By Rey Panaligan
The Court of Appeals (CA) has ordered a Marikina City regional trial court (RTC) judge to inhibit herself from the qualified theft complaint filed by San Miguel Holdings Corp. (SMHC) against Indonesian businessman Ery Shadik Wahono and several others.
In a decision written by Associate Justice Sesinando Villon, the CA said that RTC Judge Alice C. Gutierrez “is predisposed to act in favor of private respondents, or with bias or prejudice against petitioners” (SMHC).
“All told, Judge Gutierrez has displayed more than a hint of bias and partiality in the proceedings before the court a quo. It is only proper for her to inhibit herself from further presiding therein,” the CA ruled.
The CA directed the raffle of the case to another judge and to proceed with the trial of the case.
With the ruling, the CA granted SMHC’s petition to reverse Judge Gutierrez’s ruling that denied its motion for her inhibition.
Case records showed that while SMHC’s petition was pending with the CA, the trial court judge issued an order that dismissed the qualified complaint. This prompted the CA to issue an injunction that extended the life of a temporary restraining order (TRO) earlier issued to stop the dismissal of the complaint.
Early this year, the CA had affirmed its resolution that issued a TRO against the ruling handed down by Judge Gutierrez in favor of Mahono and his group.
The CA said that the order issued by Judge Gutierrez has not attained finality and, thus, a TRO may still be validly issued.
“Moreover, the court a quo’s (RTC) order dated Oct. 25, 2017 dismissing the complaint against private respondents Shadik Wahono and Nadiya W. Stamboel, who are still at large, and acquitting private respondents Fema Christina Piramide-Sayson and Alvin Bugtas, did not necessarily render the actions taken by public respondent Hon. Alice C. Gutierrez fait accompli,” the CA said.
With the ruling, the CA denied the motion filed by Wahono and his group to reconsider the appellate court’s Nov. 16, 2017 order that issued a TRO on a petition filed by SMHC and Citra Metro Manila Tollways Corp. (CMMTC).
Case records showed that Wahono and Stamboel were charged with qualified theft case before the Marikina RTC for causing CMMTC, which was jointly owned then by the SMHC and Wahono, to make an unauthorized disbursement, which he then used to incorporate another company called Citra Central Expressway Corp. (CCEC).
SMHC accused Wahono of unauthorized disbursement of P50 million in funds of CMMTC, where both SMHC and Wahono were major shareholders.
It said it did not know that Wahono got the money from CMMTC to fund the establishment of CCEC.
On July 14, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) served the warrant of arrest against Wahono at his last known address in Makati City, but he could not be located.
The NBI also failed to arrest Stamboel who was found to have left the Philippines last year.
In the estafa complaint, SMHC – the infrastructure arm of San Miguel Corporation (SMC) — accused Wahono of misrepresenting his company, PT Citra Lamtoro Gung Persada (CLGP), as the legal owner of CCEC shares that it acquired.
But SMHC said in its complaint that CLGP cannot be the legal and beneficial owner of such shares since the subscription price was actually paid for by CMMTC from its funds of which it (SMHC) was also a beneficial owner at that time.
Elaborating on the trial court judge’s bias and prejudice, the CA cited the July 18, 2016 pre-trial conference where she manifested a “degree of aversion or hostility” towards SMHC.
It said that based on stenographic notes during the proceedings, Judge Gutierrez was inclined to prevent SMHC’s participation in the case by accepting as gospel truth the submission of the private respondents’ counsel that the latter did not have personality to participate in the proceedings because there was no civil aspect involved in the case.
“A judge’s official conduct should be free from the appearance of impropriety, and his personal behavior, not only upon the bench and in the performance of judicial duties, but also in his everyday life, should be beyond reproach,” the CA pointed out.
“Judges shall not knowingly, while a proceeding is before or could come before them, make any comment that might reasonably be expected to affect the outcome of such proceeding or impair the manifest fairness of the process,” it added.