By Rey Panaligan
The Supreme Court (SC) has ruled that immunity from civil or criminal case of an incumbent President does not extend to his alter egos.
With the ruling, the SC – in a decision written by Associate Justice Diosdado M. Peralta – dismissed the petition for review filed by former Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) chairman Camilo L. Sabio whose conviction for graft was affirmed.
Sabio was charged with violations of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act before the Sandiganbayan in connection with the lease of 11 motor vehicles entered into by the PCGG with the United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB) Leasing and Finance Corporation in 2007-2009 without bidding.
In 2017, the Sandiganbayan convicted Sabio of two counts of graft. He was sentenced to a jail term ranging from 12 to 20 years and was perpetually disqualified from holding public office.
Sabio elevated his conviction before the SC. Among other legal arguments, he claimed he was immune from suit as an alter ego of the President.
Quoting from the SC decision, the High Court’s public information office (PIO) in a statement said:
“Sabio cannot claim immunity from suit for being an alter ego of the President.
“It was the PCGG, through Sabio and his commissioners, not the President, who entered into the subject lease agreements without the requisite public bidding.
“It will be ridiculous to hold that alter egos of the President are, likewise, immune from suit simply because their acts are considered acts of the President if not repudiated.
“In fact, the 1987 Constitution is replete with provisions on the constitutional principles of accountability and good governance that should guide a public servant.
“The rule is that unlawful acts of public officials are not acts of the State and the officer who acts illegally is not acting as such but stands in the same footing as any other trespasser.”
At the same time, the PIO statement stated that the SC “cited the Government Procurement Reform Act (Republic Act No. 9184) which explicitly provides that all government procurement shall be done through competitive bidding, except as provided for in Article XVI the same law.”
“The PCGG, being a government office or agency, is covered by RA No. 9184. This means that before entering the lease of the 11 vehicles, the PCGG should have conducted a competitive bidding first,” it said.
The PIO statement citing the SC decision noted that “there was bad faith on Sabio’s part in entering into the said lease agreements without ‘undertaking the required procurement process; and subjecting government funds to unnecessary expenditure without pre-allocation and the necessity for the same.”
It also said that “Sabio was also a member of the board of United Coconut Planters Bank, the parent company of UCPB Leasing, when the lease agreements were entered into; thus giving unwarranted benefit and advantage in favor of UCPB Leasing.”
“As correctly ruled by the Sandiganbayan, Sabio’s acts unmistakably reflect ‘a dishonest purpose or some moral obliquity and conscious doing of a wrong; a breach of sworn duty through some motive or intent or ill will,” the Court said.
On the immunity from suit of an incumbent President, the SC – in its 2006 decision – declared:
“Settled is the doctrine that the President, during his tenure of office or actual incumbency, may not be sued in any civil or criminal case, and there is no need to provide for it in the Constitution or law.
“It will degrade the dignity of the high office of the President, the Head of State, if he can be dragged into court litigations while serving as such.
“Furthermore, it is important that he be freed from any form of harassment, hindrance, or distraction to enable him to fully attend to the performance of his official duties and functions.”