SC Upholds Ombudsman’s Finding of Probable Cause Against Napoles, et al.
December 19, 2023
The Ombudsman’s finding of probable cause to file an information against a public official or employee is not a determination of guilt or innocence.
Thus held the Supreme Court’s Second Division, through Senior Associate Justice Marvic M.V.F. Leonen, as it denied the consolidated petitions for certiorari filed by Janet Lim Napoles (Napoles) and officers of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), (collectively, Napoles, et al.). The petitions challenged the Ombudsman’s finding of probable cause for violation of Section 3(e) of Republic Act No. (RA) 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, malversation under Article 217 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC), and corruption of public officials under Article 212 of the RPC.
The charges were brought by the Ombudsman against Napoles, et al. in relation to the 2007 Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) of then Davao del Sur Representative Douglas R. Cagas (Cagas) amounting to PhP16 million, which was diverted through Countrywide Agri and Rural Economic and Development Foundation, Inc. and Philippine Social Development Foundation, Inc., both alleged nongovernment organizations (NGOs). The funds were diverted from the DBM to Technology Resource Center, the implementing agency for the ghost projects.
In the Commission on Audit’s (COA) Special Audit Report No. 2012-03 on the PDAF allocations of lawmakers from 2007 to 2009, which included Cagas’ livelihood projects in 2007, the COA confirmed accounts of whistleblowers on the existence of a pork barrel scam, where implementing agencies such as Technology Resource Center did not actually implement the PDAF projects.
This prompted the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to file a complaint before the Ombusdman in 2013, recommending the prosecution of Napoles, et al. and officers of the involved implementing agencies. The Field Investigation of the Office of the Ombudsman subsequently filed a complaint in 2015.
After exchanges of pleadings from those charged, the Ombudsman issued a consolidated resolution finding probable cause against Napoles, et al. for malversation and violation of Section 3(e) of RA 3019; against Cagas and Technology Resource Center head Antonio Y. Ortiz for direct bribery; and against Napoles for corruption of public officials under Article 212 of the RPC.
The Ombudsman found prima facie evidence on the existence of the pork barrel scheme involving legislators, government agencies, and NGOs under Napoles’ control, acting in concert to systematically divert a legislator’s PDAF through nonexistent or ghost projects implemented by Napoles-controlled NGOs. This was evident from the COA Report of the disbursement vouchers, checks, memorandum of agreement, letters, and statements from the whistleblowers.
This prompted Napoles, et al. to file their separate petitions before the Court.
In determining whether the Ombudsman gravely abused its discretion in finding probable cause against Napoles, et al., the Court emphasized the nature of the Office of the Ombudsman as an independent constitutional body, with wide latitude in its investigation and prosecution of cases falling within its jurisdiction.
The Ombudsman’s “executive determination of probable cause is a highly factual matter which the Court cannot ordinarily review…It is only when there is a clear showing of grave abuse of discretion in the Ombudsman’s conduct of preliminary investigation ‘amounting to a virtual refusal to perform a duty under the law’ that the Court decides to exercise its power of judicial review,’” said the Court.
Further, the Court stressed the doctrine that once the trial court finds probable cause, which results in the issuance of a warrant of arrest, any question on the prosecution’s conduct of preliminary investigation becomes moot.
In the present case, the Court ruled that the petitions are moot following the Sandiganbayan’s finding of probable cause and issuance of warrants of arrest against those involved in the diversion of the PhP16-million PDAF of Cagas, as also upheld by the Court in the 2021 case of Relampagos v. Sandiganbayan.
Nevertheless, the Court held that even if the petitions have not been mooted, they must still be denied as there was no grave abuse of discretion on the part of the Ombudsman in finding probable cause against Napoles, et al.
Reiterating its ruling in the 2021 case Jalandoni v. Ombudsman, the Court defined probable cause as “the existence of such facts and circumstances as would excite the belief, in a reasonable mind, acting on the facts within the knowledge of the prosecutor, that the person charged was guilty of the crime for which he was prosecuted.”
“The Office of the Ombudsman’s determination of probable cause does not rule on the issue of guilt or innocence of the accused. It is only bound to evaluate the evidence presented by the prosecution and the accused and then determine if there is enough reason to believe that a crime has been committed and that the accused is probably guilty of committing the crime,” said the Court.
In the present case, the Court found that during the preliminary investigation, the Ombudsman sufficiently established its reasonable basis to file criminal charges against Napoles, et al., with the whistleblowers categorically identifying Napoles’ involvement in the pork barrel scheme. The accounts of the whistleblowers clearly show Napoles’ connection to all those implicated in the scam, including her co-petitioners.
As to the objections on the evidentiary value and admissibility of the evidence assessed by the Ombudsman, the Court ruled that these are matters relevant in trial and not during the preliminary investigation.
With the Commission on Audit confirming the accounts of the whistleblowers, and the NBI and the Ombudsman’s Field Investigation Office validating the evidence attached to the complaints, the Court found “no grave abuse of discretion that will allow us to interfere with the Ombudsman’s finding of probable cause.” (Courtesy of the Supreme Court Public Information Office)
Full text of G.R. Nos. 231161, 231584, 230849-51 (Relampagos v. Ombudsman; Napoles v. Carpio Morales, December 7, 2022) at: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/231161-231584-230849-51-mario-l-relampagos-rosario-s-nunez-lalaine-n-paule-and-marilou-d-bare-vs-office-of-the-ombudsman-janet-lim-napoles-vs-cochita-carpio-morales-in-her-official-capacity-a/