Ongpin lawyers buck move to inhibit Sandigan justices
MANILA, Philippines—The lawyers of Roberto Ongpin on Friday objected to the request of the Office of the Ombudsman to have two Sandiganbayan judges inhibit themselves from hearing the graft case against the businessman, saying prosecutors only made the accusation of bias against the judges after the government suffered a legal setback.
In a press statement, Ongpin’s lawyer, Rodolfo Ponferrada, pointed out that the case was raffled to the Third Division of the Sandiganbayan as early as January this year, after the Ombudsman filed the case.
“Why is it only now that the Ombudsman is asking for the inhibition of the two justices, five months after the case was raffled to the Third Division and one day after the public hearing,” he said, referring to the hearing called by the Sandiganbayan earlier this week to determine if there was “probable cause” in the government’s case against the former Marcos trade minister.
‘Very bad precedent’
“If justices of the Sandiganbayan or any other court would be asked by the Ombudsman to inhibit after a public hearing of the case, this would set a very bad precedent, since once the case is going against them, the Ombudsman could simply resort to the tactic of asking justices or judges to inhibit themselves,” Ponferrada said.
On April 23, the Sandiganbayan called for a public hearing on the issue of judicial determination of probable cause and for all sides to ventilate all issues. The public hearing was held on May 7.
“In a packed courtroom, which was covered by the media, the defense lawyers demolished the charges of the Ombudsman, obviously unprepared and unable to defend what was in fact indefensible (that PhilWeb Corp.—whose shares were used by Ongpin as collateral for an alleged behest P660-million loan from the Development Bank of the Philippines—is an unlisted firm),” he said. “Moreover, the impartiality of the justices of the Third Division was clearly evident.”
As a result of the legal setback, Ponferrada said that Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales has now asked two justices of the Third Division, Francisco Villaruz Jr. and Samuel Martires, to inhibit themselves from the case.
The grounds cited were that Justice Villaruz was the fraternity brother of one of the defense counsels, Atty. Alex Poblador and that one of Villaruz sons’ law firm had, many years ago, represented a company affiliated with Ongpin in a case.
The defense counsels strongly objected to the request that the two justices inhibit themselves from the case.
“If the fact of being fraternity brothers is ground for inhibition, which it is not, there would be hundreds, if not thousands of cases which would have been affected since, a multitude of justices and defense or prosecution counsels, are fraternity brothers,” the lawyer said. “Secondly, the fact that a son of Villaruz was a partner in the law office that represented a company ‘affiliated’ with Mr. Ongpin some 10 years ago is clearly of no relevance.”
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