COMMISSIONER OF INTERNAL REVENUE,
- versus -
G.R. No. 177279
CARPIO MORALES, J.,
VILLARAMA, JR., and
HON. RAUL M. GONZALEZ, Secretary of Justice, L. M. CAMUS ENGINEERING CORPORATION (represented by LUIS M. CAMUS and LINO D. MENDOZA),
October 13, 2010
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VILLARAMA, JR., J.:
This is a petition for review on certiorari under Rule 45 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure, as amended, assailing the Decision dated October 31, 2006 and Resolution dated March 6, 2007 of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. SP No. 93387 which affirmed the Resolution dated December 13, 2005 of respondent Secretary of Justice in I.S. No. 2003-774 for violation of Sections 254 and 255 of the National Internal Revenue Code of 1997 (NIRC).
The facts as culled from the records:
Letter of Authority (LA) No. 00009361 dated August 25, 2000 issued by then
Commissioner of Internal Revenue (petitioner) Dakila B. Fonacier, Revenue
Officers Remedios C. Advincula, Jr.,
Simplicio V. Cabantac, Jr., Ricardo L. Suba, Jr. and Aurelio Agustin T. Zamora
supervised by Section Chief Sixto C. Dy, Jr. of the Tax Fraud Division (TFD), National
Office, conducted a fraud investigation for all internal revenue taxes to
ascertain/determine the tax liabilities of respondent L. M. Camus Engineering
Corporation (LMCEC) for the taxable years 1997, 1998 and 1999. The audit and investigation against LMCEC was
precipitated by the information provided by an informer that LMCEC had
substantial underdeclared income for the
said period. For failure to comply with
the subpoena duces tecum issued in
connection with the tax fraud investigation, a criminal complaint was
instituted by the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) against LMCEC on
Based on data
obtained from an informer and various clients of LMCEC, it was discovered
that LMCEC filed fraudulent tax returns with substantial underdeclarations of
taxable income for the years 1997, 1998 and 1999. Petitioner thus assessed the company of total
deficiency taxes amounting to
P430,958,005.90 (income tax - P318,606,380.19
and value-added tax [VAT] - P112,351,625.71) covering the said period. The Preliminary Assessment Notice (PAN) was
received by LMCEC on
LMCECs alleged underdeclared income was summarized by petitioner as follows:
In view of the
above findings, assessment notices together with a formal letter of demand
inclusive of increments, which had become final and executory as a result of
the said taxpayers failure to file a protest thereon within the thirty (30)-day
Mendoza filed a Joint Counter-Affidavit contending that LMCEC cannot be held
liable whatsoever for the alleged tax deficiency which had become due and
demandable. Considering that the
complaint and its annexes all showed that the suit is a simple civil action for
collection and not a tax evasion case, the Department of Justice (DOJ) is not the
proper forum for BIRs complaint. They also assail as invalid the assessment
notices which bear no serial numbers and should be shown to have been validly
served by an Affidavit of Constructive Service executed and sworn to by the
revenue officers who served the same. As stated in LMCECs letter-protest dated
LMCEC further averred that it had
availed of the Bureaus Tax Amnesty Programs (Economic Recovery Assistance
Payment [ERAP] Program and the Voluntary Assessment Program [VAP]) for 1998 and
1999; for 1997, its tax liability was terminated and closed under Letter of
AMOUNT OF TAXES
Letter Under Letter of Authority No. 174600 Dated
EWT - P 6,000.00
VAT - 540,605.02
IT - 3,000.00
ERAP Program pursuant
to RR #2-99
WC - 38,404.55
VAT - 61,635.40
VAP Program pursuant
to RR #8-2001
IT - 878,495.28
VAT - 1,324,317.00
that petitioner is now estopped from further taking any action against it and
its corporate officers concerning the taxable years 1997 to 1999. With the grant of immunity from audit from
the companys availment of ERAP and VAP, which have a feature of a tax amnesty,
the element of fraud is negated the moment the Bureau accepts the offer of
compromise or payment of taxes by the taxpayer.
The act of the revenue officers in finding justification under Section
6(B) of the NIRC (Best Evidence Obtainable) is misplaced and unavailing because
they were not able to open the books of the company for the second time, after
the routine examination, issuance of termination letter and the availment of
ERAP and VAP. LMCEC thus maintained
that unless there is a prior determination of fraud supported by documents not
yet incorporated in the docket of the case, petitioner cannot just issue LAs
without first terminating those previously issued. It emphasized the fact that the BIR officers
who filed and signed the Affidavit-Complaint in this case were the same ones
who appeared as complainants in an earlier case filed against Camus for his
alleged failure to obey summons in violation of Section 5 punishable under
Section 266 of the NIRC of 1997 (I.S. No. 00-956 of the Office of the City Prosecutor
of Quezon City). After preliminary
investigation, said case was dismissed for lack of probable cause in a
Resolution issued by the Investigating Prosecutor on
asserted that it filed on
In the Joint Reply-Affidavit executed by the Bureaus revenue officers, petitioner disagreed with the contention of LMCEC that the complaint filed is not criminal in nature, pointing out that LMCEC and its officers Camus and Mendoza were being charged for the criminal offenses defined and penalized under Sections 254 (Attempt to Evade or Defeat Tax) and 255 (Willful Failure to Pay Tax) of the NIRC. This finds support in Section 205 of the same Code which provides for administrative (distraint, levy, fine, forfeiture, lien, etc.) and judicial (criminal or civil action) remedies in order to enforce collection of taxes. Both remedies may be pursued either independently or simultaneously. In this case, the BIR decided to simultaneously pursue both remedies and thus aside from this criminal action, the Bureau also initiated administrative proceedings against LMCEC.
On the lack
of control number in the assessment notice, petitioner explained that such is a
mere office requirement in the Assessment Service for the purpose of internal
control and monitoring; hence, the unnumbered assessment notices should not be
interpreted as irregular or anomalous.
Petitioner stressed that LMCEC already lost its right to file a protest
letter after the lapse of the thirty (30)-day reglementary period. LMCECs protest-letter dated
As to the Letter of Termination signed by Ruth Vivian G. Gandia of the Assessment Division, Revenue Region No. 7, Quezon City, petitioner pointed out that LMCEC failed to mention that the undated Certification issued by RDO Pablo C. Cabreros, Jr. of RD No. 40, Cubao, Quezon City stated that the report of the 1997 Internal Revenue taxes of LMCEC had already been submitted for review and approval of higher authorities. LMCEC also cannot claim as excuse from the reopening of its books of accounts the previous investigations and examinations. Under Section 235 (a), an exception was provided in the rule on once a year audit examination in case of fraud, irregularity or mistakes, as determined by the Commissioner. Petitioner explained that the distinction between a Regular Audit Examination and Tax Fraud Audit Examination lies in the fact that the former is conducted by the district offices of the Bureaus Regional Offices, the authority emanating from the Regional Director, while the latter is conducted by the TFD of the National Office only when instances of fraud had been determined by the petitioner.
Petitioner further asserted that LMCECs claim that it was granted immunity from audit when it availed of the VAP and ERAP programs is misleading. LMCEC failed to state that its availment of ERAP under RR No. 2-99 is not a grant of absolute immunity from audit and investigation, aside from the fact that said program was only for income tax and did not cover VAT and withholding tax for the taxable year 1998. As for LMCECS availment of VAP in 1999 under RR No. 8-2001 dated August 1, 2001 as amended by RR No. 10-2001 dated September 3, 2001, the company failed to state that it covers only income tax and VAT, and did not include withholding tax. However, LMCEC is not actually entitled to the benefits of VAP under Section 1 (1.1 and 1.2) of RR No. 10-2001. As to the principle of estoppel invoked by LMCEC, estoppel clearly does not lie against the BIR as this involved the exercise of an inherent power by the government to collect taxes.
also pointed out that LMCECs assertion correlating this case with I.S. No.
00-956 is misleading because said case involves another violation and offense
(Sections 5 and 266 of the NIRC). Said
case was filed by petitioner due to the failure of LMCEC to submit or present
its books of accounts and other accounting records for examination despite the
issuance of subpoena duces tecum
against Camus in his capacity as President of LMCEC. While indeed a Resolution was issued by Asst.
City Prosecutor Titus C. Borlas on
Petitioner contended that precisely the reason for the issuance to the TFD
of LA No. 00009361 by the Commissioner is because the latter agreed with the
findings of the investigating revenue officers that fraud exists in this
case. In the conduct of their
investigation, the revenue officers observed the proper procedure under Revenue
Memorandum Order (RMO) No. 49-2000 wherein it is required that before the
issuance of a Letter of Authority against a particular taxpayer, a preliminary
investigation should first be conducted to determine if a prima facie case for tax fraud exists. As to the allegedly unresolved protest filed
In their Joint Rejoinder-Affidavit, Camus and Mendoza reiterated their argument that the identity of the alleged informant is crucial to determine if he/she is qualified under Section 282 of the NIRC. Moreover, there was no assessment that has already become final, the validity of its issuance and service has been put in issue being anomalous, irregular and oppressive. It is contended that for criminal prosecution to proceed before assessment, there must be a prima facie showing of a willful attempt to evade taxes. As to LMCECs availment of the VAP and ERAP programs, the certificate of immunity from audit issued to it by the BIR is plain and simple, but petitioner is now saying it has the right to renege with impunity from its undertaking. Though petitioner deems LMCEC not qualified to avail of the benefits of VAP, it must be noted that if it is true that at the time the petitioner filed I.S. No. 00-956 sometime in January 2001 it had already in its custody that Confidential Information No. 29-2000 dated July 7, 2000, these revenue officers could have rightly filed the instant case and would not resort to filing said criminal complaint for refusal to comply with a subpoena duces tecum.
Petitioner filed a motion for reconsideration which was denied by the Chief State Prosecutor.
appealed to respondent Secretary of Justice but the latter denied its petition
for review under Resolution dated
of Justice found that petitioners claim that there is yet no finality as to
LMCECs payment of its 1997 taxes since the audit report was still pending
review by higher authorities, is unsubstantiated and misplaced. It was noted that the Termination Letter
issued by the Commissioner on
P61,635.40 and P38,404.55, respectively. This eventually gave rise to the issuance of
a certificate of immunity from audit for 1998 by the Office of the Commissioner
of Internal Revenue. For taxable year 1999, respondent Secretary found that pursuant
to earlier LA No. 38633 dated July 4, 2000, LMCECs 1999 tax liabilities were
still pending investigation for which reason LMCEC assailed the subsequent
issuance of LA No. 00009361 dated August 25, 2000 calling for a similar
investigation of its alleged 1999 tax deficiencies when no final determination
has yet been arrived on the earlier LA No. 38633.
allegation of fraud, respondent Secretary ruled that petitioner failed to
establish the existence of the following circumstances indicating fraud in the
settlement of LMCECs tax liabilities: (1) there must be intentional and substantial
understatement of tax liability by the taxpayer; (2) there must be intentional
and substantial overstatement of deductions or exemptions; and (3) recurrence
of the foregoing circumstances. First,
petitioner miserably failed to explain why the assessment notices were
unnumbered; second, the claim that
the tax fraud investigation was precipitated by an alleged informant has not
been corroborated nor was it clearly established, hence there is no other
conclusion but that the Bureau engaged in a fishing expedition; and furthermore, petitioners course of
action is contrary to Section 235 of the NIRC allowing only once in a given
taxable year such examination and inspection of the taxpayers books of
accounts and other accounting records.
There was no convincing proof presented by petitioner to show that the
case of LMCEC falls under the exceptions provided in Section 235. Respondent Secretary duly considered the
issuance of Certificate of Immunity from Audit and Letter of Termination dated
Anent the earlier case filed against the same taxpayer (I.S. No. 00-956), the Secretary of Justice found petitioner to have engaged in forum shopping in view of the fact that while there is still pending an appeal from the Resolution of the City Prosecutor of Quezon City in said case, petitioner hurriedly filed the instant case, which not only involved the same parties but also similar substantial issues (the joint complaint-affidavit also alleged the issuance of LA No. 00009361 dated August 25, 2000). Clearly, the evidence of litis pendentia is present. Finally, respondent Secretary noted that if indeed LMCEC committed fraud in the settlement of its tax liabilities, then at the outset, it should have been discovered by the agents of petitioner, and consequently petitioner should not have issued the Letter of Termination and the Certificate of Immunity From Audit. Petitioner thus should have been more circumspect in the issuance of said documents.
Its motion for reconsideration having been denied, petitioner challenged the ruling of respondent Secretary via a certiorari petition in the CA.
The petition is anchored on the following grounds:
The Honorable Court of Appeals erroneously sustained the findings of the Secretary of Justice who gravely abused his discretion by dismissing the complaint based on grounds which are not even elements of the offenses charged.
The Honorable Court of Appeals erroneously sustained the findings of the Secretary of Justice who gravely abused his discretion by dismissing petitioners evidence, contrary to law.
The Honorable Court of Appeals erroneously sustained the findings of the Secretary of Justice who gravely abused his discretion by inquiring into the validity of a Final Assessment Notice which has become final, executory and demandable pursuant to Section 228 of the Tax Code of 1997 for failure of private respondent to file a protest against the same.
The core issue to be resolved is whether LMCEC and its corporate officers may be prosecuted for violation of Sections 254 (Attempt to Evade or Defeat Tax) and 255 (Willful Failure to Supply Correct and Accurate Information and Pay Tax).
Petitioner filed the criminal complaint against the private respondents for violation of the following provisions of the NIRC, as amended:
SEC. 254. Attempt to Evade or Defeat Tax. Any person who willfully attempts in any manner to evade or defeat any tax imposed under this Code or the payment thereof shall, in addition to other penalties provided by law, upon conviction thereof, be punished by a fine of not less than Thirty thousand pesos (P30,000) but not more than One hundred thousand pesos (P100,000) and suffer imprisonment of not less than two (2) years but not more than four (4) years: Provided, That the conviction or acquittal obtained under this Section shall not be a bar to the filing of a civil suit for the collection of taxes.
SEC. 255. Failure to File Return, Supply Correct and Accurate Information, Pay Tax, Withhold and Remit Tax and Refund Excess Taxes Withheld on Compensation. Any person required under this Code or by rules and regulations promulgated thereunder to pay any tax, make a return, keep any record, or supply any correct and accurate information, who willfully fails to pay such tax, make such return, keep such record, or supply such correct and accurate information, or withhold or remit taxes withheld, or refund excess taxes withheld on compensations at the time or times required by law or rules and regulations shall, in addition to other penalties provided by law, upon conviction thereof, be punished by a fine of not less than Ten thousand pesos (P10,000) and suffer imprisonment of not less than one (1) year but not more than ten (10) years.
x x x x (Emphasis supplied.)
Respondent Secretary concurred with the Chief State Prosecutors conclusion that there is insufficient evidence to establish probable cause to charge private respondents under the above provisions, based on the following findings: (1) the tax deficiencies of LMCEC for taxable years 1997, 1998 and 1999 have all been settled or terminated, as in fact LMCEC was issued a Certificate of Immunity and Letter of Termination, and availed of the ERAP and VAP programs; (2) there was no prior determination of the existence of fraud; (3) the assessment notices are unnumbered, hence irregular and suspect; (4) the books of accounts and other accounting records may be subject to audit examination only once in a given taxable year and there is no proof that the case falls under the exceptions provided in Section 235 of the NIRC; and (5) petitioner committed forum shopping when it filed the instant case even as the earlier criminal complaint (I.S. No. 00-956) dismissed by the City Prosecutor of Quezon City was still pending appeal.
Petitioner argues that with the finality of the assessment due to failure of the private respondents to challenge the same in accordance with Section 228 of the NIRC, respondent Secretary has no jurisdiction and authority to inquire into its validity. Respondent taxpayer is thereby allowed to do indirectly what it cannot do directly to raise a collateral attack on the assessment when even a direct challenge of the same is legally barred. The rationale for dismissing the complaint on the ground of lack of control number in the assessment notice likewise betrays a lack of awareness of tax laws and jurisprudence, such circumstance not being an element of the offense. Worse, the final, conclusive and undisputable evidence detailing a crime under our taxation laws is swept under the rug so easily on mere conspiracy theories imputed on persons who are not even the subject of the complaint.
We grant the petition.
There is no
dispute that prior to the filing of the complaint with the DOJ, the report on
the tax fraud investigation conducted on LMCEC disclosed that it made
substantial underdeclarations in its income tax returns for 1997, 1998 and
1999. Pursuant to RR No. 12-99, a PAN was sent to
and received by LMCEC on February 22, 2001 wherein it was notified of the
proposed assessment of deficiency taxes amounting to
(income tax - P318,606,380.19 and VAT - P112,351,625.71) covering
taxable years 1997, 1998 and 1999. In response to said PAN, LMCEC sent a
letter-protest to the TFD, which denied the same on
As mentioned in the PAN, the revenue officers were not given the opportunity to examine LMCECs books of accounts and other accounting records because its officers failed to comply with the subpoena duces tecum earlier issued, to verify its alleged underdeclarations of income reported by the Bureaus informant under Section 282 of the NIRC. Hence, a criminal complaint was filed by the Bureau against private respondents for violation of Section 266 which provides:
SEC. 266. Failure to Obey Summons. Any person who, being duly summoned to appear to testify, or to appear and produce books of accounts, records, memoranda, or other papers, or to furnish information as required under the pertinent provisions of this Code, neglects to appear or to produce such books of accounts, records, memoranda, or other papers, or to furnish such information, shall, upon conviction, be punished by a fine of not less than Five thousand pesos (P5,000) but not more than Ten thousand pesos (P10,000) and suffer imprisonment of not less than one (1) year but not more than two (2) years.
It is clear that I.S. No. 00-956 involves a separate offense and hence litis pendentia is not present considering that the outcome of I.S. No. 00-956 is not determinative of the issue as to whether probable cause exists to charge the private respondents with the crimes of attempt to evade or defeat tax and willful failure to supply correct and accurate information and pay tax defined and penalized under Sections 254 and 255, respectively. For the crime of tax evasion in particular, compliance by the taxpayer with such subpoena, if any had been issued, is irrelevant. As we held in Ungab v. Cusi, Jr., [t]he crime is complete when the [taxpayer] has x x x knowingly and willfully filed [a] fraudulent [return] with intent to evade and defeat x x x the tax. Thus, respondent Secretary erred in holding that petitioner committed forum shopping when it filed the present criminal complaint during the pendency of its appeal from the City Prosecutors dismissal of I.S. No. 00-956 involving the act of disobedience to the summons in the course of the preliminary investigation on LMCECs correct tax liabilities for taxable years 1997, 1998 and 1999.
In the Details of Discrepancies attached as Annex B of the PAN, private respondents were already notified that inasmuch as the revenue officers were not given the opportunity to examine LMCECs books of accounts, accounting records and other documents, said revenue officers gathered information from third parties. Such procedure is authorized under Section 5 of the NIRC, which provides:
SEC. 5. Power of the Commissioner to Obtain Information, and to Summon, Examine, and Take Testimony of Persons. In ascertaining the correctness of any return, or in making a return when none has been made, or in determining the liability of any person for any internal revenue tax, or in collecting any such liability, or in evaluating tax compliance, the Commissioner is authorized:
(A) To examine any book, paper, record or other data which may be relevant or material to such inquiry;
(B) To obtain on a regular basis from any person other than the person whose internal revenue tax liability is subject to audit or investigation, or from any office or officer of the national and local governments, government agencies and instrumentalities, including the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas and government-owned or -controlled corporations, any information such as, but not limited to, costs and volume of production, receipts or sales and gross incomes of taxpayers, and the names, addresses, and financial statements of corporations, mutual fund companies, insurance companies, regional operating headquarters of multinational companies, joint accounts, associations, joint ventures or consortia and registered partnerships, and their members;
(C) To summon the person liable for tax or required to file a return, or any officer or employee of such person, or any person having possession, custody, or care of the books of accounts and other accounting records containing entries relating to the business of the person liable for tax, or any other person, to appear before the Commissioner or his duly authorized representative at a time and place specified in the summons and to produce such books, papers, records, or other data, and to give testimony;
(D) To take such testimony of the person concerned, under oath, as may be relevant or material to such inquiry; x x x
x x x x (Emphasis supplied.)
Private respondents assertions regarding the qualifications of the informer of the Bureau deserve scant consideration. We have held that the lack of consent of the taxpayer under investigation does not imply that the BIR obtained the information from third parties illegally or that the information received is false or malicious. Nor does the lack of consent preclude the BIR from assessing deficiency taxes on the taxpayer based on the documents. In the same vein, herein private respondents cannot be allowed to escape criminal prosecution under Sections 254 and 255 of the NIRC by mere imputation of a fictitious or disqualified informant under Section 282 simply because other than disclosure of the official registry number of the third party informer, the Bureau insisted on maintaining the confidentiality of the identity and personal circumstances of said informer.
Subsequently, petitioner sent to LMCEC by constructive service allowed under Section 3 of RR No. 12-99, assessment notice and formal demand informing the said taxpayer of the law and the facts on which the assessment is made, as required by Section 228 of the NIRC. Respondent Secretary, however, fully concurred with private respondents contention that the assessment notices were invalid for being unnumbered and the tax liabilities therein stated have already been settled and/or terminated.
We do not agree.
A notice of assessment is:
[A] declaration of deficiency taxes issued to a [t]axpayer who fails to respond to a Pre-Assessment Notice (PAN) within the prescribed period of time, or whose reply to the PAN was found to be without merit. The Notice of Assessment shall inform the [t]axpayer of this fact, and that the report of investigation submitted by the Revenue Officer conducting the audit shall be given due course.
The formal letter of demand calling for payment of the taxpayers deficiency tax or taxes shall state the fact, the law, rules and regulations or jurisprudence on which the assessment is based, otherwise the formal letter of demand and the notice of assessment shall be void.
As it is, the formality of a control number in the assessment notice is not a requirement for its validity but rather the contents thereof which should inform the taxpayer of the declaration of deficiency tax against said taxpayer. Both the formal letter of demand and the notice of assessment shall be void if the former failed to state the fact, the law, rules and regulations or jurisprudence on which the assessment is based, which is a mandatory requirement under Section 228 of the NIRC.
Section 228 of the NIRC provides that the taxpayer shall be informed in writing of the law and the facts on which the assessment is made. Otherwise, the assessment is void. To implement the provisions of Section 228 of the NIRC, RR No. 12-99 was enacted. Section 3.1.4 of the revenue regulation reads:
3.1.4. Formal Letter of Demand and Assessment Notice. The formal letter of demand and assessment notice shall be issued by the Commissioner or his duly authorized representative. The letter of demand calling for payment of the taxpayers deficiency tax or taxes shall state the facts, the law, rules and regulations, or jurisprudence on which the assessment is based, otherwise, the formal letter of demand and assessment notice shall be void. The same shall be sent to the taxpayer only by registered mail or by personal delivery. x x x. (Emphasis supplied.)
Letter of Demand dated
Thus, to verify the validity of the information previously provided by the informant, the assigned revenue officers resorted to third party information. Pursuant to Section 5(B) of the NIRC of 1997, access letters requesting for information and the submission of certain documents (i.e., Certificate of Income Tax Withheld at Source and/or Alphabetical List showing the income payments made to L.M. Camus Engineering Corporation for the taxable years 1997 to 1999) were sent to the various clients of the subject corporation, including but not limited to the following:
1. Ayala Land Inc.
2. Filinvest Alabang Inc.
3. D.M. Consunji, Inc.
4. SM Prime Holdings, Inc.
5. Alabang Commercial Corporation
6. Philam Properties Corporation
7. SM Investments, Inc.
8. Shoemart, Inc.
9. Philippine Securities Corporation
10. Makati Development Corporation
From the documents gathered and the data obtained therein, the substantial underdeclaration as defined under Section 248(B) of the NIRC of 1997 by your corporation of its income had been confirmed. x x x x (Emphasis supplied.)
In the same
letter, Assistant Commissioner Percival T. Salazar informed private respondents
that the estimated tax liabilities arising from LMCECs underdeclaration
P186,773,600.84 in 1997, P150,069,323.81 in 1998 and P163,220,111.13
in 1999. These figures confirmed that the
non-declaration by LMCEC for the taxable years 1997, 1998 and 1999 of an amount
exceeding 30% income declared in its
return is considered a substantial underdeclaration of income, which constituted prima facie evidence of
false or fraudulent return under Section 248(B) of the NIRC, as
On the alleged settlement of the assessed tax deficiencies by private respondents, respondent Secretary found the latters claim as meritorious on the basis of the Certificate of Immunity From Audit issued on December 6, 1999 pursuant to RR No. 2-99 and Letter of Termination dated June 1, 1999 issued by Revenue Region No. 7 Chief of Assessment Division Ruth Vivian G. Gandia. Petitioner, however, clarified that the certificate of immunity from audit covered only income tax for the year 1997 and does not include VAT and withholding taxes, while the Letter of Termination involved tax liabilities for taxable year 1997 (EWT, VAT and income taxes) but which was submitted for review of higher authorities as per the Certification of RD No. 40 District Officer Pablo C. Cabreros, Jr. For 1999, private respondents supposedly availed of the VAP pursuant to RR No. 8-2001.
RR No. 2-99 issued on February 7, 1999 explained in its Policy Statement that considering the scarcity of financial and human resources as well as the time constraints within which the Bureau has to clean the Bureaus backlog of unaudited tax returns in order to keep updated and be focused with the most current accounts in preparation for the full implementation of a computerized tax administration, the said revenue regulation was issued providing for last priority in audit and investigation of tax returns to accomplish the said objective without, however, compromising the revenue collection that would have been generated from audit and enforcement activities. The program named as Economic Recovery Assistance Payment (ERAP) Program granted immunity from audit and investigation of income tax, VAT and percentage tax returns for 1998. It expressly excluded withholding tax returns (whether for income, VAT, or percentage tax purposes). Since such immunity from audit and investigation does not preclude the collection of revenues generated from audit and enforcement activities, it follows that the Bureau is likewise not barred from collecting any tax deficiency discovered as a result of tax fraud investigations. Respondent Secretarys opinion that RR No. 2-99 contains the feature of a tax amnesty is thus misplaced.
Tax amnesty is a general pardon to taxpayers who want to start a clean tax slate. It also gives the government a chance to collect uncollected tax from tax evaders without having to go through the tedious process of a tax case. Even assuming arguendo that the issuance of RR No. 2-99 is in the nature of tax amnesty, it bears noting that a tax amnesty, much like a tax exemption, is never favored nor presumed in law and if granted by statute, the terms of the amnesty like that of a tax exemption must be construed strictly against the taxpayer and liberally in favor of the taxing authority.
For the same reason, the availment by LMCEC of VAP under RR No. 8-2001 as amended by RR No. 10-2001, through payment supposedly made in October 29, 2001 before the said program ended on October 31, 2001, did not amount to settlement of its assessed tax deficiencies for the period 1997 to 1999, nor immunity from prosecution for filing fraudulent return and attempt to evade or defeat tax. As correctly asserted by petitioner, from the express terms of the aforesaid revenue regulations, LMCEC is not qualified to avail of the VAP granting taxpayers the privilege of last priority in the audit and investigation of all internal revenue taxes for the taxable year 2000 and all prior years under certain conditions, considering that first, it was issued a PAN on February 19, 2001, and second, it was the subject of investigation as a result of verified information filed by a Tax Informer under Section 282 of the NIRC duly recorded in the BIR Official Registry as Confidential Information (CI) No. 29-2000 even prior to the issuance of the PAN.
Section 1 of RR No. 8-2001 provides:
SECTION 1. COVERAGE. x x x
Any person, natural or juridical, including estates and trusts, liable to pay any of the above-cited internal revenue taxes for the above specified period/s who, due to inadvertence or otherwise, erroneously paid his internal revenue tax liabilities or failed to file tax return/pay taxes may avail of the Voluntary Assessment Program (VAP), except those falling under any of the following instances:
covered by a Preliminary Assessment Notice (PAN), Final Assessment Notice
(FAN), or Collection Letter issued on or
1.2 Persons under investigation as a result of verified information filed by a Tax Informer under Section 282 of the Tax Code of 1997, duly processed and recorded in the BIR Official Registry Book on or before July 31, 2001;
1.3 Tax fraud cases already filed and pending in courts for adjudication; and
x x x x (Emphasis supplied.)
Moreover, private respondents cannot invoke LMCECs availment of VAP to foreclose any subsequent audit of its account books and other accounting records in view of the strong finding of underdeclaration in LMCECs payment of correct income tax liability by more than 30% as supported by the written report of the TFD detailing the facts and the law on which such finding is based, pursuant to the tax fraud investigation authorized by petitioner under LA No. 00009361. This conclusion finds support in Section 2 of RR No. 8-2001 as amended by RR No. 10-2001 provides:
SEC. 2. TAXPAYERS BENEFIT FROM AVAILMENT OF THE VAP. A taxpayer who has availed of the VAP shall not be audited except upon authorization and approval of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue when there is strong evidence or finding of understatement in the payment of taxpayers correct tax liability by more than thirty percent (30%) as supported by a written report of the appropriate office detailing the facts and the law on which such finding is based: Provided, however, that any VAP payment should be allowed as tax credit against the deficiency tax due, if any, in case the concerned taxpayer has been subjected to tax audit.
x x x x
Given the explicit conditions for the grant of immunity from audit under RR No. 2-99, RR No. 8-2001 and RR No. 10-2001, we hold that respondent Secretary gravely erred in declaring that petitioner is now estopped from assessing any tax deficiency against LMCEC after issuance of the aforementioned documents of immunity from audit/investigation and settlement of tax liabilities. It is axiomatic that the State can never be in estoppel, and this is particularly true in matters involving taxation. The errors of certain administrative officers should never be allowed to jeopardize the governments financial position.
Respondent Secretarys other ground for assailing the course of action taken by petitioner in proceeding with the audit and investigation of LMCEC -- the alleged violation of the general rule in Section 235 of the NIRC allowing the examination and inspection of taxpayers books of accounts and other accounting records only once in a taxable year -- is likewise untenable. As correctly pointed out by petitioner, the discovery of substantial underdeclarations of income by LMCEC for taxable years 1997, 1998 and 1999 upon verified information provided by an informer under Section 282 of the NIRC, as well as the necessity of obtaining information from third parties to ascertain the correctness of the return filed or evaluation of tax compliance in collecting taxes (as a result of the disobedience to the summons issued by the Bureau against the private respondents), are circumstances warranting exception from the general rule in Section 235.
As already stated, the substantial underdeclared income in the returns filed by LMCEC for 1997, 1998 and 1999 in amounts equivalent to more than 30% (the computation in the final assessment notice showed underdeclarations of almost 200%) constitutes prima facie evidence of fraudulent return under Section 248(B) of the NIRC. Prior to the issuance of the preliminary and final notices of assessment, the revenue officers conducted a preliminary investigation on the information and documents showing substantial understatement of LMCECs tax liabilities which were provided by the Informer, following the procedure under RMO No. 15-95. Based on the prima facie finding of the existence of fraud, petitioner issued LA No. 00009361 for the TFD to conduct a formal fraud investigation of LMCEC. Consequently, respondent Secretarys ruling that the filing of criminal complaint for violation of Sections 254 and 255 of the NIRC cannot prosper because of lack of prior determination of the existence of fraud, is bereft of factual basis and contradicted by the evidence on record.
Tax assessments by tax examiners are presumed correct and made in good faith, and all presumptions are in favor of the correctness of a tax assessment unless proven otherwise. We have held that a taxpayers failure to file a petition for review with the Court of Tax Appeals within the statutory period rendered the disputed assessment final, executory and demandable, thereby precluding it from interposing the defenses of legality or validity of the assessment and prescription of the Governments right to assess. Indeed, any objection against the assessment should have been pursued following the avenue paved in Section 229 (now Section 228) of the NIRC on protests on assessments of internal revenue taxes.
out that the assessment notice and Formal Letter of Demand dated
As we held in Marcos II v. Court of Appeals:
It is not the Department of Justice which is the government agency tasked to determine the amount of taxes due upon the subject estate, but the Bureau of Internal Revenue, whose determinations and assessments are presumed correct and made in good faith. The taxpayer has the duty of proving otherwise. In the absence of proof of any irregularities in the performance of official duties, an assessment will not be disturbed. Even an assessment based on estimates is prima facie valid and lawful where it does not appear to have been arrived at arbitrarily or capriciously. The burden of proof is upon the complaining party to show clearly that the assessment is erroneous. Failure to present proof of error in the assessment will justify the judicial affirmance of said assessment. x x x.
Moreover, these objections to the assessments should have been raised, considering the ample remedies afforded the taxpayer by the Tax Code, with the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Court of Tax Appeals, as described earlier, and cannot be raised now via Petition for Certiorari, under the pretext of grave abuse of discretion. The course of action taken by the petitioner reflects his disregard or even repugnance of the established institutions for governance in the scheme of a well-ordered society. The subject tax assessments having become final, executory and enforceable, the same can no longer be contested by means of a disguised protest. In the main, Certiorari may not be used as a substitute for a lost appeal or remedy. This judicial policy becomes more pronounced in view of the absence of sufficient attack against the actuations of government. (Emphasis supplied.)
The determination of probable cause is part of the discretion granted to the investigating prosecutor and ultimately, the Secretary of Justice. However, this Court and the CA possess the power to review findings of prosecutors in preliminary investigations. Although policy considerations call for the widest latitude of deference to the prosecutors findings, courts should never shirk from exercising their power, when the circumstances warrant, to determine whether the prosecutors findings are supported by the facts, or by the law. In so doing, courts do not act as prosecutors but as organs of the judiciary, exercising their mandate under the Constitution, relevant statutes, and remedial rules to settle cases and controversies. Clearly, the power of the Secretary of Justice to review does not preclude this Court and the CA from intervening and exercising our own powers of review with respect to the DOJs findings, such as in the exceptional case in which grave abuse of discretion is committed, as when a clear sufficiency or insufficiency of evidence to support a finding of probable cause is ignored.
WHEREFORE, the petition is GRANTED. The Decision dated
MARTIN S. VILLARAMA, JR.
CONCHITA CARPIO MORALES
ARTURO D. BRION
LUCAS P. BERSAMIN
A T T E S T A T I O N
I attest that the conclusions in the above Decision had been reached in consultation before the case was assigned to the writer of the opinion of the Courts Division.
CONCHITA CARPIO MORALES
Chairperson, Third Division
C E R T I F I C A T I O N
Pursuant to Section 13, Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution and the Division Chairpersons Attestation, I certify that the conclusions in the above Decision had been reached in consultation before the case was assigned to the writer of the opinion of the Courts Division.
RENATO C. CORONA
 CA rollo, pp. 130-137. Penned by Associate Justice Juan Q. Enriquez, Jr. and concurred in by Associate Justices Ruben T. Reyes (now a retired member of this Court) and Vicente S.E. Veloso.
 Records, p. 102.
 CA rollo, pp. 102-104.
 Records, p. 159.
 CA rollo, pp. 50-60.
 Records, pp. 139-140.
 Revenue Regulations No. 12-99, Implementing the Provisions of the National Internal Revenue Code of 1997 Governing the Rules on Assessment of National Internal Revenue Taxes, Civil Penalties and Interest and the Extrajudicial Settlement of a Taxpayers Criminal Violation of the Code through Payment of a Suggested Compromise Penalty, September 6, 1999.
 CA rollo, pp. 42-48.
 Records, p. 97.
 CA rollo, p. 62.
 Records, pp. 158-159.
 Nos. L-41919-24,
 Records, pp. 156-157.
 CA rollo, pp. 67-74.
 Rollo, p. 202.
 Revenue Regulations No. 12-99, Section 3.1.2.
SECTION 3. Due process requirement in the issuance of a deficiency tax assessment.
x x x x
3.1.2 Preliminary Assessment Notice (PAN). If after review and evaluation by the Assessment Division or by the Commissioner or his duly authorized representative, as the case may be, it is determined that there exists sufficient basis to assess the taxpayer for any deficiency tax or taxes, the said Office shall issue to the taxpayer, at least by registered mail, a Preliminary Assessment Notice (PAN) for the proposed assessment, showing in detail, the facts and the law, rules and regulations, or jurisprudence on which the proposed assessment is based. If the taxpayer fails to respond within fifteen (15) days from date of receipt of the PAN, he shall be considered in default, in which case, a formal letter of demand and assessment notice shall be caused to be issued by the said Office, calling for payment of the taxpayers deficiency tax liability, inclusive of the applicable penalties.
 CA rollo, pp. 102-104.
 Records, p. 120.
 Supra note 21 at 884, citing Guzik v. United States, 54 F2d. 618.
 CA rollo, p. 104.
 Fitness By Design, Inc. v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, G.R. No. 177982, October 17, 2008, 569 SCRA 788, 797.
 Commissioner of Internal Revenue v. Enron Subic Power Corporation, G.R. No. 166387, January 19, 2009, 576 SCRA 212, 216, citing http://www.bir.gov.ph/taxpayerrights/taxpayerrights.htm.
 CA rollo, p. 60.
 SEC. 248. Civil Penalties.
x x x x
(B) In case of willful neglect to file the return within the period prescribed by this Code or by rules and regulations, or in case a false or fraudulent return is willfully made, the penalty to be imposed shall be fifty percent (50%) of the tax or of the deficiency tax, in case any payment has been made on the basis of such return before the discovery of the falsity or fraud; Provided, That a substantial underdeclaration of taxable sales, receipts or income, or a substantial overstatement of deductions, as determined by the Commissioner pursuant to the rules and regulations to be promulgated by the Secretary of Finance, shall constitute prima facie evidence of a false or fraudulent return: Provided, further, That failure to report sales, receipts or income in an amount exceeding thirty percent (30%) of that declared per return, and a claim of deductions in an amount exceeding thirty percent (30%) of actual deductions, shall render the taxpayer liable for substantial underdeclaration of sales, receipts or income or for overstatement of deductions, as mentioned herein.
 Records, p. 138.
 Baas, Jr. v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 102967,
 Rollo, p. 116.
 Commissioner of Internal Revenue v. Procter & Gamble PMC, No.
 SEC. 235. Preservation of Books of Accounts, and Other Accounting Records. All the books of accounts, including the subsidiary books and other accounting records of corporations, partnerships, or persons shall be preserved by them for a period beginning from the last entry in each book until the last day prescribed by Section 203 within which the Commissioner is authorized to make an assessment. The said books and records shall be subject to examination and inspection by internal revenue officers: Provided, That for income tax purposes, such examination and inspection shall be made only once in a taxable year, except in the following cases:
(a) Fraud, irregularity or mistakes as determined by the Commissioner;
x x x x
(c) Verification or compliance with withholding tax laws and regulations;
x x x x
(e) In the exercise of the Commissioners power under Section 5(B) to obtain information from other persons, in which case, another or separate examination and inspection may be made. x x x
 RMO No. 15-95 dated
A Preliminary Investigation must first be conducted to establish the prima facie existence of fraud. This shall include the verification of the allegations on the confidential information and/or complaints filed, and the determination of the schemes and extent of fraud perpetrated by the denounced taxpayers.
The Formal Fraud Investigation, which includes the examination of the taxpayers books of accounts through the issuance of Letters of Authority, shall be conducted only after the prima facie existence of fraud has been established.
1. TAX FRAUD DIVISION
1.1. Where indications of fraud have been established in a preliminary investigation, the TFD thru the Assistant Commissioner, Intelligence and Investigation Service (IIS), shall request/recommend the issuances of the corresponding Letter of Authority by the Commissioner which will automatically supersede all previously issued Letters of Authority with respect thereto.
x x x x
 RMO No. 49-2000, II (2).
 Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, G.R. No. 168498, April 24, 2007, 522 SCRA 144, 149-150, citing Commissioner of Internal Revenue v. Hantex Trading Co., Inc., G.R. No. 136975, March 31, 2005, 454 SCRA 301, 329.
 Marcos II v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 120880, June 5, 1997, 273 SCRA 47, 65.
 Revenue Regulations No. 12-99, Section 3.1.5.
3.1.5 Disputed Assessment. The taxpayer or his duly authorized representative may protest administratively against the aforesaid formal letter of demand and assessment notice within thirty (30) days from date of receipt thereof. x x x
 Supra note 60, at 66-67.
 Social Security System v. Department of Justice, G.R. No. 158131, August 8, 2007, 529 SCRA 426, 442, citing Ladlad v. Velasco, G.R. Nos. 172070-72, 172074-76 & 175013, June 1, 2007, 523 SCRA 318; Principio v. Barrientos, G.R. No. 167025, December 19, 2005, 478 SCRA 639; Acua v. Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon, G.R. No. 144692, January 31, 2005, 450 SCRA 232.
 See Tan v. Ballena, G.R. No. 168111,