Aguilar v. Ombudsman (G.R. No. 197307; February 26, 2014)


FACTS: In June 2003, the Philippine National Police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (PNPCIDG) conducted an investigation on the lavish lifestyle and alleged nefarious activities of certain personnel of the Bureau of Customs, among them petitioners Flor Gupilan Aguilar (Aguilar), then Chief of the Miscellaneous Division, and Honore Hernandez (Hernandez), Customs Officer III.

Following weeks of investigation, PNP-CIDG team found out that petitioner Aguilar owns properties, real and personal, which are not declared in her SALNs. It was also found out that in the span of four years, petitioner took 13 unofficial trips and would have spent 3.4M as per PNP-CIDGs estimate. In view these circumstances, petitioner was charged with grave misconduct and dishonesty. The ombudsman created an investigating panel which conducted administrative proceedings on the complaint.

The Ombudsman found the petitioners guilty of the administrative offenses of Grave misconduct and dishonesty and ordered the dismissal of the petitioners. Petitioners moved for reconsideration of the decision but the same was denied. On appeal to the CA via petition for review under Rule 43, petitioners asserted that the decision of the Ombudsman is merely recommendatory and not immediately executory stating the rule pronounced by the court in the case of Tapiador vs Office of the Ombudsman. CA denied the petition and affirmed the decision of the Ombudsman.

ISSUES: Is the decision of the Ombudsman immediately executory?
Did Petitioners properly appeal to the CA?
Are Petitioners guilty of the offense charged?

HELD: Decision of the Ombudsman is not merely recommendatory but is immediately executory.

Petitioners witting or unwitting invocation of Tapiador is specious. Administrative disciplinary authority of the OMB does not end with a recommendation to punish. The statement in Tapiador that the Ombudsman is without authority to directly dismiss an erring public official as its mandate is only to recommend was mere obiter dictum, and cannot, in the words of Ledesma v. Court of Appeals,be cited as a doctrinal declaration of the Supreme Court.

An appeal shall not stop the decision from being executory. In case the penalty is suspension or removal and the respondent wins such appeal, he shall be considered as having been under preventive suspension and shall be paid the salary and such other emoluments that he did not receive by reason of the suspension or removal.

HELD: The acts complained of constitutes dishonesty but not grave misconduct.

The charges against petitioners for grave misconduct and dishonesty basically stemmed from their alleged act of amassing unexplained wealth or acquiring properties disproportionate to their income, petitioner Aguilars alleged failure to declare them in her SALNs, and for petitioner Hernandez alleged acquiescence to be her dummy. However, even if petitioners, for argument, failed to include several properties in their SALNs, the omission, by itself, does not amount to grave misconduct.

It is settled that misconduct, misfeasance, or malfeasance warranting removal from office of an officer must have direct relation to and be connected with the performance of official duties amounting either to maladministration or willful, intentional neglect and failure to discharge the duties of the office.Owning properties disproportionate to ones salary and not declaring them in the corresponding SALNs cannot, without more, be classified as grave misconduct. Even if these allegations were true, we cannot see our way clear how the fact of nondeclarations would have a bearing on the performance of functions by petitioner Aguilar, as Customs Chief of the Miscellaneous Division, and by petitioner Hernandez, as Customs Operations Officer. It is non sequitur to assume that the omission to declare has served, in some way, to hinder the rendition of sound public service for there is no direct relation or connection between the two. Without a nexus between the act complained of and the discharge of duty, the charge of grave misconduct shall necessarily fail.

On the other hand, dishonesty as juridically understood, implies the disposition to lie, cheat, deceive, or defraud; untrustworthiness; lack of integrity; lack of honesty or probity in principle; lack of fairness and straightforwardness; disposition to defraud, deceive or betray. The inculpatory allegations in the controversy, if proved, qualify as acts of dishonesty that would merit dismissal from service. The requirement of filing a SALN is enshrined, as it were, in the Constitution to promote transparency in the civil service and operates as a deterrent against government officials bent on enriching themselves through unlawful means. By mandate of law, it behooves every government official or employee to make a complete disclosure of his or her assets, liabilities and net worth in order to suppress any questionable accumulation of wealth because the latter usually results from nondisclosure of such matters.

HELD: Appeal is the proper remedy.

The nature of the case before the Office of the Ombudsman (OMB) determines the proper remedy available to the aggrieved party and with which court it should be filed. In administrative disciplinary cases, an appeal from the OMBs decision should be taken to the CA under Rule 43, unless the decision is not appealable owing to the penalty imposed.

In the case at bar, the Ombudsman, in the exercise of his administrative disciplinary jurisdiction had, after due investigation, adjudged petitioners guilty of grave misconduct and dishonesty and meted the corresponding penalty. Recourse to the CA via a Rule 43 petition is the proper mode of appeal. Rule 43 governs appeals to the CA from decisions or final orders of quasijudicial agencies.

HELD: Administrative proceedings are governed by substantial evidence rule.

Administrative proceedings are governed by the substantial evidence rule, meaning a finding of guilt in an administrative case may and would issue if supported by substantial evidence that the respondent has committed the acts stated in the complaint. Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, even if other minds equally reasonable might conceivably opine otherwise.

In the case at bar, the required evidence sufficient to justify holding petitioner Aguilar administratively liable has been, to us, as to the CA, satisfied. Not only did she fail to declare in her SALN the residential lot located at Panicuason, Naga City, she likewise failed to satisfactorily explain her beneficial ownership of the Antel Seaview Towers four bedroom condominium unit and her use of the two BMWs registered in the name of different corporations, which, as the records show, are both based in Olongapo City.

On the case however of Petitioner Hernandez, the court cannot make out of a case for dishonest and grave misconduct. In ruling for petitioner Hernandez, we do so taking stock of the pronouncement in the first issued decision of the Ombudsman. There was indeed no specific allegation in the complaint against him other than his owning an Isuzu Trooper vehicle, which he declared in his SALN. But mere ownership is not an actionable administrative offense. The PNPCIDG also did not present any additional evidence as against petitioner Hernandez.

It should be understood that the laws on SALN aim to curtail the acquisition of unexplained wealth. Where the source of the undisclosed wealth can be properly accounted for, as in the case of petitioner Hernandez, then it is explained wealth which the law does not penalize.