major sports events as well as concerts. Puno spoke on the need to bring justice to the poor and representatives of the Philippine Judicial Academy lectured on the powers, duties and responsibilities of village officials. 
 
The meeting ended with the Chief Justice distributing certificates to the barangay captains. The city government prepared packed lunches for the thousands of attendees.
 
Donation from litigant’s son?
 
Martin Romualdez, for his part, announced he was donating a bus to the project. According to news reports, he made the pledge after he and the Chief Justice visited the Leyte Provincial Jail. 
 
The Supreme Court is still awaiting Romualdez’s promised donation. (Recently, the Federation of Philippine-Chinese Chamber of Commerce donated a brand new bus.)
 
Sources familiar with the program estimate LGU expenses for this EJOW event to be about P100,000.
 
The amount may not be much but the Leyte leg of EJOW has raised questions on propriety for Puno and Ynares-Santiago, chair of the program, since Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez has a pending case in the Supreme Court. The two Romualdezes who hosted Puno and the rest of the Supreme Court delegation are closely related to the litigant.
 
“Judges should avoid not just impropriety in their conduct but even the mere appearance of impropriety…It is essential that the judges be above suspicion…and that the people continue to trust in the fairness and impartiality of our magistrates, particularly in sensitive cases with far-reaching consequences,” Justice Adolf Azcuna wrote in May 2006, in his decision admonishing a Sandiganbayan justice.
 
Prescription period
 
The Romualdezes have been winning their court battles that have to do with their alleged ill-gotten wealth. Another win came Kokoy Romualdez’s way in 2006 when the Supreme Court dismissed criminal charges against him for not filing his statements of assets and liabilities from 1963 to 1985.
 
In the decision, Justice Ynares-Santiago said that the alleged offenses of Romualdez have already “prescribed.” She wrote that “…the State has lost its right to prosecute Romualdez for the offenses pending before the Sandiganbayan and the Regional Trial Court of Manila” because the 10- and 15-year prescriptive periods have run out.
 
It was a Special First Division case with Justices Adolfo Azcuna and Leonardo Quisumbing concurring with Ynares Santiago. Justice Antonio Carpio dissented.
 
In his dissenting opinion, Carpio argued that the prescriptive period is frozen when the accused is abroad. “The accused should not have the sole discretion of preventing his own prosecution by the simple expedient of escaping from the State’s jurisdiction,” he wrote.
 
“In this age of cheap and accessible global travel, this Court should not encourage individuals facing investigation or prosecution for violation of special laws to leave Philippine jurisdiction to sit-out abroad the prescriptive period,” Carpio continued.
 
Double compensation
 
In the current Romualdez case, the SC ordered the Sandiganbayan to proceed with the prosecution of Kokoy. In a unanimous decision promulgated on July 23, 2008, Justice Arturo Brion wrote that the Sandiganbayan committed “grave abuse of discretion” when it junked the complaint against Romualdez.
 
The decision pointed out that the question of whether Romualdez can legally receive dual compensation for the two “incompatible” positions—ambassador and Leyte governor—is a matter that should be fleshed out in a trial.
 
To prepare for the upcoming oral arguments, the SC required the parties to comment on the issue of “prescription,” the same contentious issue that led to the dismissal of the charges versus Romualdez in his SAL case. -- with research by Purple S. Romero