A.M. No. MTJ-17-1890, August 02, 2017

SECOND DIVISION [ A.M. No. MTJ-17-1890, August 02, 2017 ] OFFICE OF THE COURT ADMINISTRATOR V. JUDGE JUANITO A. ORALLO, PRESIDING JUDGE; EVANGELINE G. SUYAM, OFFICER-IN- CHARGE/COURT INTERPRETER I; AND ROLANDO D. ACOP, JUNIOR PROCESS SERVER, ALL OF MUNICIPAL CIRCUIT TRIAL COURT, TUBLAY ATOK, BENGUET [FORMERLY A.M. NO. 16-12-136-MCTC] (RE: REPORT ON THE FINANCIAL AUDIT CONDUCTED IN THE MUNICIPAL CIRCUIT TRIAL COURT OF TUBLAY ATOK, BENGUET.

This administrative matter stemmed from a Financial Audit conducted by the Financial Monitoring Division (FMD), Court Management Office (CMO), Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) in the books of accounts of the Municipal Circuit Trial Court of Tublay-Atok, Benguet (MCTC).

The Antecedents

The audit was prompted by the compulsory retirement of Agapito Y. San Jose (San Jose), Clerk of Court of the MCTC, effective January 23, 2014. Considering that San Jose had been on terminal leave of absence as of October 1, 2013, Judge Juanito A. Orallo (Judge Orallo), Presiding Judge of the MCTC, designated Evangeline G. Suyam (Suyam) as the Officer-in- Charge. Thus, the audit team deemed it proper to cover the financial transactions of San Jose from March 1, 1985 to September 30, 2013 and that of Suyam from October 1, 2013 to January 31, 2014.

During the audit, it was discovered that Suyam had undeposited collections from January 20 to February 13, 2014 for the regular fund accounts totaling P5,250.00; and that Suyam and San Jose had unremitted Legal Research and Victim Compensation Fund collections amounting to P90.00. Upon instructions of the audit team, the money was immediately deposited to the respective fund accounts on February 17, 2014.

The audit team found out that San Jose did not prepare and submit a Sheriff Trust Fund (STF) monthly report of collections, deposits/remittances and withdrawal/disbursements to the Accounting Division of the FMO-CMO; that the STF refunds of the remaining deposit of the parties were not supported by court orders for their release; and that the STF transactions were not posted in a cashbook. The audit team learned that no STF account was opened in the Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP) and that the STF collections were not deposited even to a temporary alternative account. Upon the directive of the audit team, the remaining STF collections were deposited in the Fiduciary Fund (FF) account on February 25, 2014.

Also, the audit team discovered that whenever Rolando D. Acop (Acop), Junior Process Server of the MCTC, would request a cash advance of P1,000.00, Judge Orallo would approve the release of the full amount instead of dispensing only the amount based on the immediate Itinerary of Travel; that the disbursement vouchers were not supported by the Process Server's Return of Service; that majority of the Liquidation Statements were undated and unnumbered; and that Acop issued temporary receipts for the August 2013 collections which were not turned over to San Jose.Lastly, the audit team found out that Suyam, Judge Orallo and Acop affixed their signatures on the STF Liquidation Statement Form with no transaction details.[1]

Thus, the audit team, in its Memorandum,[2] dated November 25, 2014, recommended that:

(1) San Jose be directed to explain why he should not be administratively charged for the infractions he committed as follows:
a. Not a single STF Monthly Report of Collections, Deposits/Remittances and Withdrawals/Disbursements was prepared and submitted to the Accounting Division, FMO-OCA;
b. Only temporary receipts were issued for STF collections;
c. No STF Account was opened with the LBP;
d. The STF collections were not deposited even to a temporary alternative account such as the court's FF Account, and only upon the audit team's directive were the remaining collections remitted to the said account on February 25, 2014;
e. STF refunds of the remaining deposit of petitioners/plaintiffs were not supported by court orders to release the same; and
f. The STF transactions were not posted in a cashbook.
(2) Suyam be made to explain for affixing her signature in an STF Liquidation Statement Form with no transaction details, and be directed to utilize and accomplish the forms for the STF cash advances, liquidations and reimbursements and to religiously comply with the circulars issued by the Court particularly on the proper handling of judiciary funds;
(3) Acop be directed to explain for affixing his signature in the STF Liquidation Statement Form with no transaction details and for issuing temporary receipts for the August 2013 STF collections which were not turned over to San Jose; and
(4) Judge Orallo be directed to explain for affixing his signature in the STF Liquidation Statement Form with no transaction details, for approving the release of the whole amount of P1,000.00 whenever a cash advance is requested instead of approving only the amount based on the itinerary travel; to utilize and accomplish the suggested forms for the STF cash advances, liquidations and reimbursements; to closely monitor the financial transactions of the court; and to study and implement procedures that would strengthen the internal control of the  court's financial transactions. [3]

In his Letter,[4] dated January 19, 2015, Judge Orallo stated that the questioned document was not for the purpose of a cash advance but to show the estimate of the travel expenses and for the reimbursement of the expenses incurred by the process server; and that the amount of P1,000.00 which was the subject of the Liquidation Statement, has not been released and still deposited with the bank. He explained that before he signed the questioned document, Acop showed him an Itinerary of Travel and specifically instructed him to accomplish the Liquidation Statement in accordance thereto; that before Acop could accomplish the liquidation statement, the audit team leader informed them to change the form and use the new form instead; that he instructed Acop to prepare a new Statement of Estimated Travel Expenses and Liquidation Statement using the new form suggested by the head of the audit team; and that the questioned document was not actually utilized because Acop used the new form as suggested by the audit team leader. Judge Orallo insisted that the Statement of Estimated Travel Expenses and Liquidation Statement have been prepared during the audit period of San Jose, who informed him that there were some lacking documents that need to be signed to complete the audit of his records to which he consented with the intention of accommodating his plea and for the sole intention of helping him. Judge Orallo sincerely apologized for his error and inadvertence and promised that he would be more circumspect in the signing of documents submitted by his staff.

For her part, Suyam contended that when she signed the questioned form, she saw other documents such as the Itinerary of Travel and Statement of Travel Expenses prepared by Acop; that she signed the questioned documents with the assurance from Acop that he would complete the details in accordance with her instruction and that of Judge Orallo; that before Acop could enter the details in the liquidation form, he was informed by Judge Orallo to use the new form as instructed by the audit team; and that Acop prepared a new Statement of Liquidation and Statement of Estimated Travel Expenses using the new form and thereafter, he asked them to sign the same.[5]

Acop, in his Letter,[6] admitted to signing the questioned documents, but claimed that he did so after preparing the statement of estimated travel expenses and itinerary report. He explained that during the audit, he accomplished the liquidation forms after San Jose asked him to liquidate the deposits and in order to save time, he asked Judge Orallo to sign the completed liquidation forms; that while signing the liquidation forms, Judge Orallo saw a blank liquidation form so he returned it to Acop and asked him to accomplish it; that Acop begged him to sign the liquidation form and showed him the attached itinerary; that Judge Orallo acceded to his request and signed the liquidation statement, but instructed him to accomplish it based on the attached Itinerary Report; that when he was instructed to change the liquidation forms and used the new form, everything was mixed up that even the unaccomplished blank form was included in the documents that were handed to the audit team.

As to the issuance of the acknowledgment receipts for the August 2013 STF collections in relation to Civil Case Nos. 368[7] and 369,[8] Acop explained that these acknowledgment receipts were printed by San Jose who asked him to sign the same as there was no separate account for the STF and that the RTC had no sufficient funds to open the STF account. He averred that because there was no separate STF account, it was a common practice that the clerk of court would collect P1,000.00 from the plaintiff/petitioner and issue a temporary acknowledgment receipt to the depositor. Then, the clerk of court would give the P1,000.00 deposit to the process server and after the final disposition of the case, the latter would liquidate it and return whatever excess amount to the depositor. Acop offered his sincere apology and assured the Court that he would not commit the same mistake again.

In the meantime, in view of the compulsory retirement of San Jose, the Court, in a Resolution,[9] dated July 18, 2016, pronounced him guilty of simple neglect of duty and was fined in the amount of P10,000.00 for the delayed remittances of the STF collections and for his failure: 1) to submit a single STF Report; 2) to issue official receipts for STF collections and deposit the same to an alternate account; 3) to obtain court orders from the presiding judge that would validate the refunds of the remaining STF deposits to the plaintiffs/petitioners; and 4) to post the STF transactions in a cashbook.

The OCA Recommendation

The OCA, in a Memorandum,[10] dated December 5,2016, recommended that:

A. This Report be DOCKETED as a regular administrative complaint against Judge JUANITO A. ORALLO and Mr. ROLANDO D. ACOP for SIMPLE NEGLECT OF DUTY on account of their failure to exercise utmost diligence in the performance of their duties;
B. Judge JUANITO A. ORALLO be ADMONISHED for:
B-1. Approving the release to Mr. Acop of the whole amount of PHP1,000.00 per case deposited by a petitioner/plaintiff whenever a cash advance against the STF is requested through a Statement of Estimated Travel Expenses submitted by the Process Server (as required under Section 10 of the Amended Administrative Circular No. 35-2004 issued on 20 August 2004), instead of dispensing a portion only of the same based on Mr. Acop's immediate Itinerary of Travel;
B-2. Approving Statements of Estimated Travel Expenses submitted by the Process Server without the recommendation for approval by the COC; and
B-3. Affixing his signature in an STF Liquidation Statement Form with no transaction details;
C. A FINE of Ten Thousand Pesos (P10,000.00) be IMPOSED upon Mr. ROLANDO D. ACOP for:
C-1. Issuing temporary receipts to a plaintiff and a plaintiffs representative for the August 2013 STF collections which were not turned over to the COC and, only upon the audit team's instruction, were deposited to the court's FF account (in the absence of an STF Account) on 25 February 2014; and
C-2. Persuading the Presiding Judge and the OIC to affix their signatures in an STF Liquidation Statement Form with no transaction details;
D. Mr. ROLANDO D. ACOP be REQUIRED to:
D-1 . DEPOSIT PHP10,000.00 to the Special Allowance for the Judiciary Fund (SAJF) Savings Account No. 0591-1744-28; and
D-2. FURNISH the Chief of the FMD,CMO,OCA with a copy of the machine-validated SAJF deposit slip; and
E. Judge JUANITO A. ORALLO, MS. EVANGELINE F. SUYAM and Mr. ROLANDO D. ACOP be:
E-1. REQUIRED to BE MORE CIRCUMSPECT in the handling of the financial transactions of the court, otherwise, they shall be held liable for any infraction committed; and
E-2. WARNED that a repetition of the offenses committed shall be dealt with more severely. [11] [Emphases in the original omitted]

The Court's Ruling

The Court agrees with the recommendation of the OCA.

Section 10 of the Amended Administrative Circular No. 35-2004 specifically provides that, in addition to the fees fixed by the Court, the plaintiff/petitioner shall be required to deposit the amount of P1,000.00 to the clerk of court upon filing of the complaint to defray the actual travel expenses of the sheriff, process server or other person authorized by the court. The latter, however, shall submit to the court for its approval a Statement of the Estimated Travel Expense (SETE) for service of summon and court processes before the clerk of court shall release the money to said sheriff or process server. After service, a Statement of Liquidation shall be submitted to the court for approval, and after rendition of judgment by the court, any excess from the deposit shall be returned to the party who made the deposit.

In the release of transportation allowance, the sheriff, process server or other court-authorized person shall submit to the court for its approval the SETE for service of summons and court processes. Once approved, the clerk of court shall release the money to the sheriff or process server and after service, a statement of liquidation shall be submitted to the court for approval.[13]

Thus, before the release of transportation allowance, it is indispensable that the SETE be prepared before the fond would be disbursed to the process server for the service of summons and other court processes. The rules likewise oblige the sheriff or process server to immediately liquidate the expenses incurred after the service of summons and court processes.

In the present case, Acop obviously did not follow the procedure in the disbursement and liquidation of the transportation allowance in the service of summons and other court processes. San Jose admitted in his Letter,[14] that whenever a complaint was filed in the MCTC, the process server would prepare the SETE and once approved by the court, he would release the full amount of P1,000.00 to the process server who would then prepare the Itinerary of Travel and Statement of Liquidation after the termination of the case. In fact, Acop confessed that it was only when the audit team arrived that he prepared the liquidation of deposits and brought the Liquidation of Statements to Judge Orallo and Suyam for signature.

Acop's explanation that the blank form was a document he overlooked, which was accidentally included in the documents submitted to the audit team, was unacceptable. As the accountable officer, it is his duty to settle and liquidate his cash advances in accordance with the purpose for which the cash advance was granted thru the presentation of the regularly accomplished Itinerary Report which gives the detail of the items paid thereon and the return of the unspent portion of the money advanced. Such incident would have been avoided had he accomplished the required liquidation as soon as the purpose for which the cash advance was given has been served.

Acop should likewise be held administratively liable for receiving the STF collections for the month of August 2013 amounting to P2,000.00 without issuing an official receipt and without remitting the same to the clerk of court. The issuance of a temporary receipt is irregular[15] and a violation of OCA Circular 26-97[16] directing all collecting officials to strictly comply with the provision of the National Accounting and Auditing Manual, which provides that no payment of any nature shall be received by a collecting officer without immediately issuing an official receipt in acknowledgment thereof.[17]

It must be stressed that the Court had never, and will never, tolerate nor condone any conduct which would violate the norms of public accountability, and diminish, or even tend to diminish, the faith of the people in the justice system. The issuance of a temporary receipt would adversely affect the trustworthiness of the employee and would definitely reduce the image of the judiciary to being a haven of thievery and corruption.[18]

As recommended, the Court finds Acop guilty of simple neglect of duty. Under Section 46 (D) (1), Rule 10 of the Revised Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service, simple neglect of duty is a less grave offense, punishable by suspension of one (1) month and one (1) day to six (6) months for the first offense; and dismissal from the service for the second offense. Considering that this is Acop's first offense and that he readily accepted his infraction and offered his apology, the penalty of fine in the amount of Ten Thousand Pesos (P10,000.00) is sufficient.

With respect to Judge Orallo, the Court agrees with the OCA that he should be admonished to monitor compliance of circulars in the proper handling of STF accounts. As the administrative officer who has authority over the office of the clerk of court, his responsibility is not confined to adjudicatory functions but includes the administrative responsibility of organizing and supervising the court personnel to secure a prompt and efficient dispatch of business.[19] He should take the necessary steps to ensure that the correct procedure in the disbursement and liquidation of STF funds were dutifully carried out. Judge Orallo is directed to organize and supervise his court personnel to ensure prompt and efficient dispatch of business, and to require at all times the observance of high standards of public service and fidelity.[20]

WHEREFORE, Rolando D. Acop, Junior Process Server of the Municipal Circuit Trial Court, Tublay Atok, Benguet, is found GUILTY of Simple Neglect of Duty and is hereby FINED in the amount of Ten Thousand Pesos (P10,000.00) with a stern WARNING that a repetition of the same or similar offense shall be dealt with more severely.

Judge Juanito A. Orallo, Presiding Judge of the Municipal Circuit Trial Court, Tublay Atok, Benguet is hereby ADMONISHED to monitor strict compliance of the circulars in the proper handling of the Sheriff Trust Fund Account and to keep abreast of the Court's issuances relative thereto.

Evangeline G. Suyam, Officer-in-Charge/Court Interpreter I, Municipal Circuit Trial Court, Tublay Atok, Benguet, is required to more circumspect in the handling of the financial transactions of the court.

SO ORDERED.

[1] Rollo,pp. 7-13.

[2] Id. at 7-20.

[3] Id. at 13-19.

[4] Id. at 35-36.

[5] Id. at 57-58.

[6] Id. at 70-71.

[7] Id. at 67.

[8] Id. at 68.

[9] Id. at 86-87.

[10] Id. at 1-6.

[11] Id. at 5-6.

[12] Otherwise known as the Guidelines in the Allocation of Legal Fees.

[13] Section 10 of the Amended Administrative Circular No. 35-2004, entitled "Guidelines in the Allocation of Legal Fees.

[14] Rollo, p.82.

[15] Neri v. Judge Hurtado, Jr., 467 Phil. 635, 641 (2004).

[16] Effective May 5,1997.

[17] Office of the Court Administrator v. Dion, 654 Phil. 609, 613 (2011).

[18] Bulalat v. Adil, 562 Phil. 639, 643-644 (2007).

[19] Re: Initial Report on the Financial Audit Conducted in the Municipal Trial Court of Pulilan Bulacan 477 Phil. 577,583 (2004).

[20] OCA v. Varela, 568 Phil. 9, 21 (2008).

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