Miguel vs. Sandiganbayan (GR. NO. 172035)

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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. 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.

In the present case, the petitioner (i) filed his Vigorous Opposition (to the OSP’s 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 OSP’s Opposition to his plea for reconsideration.

FACTS

The Ombudsman filed an Information against Petitioner Fernando Miguel, former Municipal Mayor of Koronadal City, South Cotabato for the violation of Section 3(e) of R.A. No. 3019 and paragraph 4, Article 171 of the Revised Penal Code (Falsification of Public Document). This is connection with the consultancy services for the architectural aspect, engineering design, and the construction, supervision, and management of the proposed Koronadal City public market.

The Information reads, to wit:

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.

Accordingly, Miguel filed a Motion to Quash said information and Reinvestigation of the criminal cases against him, which the Sandiganbayan denied. Eventually, he, together with his other co-accused, was arraigned by the Sandiganbayan, during which he pleaded not guilty in both criminal cases filed against him.

Later, the Office of the Special Prosecutor filed a Motion to Suspend Pendente Lite the petitioner To this, Miguel filed his Vigorous Opposition based on the “obvious” and “fatal” defect of the Information against him. Petitioner Miguel maintains that the Information failed to allege that the “giving of unwarranted benefits and advantages” was done through “manifest partiality, evident bad faith, and or gross excusable negligence. However, the Sandiganbayan proceeded with suspending him pendente lite.

Thereafter, Miguel moved for reconsideration of his suspension order and demanded a pre-suspension hearing. However, the Sandiganbayan likewise denied said motion. This prompted Miguel to file the present petition for certiorari, assailing the validity of his suspension order.

The petitioner bewails the lack of hearing before the issuance of his suspension order. Citing Luciano, et al. v. Hon. Mariano, etc., et al.,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.”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.

ISSUE

Was Miguel’s suspension order valid?

RULING

Yes. This is because, NOTWITHSTANDING the absence a show cause order and pre-suspension hearing prior to the issuance of his suspension order, Miguel was actually given the ample opportunity to assail the validity of the information filed against him, including the criminal proceedings conducted pursuant thereto, and to be heard on his possible defenses through the Motion to Quash, Vigorous Opposition (against the prosecution’s Motion to Suspend [him] Pendente Lite), and Motion for Reconsideration of his suspension order filed before the Sandiganbayan.

Hence, the Supreme Court ruled:

While the suspension of a public officer under [Section 13 of Republic Act 3019] is mandatory, the suspension requires a prior hearing to determine “the validity of the information” filed against him, “taking into account the serious and far reaching consequences of a suspension of an elective public official even before his conviction.” The accused public official’s 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.

In Luciano v. Mariano 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 –

(c) …upon 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.

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. That hearing is similar to a challenge to the validity of the information by way of a motion to quash. 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, Luciano likewise emphasizes that no hard and fast rule exists in regulating its conduct. 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, the Court considered the opposition of the accused (to the prosecution’s motion to suspend pendente lite) as sufficient to dispense with the need to actually set the prosecution’s motion for hearing.

The same conclusion was reached in Juan v. People,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.

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.

In the present case, the petitioner (i) filed his Vigorous Opposition (to the OSP’s 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 OSP’s Opposition to his plea for reconsideration.

Given this opportunity, we find that the petitioner’s continued demand for the conduct of an actual pre-suspension hearing – based on the same alleged “defect in the information,”which we have found wanting – has legally nothing to anchor itself on.

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

SO ORDERED.

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