Sereno accuser scolded again

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Handout photo of Lorenzo G. Gadon during a House committee hearing on on the probable cause of the impeachment case against Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. -- Handout photo from the office of House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez via PHILSTAR

LAWYER Lorenzo G. Gadon was scolded anew by lawmakers presiding over the House inquiry on his impeachment case against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno.

Mr. Gadon had alleged over the weekend that an “oligarch” is bribing senators with P200 million each to acquit Ms. Sereno when the Senate tries her after her impeachment by the House of Representatives.

Some senators had criticized Mr. Gadon for his allegations ahead of an expected Senate trial.

On Tuesday’s hearing by the House committee on justice, Ako Bicol party-list Representative Alfredo A. Garbin, Jr. criticized Mr. Gadon’s allegation “which affects the integrity of this impeachment committee” and casts “aspersions to the would-be justices of this impeachment complaint,” the congressman said.

He told Mr. Gadon to “keep his mouth shut if he cannot verify or reveal to us this oligarch [and] the source of this P200 million.”

Committee chairperson and Oriental Mindoro Representative Reynaldo V. Umali said that should the impeachment complaint reach the Senate, Mr. Gadon will be asked by the senators to explain his allegation.

Antipolo City Representative Romeo M. Acop, for his part, cited to Mr. Gadon the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

“Kung mas marami pa kayong sinasabi na mga bagay na hindi totoo, eh baka ’yung mga tao mismo na nakikinig dito sa ating proceedings ay hindi na maniniwala po sa inyo” (If you’re saying more things that are not true, the people listening here might not believe you anymore.), Mr. Acop said.

Quezon City Representative Vincent P. Crisologo for his part said, “Perhaps we should ask Mr. Gadon, please shut up your mouth… para ’di naman tayo mapasama (sa) mga proceedings dito (so that our proceedings here won’t be compromised).”

Mr. Gadon in response said he saw no reason to be cited in contempt because he personally denied the possibility of senators receiving the alleged payoffs. “Sinabi ko po doon, your honors, that ako mismo hindi naniniwala dahil sabi ko nga, hindi naman siguradong papayag ’yung mga senador na sila ay iba-bribe,” he said. (I said then, your honors, that I myself don’t believe [what I just claimed] because, like I said, it can’t be that the senators will allow themselves to be bribed).

In the end, Mr. Gadon was asked to submit a written explanation why he should not be cited for contempt.

Also on Tuesday, Court Administrator Jose Midas P. Marquez testified that the Supreme Court, under Ms. Sereno’s watch, failed to act upon any application of spouses of deceased judges and justices for survivorship benefits from October 2015 to Nov. 6, 2017.

Mr. Marquez said that he didn’t get any reply from the Chief Justice when he wrote her in January 2017, recommending urgent action on the claims of the aging spouses of the late magistrates.

Mr. Marquez shared the information with the committee chaired by Oriental Mindoro Representative Reynaldo Umali.

Among Mr. Gadon’s accusations are that Ms. Sereno delayed the release of survivor benefits, until widows of judges and justices grow old, get sick, and die of waiting for financial assistance — among them, 94-year-old Dolores Colayco, widow of a Court of Appeals justice.

Mr. Marquez narrated that he had received requests to expedite the resolution of applications for survivorship benefits from October to December 2016, such as one from a friend of the 94-year-old Colayco.

He said Ms. Colayco’s friend sent him seven text exchanges from Nov. 2, 2016 to Dec. 16, 2017 to follow up on the application of the aging widow, who needed the benefits for her living and medication expenses.

This prompted Mr. Marquez to write a letter to Ms. Sereno on Jan. 12, 2017, informing the Chief Justice that from 2010 to September 2015, the high court approved 271 applications for survivorship pension of spouses of judges who retired or died before the effectivity of Republic Act 9946 on Feb. 11, 2010.

This law states that upon the death of a justice or a judge, his or her surviving spouse will be entitled to receive all the retirement benefits that the deceased would have received if he or she had not died. The law says that the spouse will continue to receive it until his/her death or remarriage.

Continuing to cite from his letter, Mr. Marquez said that since it had been more than a year since the Supreme Court’s last action on pending applications for survivorship pension, and since majority of the spouses are beyond 80 years old (their ages ranged from 79 to 98 years old), there was a compelling need to expedite the actions on 29 of the applications.

As most of them were in poor health, they might not be able to avail themselves of the benefits due them, which was why Mr. Marquez said he recommended that the high tribunal treat the matter urgently and make a definitive ruling on it.

But Mr. Marquez said his letter allegedly fell on deaf ears, “Wala pong nangyari doon eh, wala pong sagot (Nothing happened to it, there was no reply).”

Mr. Marquez said that before, if a surviving spouse wanted to have survivorship benefits, he or she would just have to go to the Office of the Court Administrator and file an application, which would then be studied by an office whose only job was to receive these applications.

Once the requirements were complete, the Office of the Court Administrator would then recommend whether to grant or deny the application, which would then be submitted to the Office of the Clerk of Court en banc.

However, this is no longer the case now, according to Mr. Marquez.

RA 9946’s retroactivity clause, which states that “The benefits under this Act shall be granted to all those who have retired prior to the effectivity of this act,” caused conflict.

Were the spouses of the justices or judges who died before Feb. 11, 2010, the date of effectivity of RA 9946, still entitled to survivorship benefits?

Mr. Marquez explained that in the 271 applications, the Supreme Court said yes — affirming that the spouses would still receive benefits. However, they would receive survivorship benefits not from the time their spouses died, but from the time that the law took effect.

But there was an “opposite view” in the Supreme Court that said that the spouses of the judges and justices who died before 2010, would no longer be entitled to survivorship benefits, according to Mr. Marquez.

Because of the conflicting views, the Special Committee on Retirement and Civil Service Benefits, composed of two technical working groups (“TWG to screen applications” and “legal TWG”), was created in an order signed by Ms. Sereno, Justice Antonio Carpio, and Justice Presbitero Velasco.

As a result, “all applications received by the Office of the Clerk of Court en banc beginning October 2015 were held in abeyance,” Mr. Marquez said.

In an e-mailed statement, Ms. Sereno’s spokespersons said the Chief Justice “did not intentionally delay action on petitions for retirement and/or survivorship benefits, which applications are in the first place required to be decided by the Supreme Court as a collegial body.”

They further explained that, “The Chief Justice is sympathetic with the plight not just of retirees in the Judiciary, but of the people, who long for an expeditious resolution of their cases. To this end, she has even instituted measures to rationalize and expedite the very process respecting retirement benefits that Complainant assails.”

As to whether the Special Committee was more efficient, lawyer Josalee Deinla, one of the spokespersons, said in an interview that, “Mahalagang maunawaan natin na nagkakaroon ng bagal, may bara hindi dahil sa malisya o may pinag-iinitan ’yong mga justice ng SC, kundi may mga bagay na kailangan munang resolbahin.” (It’s important for us to understand that there is a slowdown, there is a choke point, not because of malice or because the SC justices are ganging up on anyone, but because there are things that need to be resolved first.)

“May policy decision na kailangan munang pagdesisyunan ang SC en banc at may pending administrative cases ’yong mga justices and judges na kailangan ng final decision,” she also said. (There is a policy decision that the SC en banc should decide on first, and there are pending administrative cases of the justices and judges that need a final decision.)

She noted further: “Ang desisyon patungkol sa application ng retirement benefits ay hindi ginagawa ni CJ alone, SC en banc ang nagdedesisyon (The decision regarding the application of retirement benefits aren’t done by the CJ alone, but it is the SC en banc that decides on it).”

Mr. Marquez himself acknowledged that the decisions on retirement benefits are decided not by the Chief Justice alone, but by the Supreme Court en banc.

As to whether the Supreme Court has any rule that governs the period wherein applications for benefits must be resolved, Mr. Marquez said he could only think of the provision in the 1987 Constitution which gives the Supreme Court 24 months to resolve cases filed before it.

Meanwhile, Mr. Umali said also on Tuesday another justice is willing to testify in the impeachment hearing.

“Meron pang isa eh. Kanina meron akong nakita na willing pa rin, another justice. Nakalimutan ko lang kung sino,” Mr. Umali told reporters. (There’s another one. I saw another who’s willing, another justice. I forgot who.)

Nevertheless, this associate justice, Mr. Umali said, is expected to talk about corruption charges against Ms. Sereno, particularly her alleged purchase of a Toyota Land Cruiser worth P5 million.

Mr. Gadon has accused Ms. Sereno of using public funds to finance her lavish lifestyle. — Tricia Aquino of and Minde Nyl R. dela Cruz