Monday, March 23, 2009

Thieves in the courts

Unknown to many Filipinos, millions of pesos are being lost yearly by reason of the dishonesty of the field-level clerks of court and other finance personnel of the Philippine Supreme Court nationwide. To its credit, the Court has been very vigilant in unraveling such anomalies and in punishing its guilty personnel. But the irregularities, sad to say, continue to this very day.

Let me share a recent example.

In the recent case of OFFICE OF THE COURT ADMINISTRATOR vs. JINGKEY NOLASCO, Clerk of Court, Municipal Trial Court, San Jose, Antique, EN BANC, A.M. No. P-06-2148, March 4, 2009 (per curiam), the Philippine Supreme Court found the respondent GUILTY of gross dishonesty and grave misconduct and DISMISSED her from the service with forfeiture of retirement and all other benefits, and with prejudice to reemployment in any branch, agency or instrumentality of the government, including government-owned and controlled corporations. The respondent was directed to RESTITUTE the amount of P625,175.29 representing the shortages in her collections. The Court ordered the Office of the Court Administrator to INITIATE the filing of criminal charges against respondent and retired Judge Ma. Monina S. Misajon before the appropriate court or body.

This administrative matter arose from an examination conducted by the Commission on Audit (COA) on the cash and accounts of respondent Jingkey B. Nolasco, Clerk of Court II, Municipal Trial Court (MTC)-San Jose, Antique.

After a series of audits and investigations, the Court found that respondent Nolasco administratively liable for the shortages which she incurred in her cash collections. The respondent failed to immediately deposit the various funds collected with the authorized government depository bank, in violation of pertinent court circulars which direct the same. She admitted that she had misappropriated the money for her personal use without specifically explaining the reasons for her actions, and has yet to restitute the total amount of P625,175.29.

The Court stated that as clerk of court, respondent Nolasco was duty-bound to use reasonable skill and diligence in the performance of her duties. She was an accountable officer entrusted with the responsibility of collecting and depositing money belonging to the court. She obviously failed to fulfill this responsibility and even converted the court’s funds for her personal use. Her failure to account for the money entrusted to her, and to adequately explain and present evidence thereon, constitutes gross dishonesty, grave misconduct and even malversation of public funds which this Court will never countenance.

Clerks of Court must be individuals of competence, honesty and probity, charged as they are with safeguarding the integrity of the court and its proceedings. They perform a delicate function as designated custodians of the court’s funds, revenues, records, properties and premises. As such, they are responsible for ensuring that the court’s funds are promptly deposited with an authorized government depositary bank. They are thus liable for any loss, shortage, destruction or impairment of such funds and property.

The Court added that, indeed, no position demands greater moral righteousness and uprightness from the occupant than does the judicial office. The safekeeping of funds and collections is essential to the goal of an orderly administration of justice, and no protestation of good faith can override the mandatory nature of the circulars designed to promote full accountability for government funds. The failure to remit the funds in due time amounts to dishonesty and grave misconduct, which the Court cannot tolerate for they diminish the people’s faith in the judiciary. The act of misappropriating judiciary funds constitutes dishonesty and grave misconduct which are punishable by dismissal from the service, even if committed for the first time.

As for Judge Misajon, the Court stated that if found no reason to depart from the findings of the investigators and auditors that she instructed Nolasco to withdraw unauthorized amounts from the FFA so that she could borrow the same. By simply comparing the deposit slip pertaining to the first withdrawal with her sample handwriting, this Court is left without any doubt that the penmanship on the deposit slip is in fact Judge Misajon’s, as asserted by Nolasco. Judge Misajon even had the temerity to point to one of her other staff members as having filled up the deposit slip, which said staff member denied. It is thus evident that Judge Misajon was not forthright about the matter and did not tell the truth during her testimony before the investigating judge.

The Court stressed that the function of evaluating the credibility of witnesses in administrative cases is primarily lodged in the investigating judge. The rule which concedes due respect, and even finality, to the assessment of credibility of witnesses by trial judges in civil and criminal cases where preponderance of evidence and proof beyond reasonable doubt, respectively, are required, applies a fortiori in administrative cases where the quantum of proof required is only substantial evidence. The investigating judge is in a better position to pass judgment on the credibility of witnesses, having personally heard them when they testified and observed their deportment and manner of testifying. In the case of Judge Misajon, we simply find no reason to disregard this rule.

It added that Judge Misajon had the responsibility of seeing to it that Nolasco, as clerk of court, performed her duties and complied with circulars issued by the Supreme Court on the handling and safekeeping of court funds. Had she supervised and managed her court in the manner that was expected of her as a judge, she could have discovered earlier that Nolasco was misappropriating funds and prevented the misappropriated amount from ballooning to such a large sum. It is even probable that Nolasco was emboldened to convert court collections for her personal use, as Judge Misajon herself dipped her hands into the court funds. By “borrowing” money from the collections of the court, she knowingly made the clerk of court violate circulars on the proper administration of court funds and, in the process, became complicit in Nolasco’s own wrongdoing.

It will be noted that Judge Misajon compulsorily retired from the service without any formal administrative charges brought against her. Despite the clear misconduct which she committed, the Court could not impose administrative sanctions against her, since she no longer falls within the administrative supervision of the Court. The Court, however, was not without recourse. As pointed out by the OCA, her act of inducing or persuading respondent Nolasco to violate duly promulgated rules on the administration of court funds may well constitute a violation of Section 3(a), Republic Act No. 3019. Thus, a criminal case may be initiated against Judge Misajon on the basis of the findings in this administrative matter.

The Court declared that time and again, it had stressed that those charged with the dispensation of justice – from the presiding judge to the lowliest clerk – are circumscribed with a heavy burden of responsibility. Their conduct at all times must not only be characterized by propriety and decorum but, above all else, must be beyond suspicion. Every employee of the judiciary should be an example of integrity, uprightness and honesty. Sadly, respondent Nolasco and Judge Misajon failed to live up to these stringent standards.