Republic of the Philippines
SUPREME COURT
Manila

SECOND DIVISION

G.R. No. 172035               July 4, 2012

FERNANDO Q. MIGUEL, Petitioner,
vs.
THE HONORABLE SANDIGANBAYAN, Respondent.

D E C I S I O N

BRION, J.:

Before the Court is a petition for certiorari under Rule 651 filed by Fernando Q. Miguel (petitioner), assailing the January 25, 2006 and March 27, 2006 resolutions2 of the Sandiganbayan. These resolutions (i) ordered the petitionerís suspension from public office and (ii) denied the petitionerís motion for reconsideration of the suspension order.

THE ANTECEDENT FACTS

On May 29, 1996, then Vice Mayor Mercelita M. Lucido and other local officials3 of Koronadal City, South Cotabato filed a letter-complaint with the Office of the Ombudsman-Mindanao (Ombudsman)4 charging the petitioner, among others,5 with violation of Republic Act (R.A.) No. 3019, in connection with the consultancy services for the architectural aspect, the engineering design, and the construction supervision and management of the proposed Koronadal City public market (project).6

In a June 27, 1996 order, the Ombudsman directed the petitioner, among others, to submit his counter-affidavit. On October 23, 1996, after moving for an extension, the petitioner filed his counter-affidavit.7 In its July 29, 1999 resolution, the Ombudsman found probable cause against the petitioner and some private individuals for violation of R.A. No. 3019 and against the petitioner alone for Falsification of Public Document under Article 171, par. 4 of the Revised Penal Code.8

On March 1, 2000, the Ombudsman filed the corresponding informations with the Sandiganbayan.9 The information for violation of Section 3(e) of R.A. No. 3019 reads:

That on 10 January 1995 or sometime prior or subsequent thereto, in the Municipality of Koronadal, South Cotabato, Philippines, and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the [petitioner], a high ranking public officer in his capacity as former Municipal Mayor of Koronadal, South Cotabato, and as such while in the performance of his official functions, committing the offense in relation to his office, taking advantage of his official position, conspiring and confederating with the private [individuals] xxx acting with evident bad faith and manifest partiality, did then and there willfully, unlawfully and criminally give unwarranted benefits and advantages to said [accused], by inviting them to participate in the prequalification of consultants to provide the Detailed Architectural & Engineering Design and Construction Supervision and Management of the proposed Koronadal Public Market, without causing the publication of said invitation in a newspaper of general circulation, thereby excluding other consultants from participating in said prequalification.10 (Emphases and underscoring added)

On motions separately filed by two of the petitionerís co-accused,11 the Sandiganbayan ordered the Office of the Special Prosecutor (OSP) to conduct a reinvestigation. On August 21, 2000, the petitioner, through counsel, followed suit and orally moved for a reinvestigation, which the Sandiganbayan likewise granted. The Sandiganbayan gave the petitioner ten (10) days within which to file his counter-affidavit with the OSP.12

Instead of submitting his counter-affidavit, the petitioner asked13 the Sandiganbayan for a thirty-day extension to submit his counter-affidavit. Shortly before the expiry of the extension requested, the petitioner asked14 the OSP for an additional thirty-day period to file his counter-affidavit. Despite the two extensions asked and granted, the petitioner asked the OSP anew for a twenty-day extension period.15

Despite the extension period asked and given, the petitioner failed to file his counter-affidavit, prompting Prosecutor Norberto B. Ruiz to declare that the petitioner had waived his right to submit countervailing evidence (April 25, 2001 resolution). On July 31, 2001, then Ombudsman Aniano Desierto approved the resolution.16

On August 7, 2001, Prosecutor Ruiz asked the Sandiganbayan for the arraignment and trial of the petitioner and of the other accused private individuals.17

On August 6, 2002, after several extensions sought and granted, the petitioner filed a Motion to Quash and/or Reinvestigation for the criminal cases against him. On February 18, 2003, the Sandiganbayan denied the petitionerís motion because of the pending OSP reinvestigation Ė this, despite the OSPís earlier termination of the reinvestigation for the petitionerís continuous failure to submit his counter-affidavit.18 The petitioner did not question the denial of his motion.

On November 3, 2004, the petitioner was arraigned; he pleaded not guilty in both criminal cases.19

On April 28, 2005, the OSP filed a Motion to Suspend [the petitioner] Pendente Lite. On June 27, 2005, the petitioner filed his "Vigorous Opposition" based on the "obvious and fatal defect of the [i]nformation" in failing to allege that the giving of unwarranted benefits and advantages was done through manifest partiality, evident bad faith or gross inexcusable negligence.20

On January 25, 2006, the Sandiganbayan promulgated the assailed resolution21 suspending the petitioner pendente lite Ė

WHEREFORE, PREMISES CONSIDERED, the Prosecutionís Motion is GRANTED. As prayed for, the Court hereby orders the suspension of [the petitioner] from his position as City Mayor, Koronadal City, South Cotabato, and from any other public position he now holds. His suspension shall be for a period of ninety (90) days only.22

On February 2, 2006, the petitioner moved for reconsideration of his suspension order and demanded for a pre-suspension hearing.23 The Sandiganbayan denied his motion,24 prompting him to file this certiorari petition to challenge the validity of his suspension order.

THE PETITION

The petitioner claims that the Sandiganbayan gravely abused its discretion in ordering his suspension despite the failure of the information to allege that the giving of unwarranted benefits and advantages by the petitioner was made through "manifest partiality, evident bad faith or gross inexcusable negligence." He alleges that the phrases "evident bad faith" and "manifest partiality" actually refers not to him, but to his co-accused,25 rendering the information fatally defective.

The petitioner bewails the lack of hearing before the issuance of his suspension order. Citing Luciano, et al. v. Hon. Mariano, etc., et al.,26 he claims that "[n]owhere in the records of the [case] can [one] see any order or resolution requiring the [p]etitioner to show cause at a specific date of hearing why he should not be ordered suspended."27 For the petitioner, the requirement of a pre-suspension hearing can only be satisfied if the Sandiganbayan ordered an actual hearing to settle the "defect" in the information.

THE OSPíS COMMENT

The OSP argues for the sufficiency of the information since all the elements of the offense under Section 3(b) of R.A. No. 3019 are specifically pleaded by way of ultimate facts. These elements are:

1. The petitioner was the Municipal Mayor of Koronadal, South Cotabato at the time material to the acts complained of;

2. The petitioner acted with manifest partiality and evident bad faith when he invited only his co-accused private individuals to participate in the prequalification of consultants for the project instead of publishing it in a newspaper of general circulation; and

3. The petitionerís actions, performed in relation to his office, gave unwarranted benefits and advantages to his co-accused.28

The OSP faults the petitioner for his attempt to mislead the Court on the sufficiency of the allegations in the information, by conveniently failing to cite the phrase "acting with evident bad faith and manifest partiality" when the petitioner quoted the "relevant" portions of the information in his petition.

Citing Juan v. People,29 the OSP argues that while no actual pre-suspension hearing was conducted, the events preceding the issuance of the suspension order already satisfied the purpose of conducting a pre-suspension hearing Ė i.e., basically, to determine the validity of the information. Here, the petitioner was afforded his right to preliminary investigation both by the Ombudsman and by the OSP (when the petitioner moved for a reinvestigation with the Sandiganbayan); the acts for which the petitioner was charged constitute a violation of R.A. No. 3019 and Title VII, Book II of the Revised Penal Code; and the petitioner already moved to quash the information, although unsuccessfully, after he had been declared to have waived his right to submit countervailing evidence in the reinvestigation by the OSP.30

ISSUES

There are only two issues presented for our resolution:

1. Whether the information, charging the petitioner with violation of Section 3(e) of R.A. No. 3019, is valid; and

2. If it is valid, whether the absence of an actual pre-suspension hearing renders invalid the suspension order against the petitioner.

THE COURTíS RULING

We dismiss the petition for failure to establish any grave abuse of discretion in the issuance of the assailed resolutions.

The information for violation of R.A. No. 3019 is valid

In deference to the constitutional right of an accused to be informed of the nature and the cause of the accusation against him,31 Section 6, Rule 110 of the Revised Rules of Criminal Procedure (Rules)32 requires, inter alia, that the information shall state the designation of the offense given by the statute and the acts or omissions imputed which constitute the offense charged. Additionally, the Rules requires that these acts or omissions and its attendant circumstances "must be stated in ordinary and concise language" and "in terms sufficient to enable a person of common understanding to know what offense is being charged x x x and for the court to pronounce judgment."33

The test of the informationís sufficiency is whether the crime is described in intelligible terms and with such particularity with reasonable certainty so that the accused is duly informed of the offense charged. In particular, whether an information validly charges an offense depends on whether the material facts alleged in the complaint or information shall establish the essential elements of the offense charged as defined in the law. The raison díetre of the requirement in the Rules is to enable the accused to suitably prepare his defense.34

In arguing against the validity of the information, the petitioner appears to go beyond the standard of a "person of common understanding" in appreciating the import of the phrase "acting with evident bad faith and manifest partiality." A reading of the information clearly reveals that the phrase "acting with evident bad faith and manifest partiality" was merely a continuation of the prior allegation of the acts of the petitioner, and that he ultimately acted with evident bad faith and manifest partiality in giving unwarranted benefits and advantages to his co-accused private individuals. This is what a plain and non-legalistic reading of the information would yield.

Notably, in his petition, the petitioner would have us believe that this elemental phrase was actually omitted in the information35 when, in his reaction to the OSPís comment, what the petitioner actually disputes is simply the clarity of the phraseís position, in relation with the other averments in the information. Given the supposed ambiguity of the subject being qualified by the phrase "acting with evident bad faith and manifest partiality," the remedy of the petitioner, if at all, is merely to move for a bill of particulars and not for the quashal of an information which sufficiently alleges the elements of the offense charged.36

The pre-suspension order is valid

Section 13 of R.A. No. 3019 reads:

Section 13. Suspension and loss of benefits. Any public officer against whom any criminal prosecution under a valid information under this Act or under the provisions of the Revised Penal Code on bribery is pending in court, shall be suspended from office. Should he be convicted by final judgment, he shall lose all retirement or gratuity benefits under any law, but if he is acquitted, he shall be entitled to reinstatement and to the salaries and benefits which he failed to receive during suspension, unless in the meantime administrative proceedings have been filed against him.

While the suspension of a public officer under this provision is mandatory,37 the suspension requires a prior hearing to determine "the validity of the information"38 filed against him, "taking into account the serious and far reaching consequences of a suspension of an elective public official even before his conviction."39 The accused public officialís right to challenge the validity of the information before a suspension order may be issued includes the right to challenge the (i) validity of the criminal proceeding leading to the filing of an information against him, and (ii) propriety of his prosecution on the ground that the acts charged do not constitute a violation of R.A. No. 3019 or of the provisions on bribery of the Revised Penal Code.40

In Luciano v. Mariano41 that the petitioner relied upon, the Court required, "by way of broad guidelines for the lower courts in the exercise of the power of suspension," that Ė

(c) Öupon the filing of such information, the trial court should issue an order with proper notice requiring the accused officer to show cause at a specific date of hearing why he should not be ordered suspended from office pursuant to the cited mandatory provisions of the Act. Where either the prosecution seasonably files a motion for an order of suspension or the accused in turn files a motion to quash the information or challenges the validity thereof, such show-cause order of the trial court would no longer be necessary. What is indispensable is that the trial court duly hear the parties at a hearing held for determining the validity of the information, and thereafter hand down its ruling, issuing the corresponding order of suspension should it uphold the validity of the information or withholding such suspension in the contrary case.

(d) No specific rules need be laid down for such pre-suspension hearing. Suffice it to state that the accused should be given a fair and adequate opportunity to challenge the validity of the criminal proceedings against him, e.g. that he has not been afforded the right of due preliminary investigation; that the acts for which he stands charged do not constitute a violation of the provisions of Republic Act No. 3019 or of the bribery provisions of the Revised Penal Code which would warrant his mandatory suspension from office under section 13 of the Act; or he may present a motion to quash the information on any of the grounds provided in Rule 117 of the Rules of Court. (Emphasis supplied)

The petitioner questions the absence of any show cause order issued by the Sandiganbayan before his suspension in office was ordered. As clear as the day, however, Luciano considered it unnecessary for the trial court to issue a show cause order when the motion, seeking the suspension of the accused pendente lite, has been submitted by the prosecution, as in the present case.

The purpose of the law in requiring a pre-suspension hearing is to determine the validity of the information so that the trial court can have a basis to either suspend the accused and proceed with the trial on the merits of the case, withhold the suspension and dismiss the case, or correct any part of the proceedings that impairs its validity.1‚wphi1 That hearing is similar to a challenge to the validity of the information by way of a motion to quash.42

While a pre-suspension hearing is aimed at securing for the accused fair and adequate opportunity to challenge the validity of the information or the regularity of the proceedings against him,43 Luciano likewise emphasizes that no hard and fast rule exists in regulating its conduct.44 With the purpose of a pre-suspension hearing in mind, the absence of an actual hearing alone cannot be determinative of the validity of a suspension order.

In Bedruz v. Sandiganbayan,45 the Court considered the opposition of the accused (to the prosecutionís motion to suspend pendente lite) as sufficient to dispense with the need to actually set the prosecutionís motion for hearing. The same conclusion was reached in Juan v. People,46 where the Court ruled:

In the case at bar, while there was no pre-suspension hearing held to determine the validity of the Informations that had been filed against petitioners, we believe that the numerous pleadings filed for and against them have achieved the goal of this procedure. The right to due process is satisfied nor just by an oral hearing but by the filing and the consideration by the court of the parties' pleadings, memoranda and other position papers.

Since a pre-suspension hearing is basically a due process requirement, when an accused public official is given an adequate opportunity to be heard on his possible defenses against the mandatory suspension under R.A. No. 3019, then an accused would have no reason to complain that no actual hearing was conducted.47 It is well settled that "to be heard" does not only mean oral arguments in court; one may be heard also through pleadings. Where opportunity to be heard, either through oral arguments or pleadings, has been accorded, no denial of procedural due process exists.48

In the present case, the petitioner (i) filed his Vigorous Opposition (to the OSPís Motion to Suspend Accused Pendente Lite), and after receiving an adverse ruling from the Sandiganbayan, (ii) moved for reconsideration of the suspension order issued against him, and (iii) filed a Reply to the OSPís Opposition to his plea for reconsideration.49 Given this opportunity, we find that the petitionerís continued demand for the conduct of an actual pre-suspension hearing Ė based on the same alleged "defect in the information,"50 which we have found wanting Ė has legally nothing to anchor itself on.

Another reason that militates against the petitionerís position relates to the nature of Section 13 of R.A. No. 3019; it is not a penal provision that would call for a liberal interpretation in favor of the accused public official and a strict construction against the State.51 The suspension required under this provision is not a penalty, as it is not imposed as a result of judicial proceedings; in fact, if acquitted, the accused official shall be entitled to reinstatement and to the salaries and benefits which he failed to receive during his suspension.52

Rather, the suspension under Section 13 of R.A. No. 3019 is a mere preventive measure53 that arises from the legal presumption that unless the accused is suspended, he may frustrate his prosecution or commit further acts of malfeasance or do both, in the same way that upon a finding that there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and that the accused is probably guilty thereof, the law requires the judge to issue a warrant for the arrest of the accused.54

Suspension under R.A. No. 3019 being a mere preventive measure whose duration shall in no case exceed ninety (90) days,55 the adequacy of the opportunity to contest the validity of the information and of the proceedings that preceded its filing vis-à-vis the merits of the defenses of the accused cannot be measured alone by the absence or presence of an actual hearing. An opportunity to be heard on oneís defenses, however unmeritorious it may be, against the suspension mandated by law equally and sufficiently serves both the due process right of the accused and the mandatory nature of the suspension required by law.

Lest it be forgotten, Section 13 of R.A. No. 3019 reinforces the principle enshrined in the Constitution that a public office is a public trust.56 In light of the constitutional principle underlying the imposition of preventive suspension of a public officer charged under a valid information and the nature of this suspension, the petitionerís demand for a trial-type hearing in the present case would only overwhelmingly frustrate, rather than promote, the orderly and speedy dispensation of justice.

WHEREFORE, we hereby DISMISS the petition for lack of merit.

SO ORDERED.

ARTURO D. BRION
Associate Justice

WE CONCUR:

ANTONIO T. CARPIO
Senior Associate Justice
Chairperson

JOSE PORTUGAL PEREZ
Associate Justice
MARIA LOURDES P. A. SERENO
Associate Justice

BIENVENIDO L. REYES
Associate Justice

C E R T I F I C A T I O N

I certify that the conclusions in the above Decision had been reached in consultation before the case was assigned to the writer of the opinion of the Courtís Division.

ANTONIO T. CARPIO
Senior Associate Justice
(Per Section 12, R.A. 296, The Judiciary Act of 1948, as amended)


Footnotes

1 RULES OF COURT.

2 Penned by Associate Justice Godofredo L. Legaspi, and concurred in by Associate Justices Efren N. dela Cruz and Norberto Y. Geraldez, Sr.

3 The Sangguniang Bayan members-complainants are as follows: Rose Dideles, Rene Jumilla, Pablito Subere and Edwin Abris; rollo, p. 5.

4 Id. at 83.

5 Gaspar E. Nepomuceno, Jesus G. Casus, Ernesto R. Lagdameo, Jr., Bonifacio M. Madarcos, and Vinci Nicholas R. Villaseñor; id. at 103.

6 Id. at 110-113.

7 Id. at 124-125.

8 Id. at 5 and 83.

9 The case for violation of R.A. No. 3019 was docketed as Criminal Case No. 25819 (id. at 103). The Office of the Special Prosecutor filed a Motion to drop Ernesto R. Lagdameo, Jr., Bonifacio M. Madarcos, Jesus G. Casus and Vinci Nicholas R. Villaseñor from the Information (id. at 106 and 108). The falsification case was docketed as Criminal Case No. 25820 (id. at 103).

10 Id. at 117.

11 On March 3, 2000 and June 5, 2000, Bonifacio M. Madarcos and Ernesto R. Lagdameo, Jr., respectively, filed a Motion for Reinvestigation; id. at 103-104.

12 Id. at 104.

13 Dated August 30, 2000; ibid.

14 Dated September 28, 2000; id. at 105.

15 Dated October 29, 2000; ibid.

16 Id. at 106.

17 Ibid.

18 Id. at 27.

19 Id. at 6.

20 Id. at 6-7.

21 Id. at 21-24.

22 Id. at 24.

23 Id. at 13.

24 Id. at 26-28.

25 Id. at 67.

26 148-B Phil. 178 (1971).

27 Rollo, pp. 13-14.

28 Rollo, p. 45.

29 379 Phil. 125 (2000).

30 Citing Socrates v. Sandiganbayan, 324 Phil. 151 (1996).

31 CONSTITUTION, Article III, Section 14(2).

32 Section 6, Rule 110 of the Revised Rules of Criminal Procedure reads:

SEC. 6. Sufficiency of complaint or information. ó A complaint or information is sufficient if it states the name of the accused; the designation of the offense given by the statute; the acts or omissions complained of as constituting the offense; the name of the offended party; the approximate date of the commission of the offense; and the place where the offense was committed.

When an offense is committed by more than one person, all of them shall be included in the complaint or information.

33 Section 9, Rule 110 of the Revised Rules of Criminal Procedure reads:

SEC. 9. Cause of the accusation. ó The acts or omissions complained of as constituting the offense and the qualifying and aggravating circumstances must be stated in ordinary and concise language and not necessarily in the language used in the statute but in terms sufficient to enable a person of common understanding to know what offense is being charged as well as its qualifying and aggravating circumstance and for the court to pronounce judgment.

34 Lazarte, Jr. v. Sandiganbayan, G.R. No. 180122, March 13, 2009, 581 SCRA 431.

35 See Dela Chica v. Sandiganbayan, G.R. No. 144823, December 8, 2003, 417 SCRA 242.

36 REVISED RULES OF CRIMINAL PROCEDURE, Rule 116, Section 9; and Romualdez v. Sandiganbayan, G.R. No. 152259, July 29, 2004, 435 SCRA 371, 388-389.

37 Flores v. Layosa, G.R. No. 154714, August 12, 2004, 436 SCRA 337, 345.

38 Luciano, et al. v. Hon. Mariano, etc, et al., supra note 26, at 183-184; and People v. Albano, Nos. L-45376-77, July 26, 1988, 163 SCRA 511, 517.

39 Ibid.

40 People v. Albano, supra note 38, at 518-519; and Socrates v. Sandiganbayan, supra note 30, at 179.

41 Supra note 26, at 192-193.

42 Talaga, Jr. v. Sandiganbayan, G.R. No. 169888, November 11, 2008, 570 SCRA 622, 632.

43 Segovia v. Sandiganbayan, G.R. No. 124067, March 27, 1998, 288 SCRA 328, 339.

44 Santiago v. Sandiganbayan, G.R. No. 128055, April 18, 2001, 356 SCRA 636, 645; and Flores v. Layosa, G.R. No. 154714, August 12, 2004, supra note 37, at 345-346.

45 G.R. No. 161640, December 9, 2005, 513 Phil. 400 (2005).

46 Supra note 29, at 140.

47 Flores v. Layosa, supra note 37, at 345-346.

48 Tan v. Atty. Balon, Jr., A.C. No. 6483, August 31, 2007, 531 SCRA 645, 655-656.

49 Rollo, p. 109.

50 Id. at 95.

51 Villaseñor v. Sandiganbayan, G.R. No. 180700, March 4, 2008, 547 SCRA 658, 666-668.

52 Bayot v. Sandiganbayan, No. L-61776 to No. L-61861, March 23, 1984, 128 SCRA 383.

53 Villaseñor v. Sandiganbayan, supra note 50, at 666-667; and Segovia v. Sandiganbayan, supra note 43, at 336.

54 Bolastig v. Sandiganbayan, G.R. No. 110503, August 4, 1994, 235 SCRA 103, 108.

55 Deloso v. Sandiganbayan, G.R. Nos. 86899-903, May 15, 1989, 173 SCRA 409, 419.

56 CONSTITUTION, Article XI, Section 1; Berona v. Sandiganbayan, G.R. No. 142456, July 27, 2004, 435 SCRA 303.


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