SC clears 10 PN officers of administrative liability in 1995 death of Ensign Pestaño.

Published July 15, 2021, 8:38 AM

by Rey Panaligan 

Supreme Court (SC)

The Supreme Court (SC) has reversed the Court of Appeals’ (CA) 2013 decision that affirmed the 2011 order of the Office of the Ombudsman (OMB) which dismissed from the service for grave misconduct 10 Philippine Navy (PN) officers who were charged in the 1995 death of Ensign Philip Andrew Pestaño.

In a resolution, cleared by the SC of administrative liability were Capt. Ricardo Ordonez, Cdr. Reynaldo Lopez, Cdr. Alfrederick Alba, Lt. Cdr. Luidegar Casis, Lt. Cdr. Joselito Colico, Machinery Repairman 2nd Class Sandy Miranda, Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Welmenio Aquino, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Mil Leonor Y. Igacasan.

The resolution issued by the SC’s first division was promulgated last May 14 and released last July 12.

Aside from the eight PN officers, also affirmed by the CA in its 2013 decision was the OMB’s dismissal order against Lt. Cdr. Ruben Roque and Petty Officer 1st Class Carlito Amoroso.

However, Roque and Amoroso were not among those who filed the SC petition that challenged the CA’s 2013 decision.

In reversing the CA’s decision and the OMB’s resolution, the SC said that “a finding of guilt in an administrative case may be sustained for as long as it is supported by substantial evidence that the respondent has committed the acts charged.”

It said that in the case of the 10 PN officers, “the 0MB failed to support its conclusion of administrative liability with sufficient factual and legal basis.”

“In view of the foregoing, the Nov. 22, 2011 Joint Order, as it relates to the administrative aspect of the complaint, must be struck down for being violative of petitioners’ right to due process,” the SC ruled.

Case records showed that BRP Bacolod City, a PN cargo ship, left Tawi-Tawi on Sept. 20, 1995, and after seven days made its last stop-over in Sangley Point in Cavite. On the same day, the ship departed for the PN headquarters in Manila, its final destination.

Enroute to Manila from Sangley Point, Pestaño was found dead inside his cabin, lying on the bed with a single gunshot wound on his right temple.

The CA’s decision noted that investigations conducted by the Senate and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) ruled out that Pestaño committed suicide, and that during the probe it was unearthed that Pestaño knew that the ship was carrying “undocumented lumber.”

Pestaño’s parents, spouses Felipe and Evelyn, filed cases before the OMB against those involved in their claim that their son was killed.

In a resolution dated June 15, 2009, the OMB dismissed the criminal and administrative charges against the 10 PN officers with a ruling that there was “no substantial evidence to show that [their] actions transgressed some established and definite rule of action or constitute unlawful behavior or gross negligence.”

Pestaño’s parents filed a motion to reconsider the dismissal of the charges.

On Nov. 22, 2011, then Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales reversed the 2009 resolution issued by then Deputy Overall Ombudsman Orlando Casimiro.

Morales, ruling that the circumstances negated the theory that Pestaño committed suicide and that foul play surrounded his death, ordered the filing of murder cases against the 10 PN officers and dismissed them for grave misconduct.

The PN officers elevated the case to the CA which affirmed the OMB’s 2011 order. They subsequently filed a petition with the SC.

The SC said that “the (OMB’s) joint order concluded that the totality of circumstances points to a prima facie conclusion that Philip’s death was not a case of suicide, that there was an attempt to cover it up, and that there was a prima facie conclusion that petitioners conspired to kill him, hence probable cause for murder lies against them.”

“However, the joint order does not state how this finding of probable cause ties into the finding that petitioners are guilty of grave misconduct. There was no attempt in the joint order to establish the parameters of what constitutes grave misconduct, much less if such parameters applied to the petitioners,” it said.

The SC also said:

“It seems to imply, therefore, that the OMB was of the idea that administrative liability would arise out of a finding that the petitioners are guilty of the crime.

“But the OMB’s resolution of the criminal aspect of the complaint is not a finding of criminal liability. It is only a determination of probable cause to bring petitioners to trial in a criminal case. A finding of probable cause needs only to rest on evidence showing that, more likely than not, a crime has been committed and was committed by the suspects.

“Such is insufficient to hold petitioners administratively liable. The quantum of evidence needed in an administrative case is greater than the evidence needed in a preliminary investigation to establish probable cause, or to establish the existence of a prima facie case that would warrant the prosecution of a case.

“The 0MB lumped together all the petitioners, on the basis of a prima facie finding of conspiracy. Conspiracy as a means of incurring liability is strictly confined to criminal cases; even assuming that the records indicate the existence of a felonious scheme, the administrative liability of a person allegedly involved in such scheme cannot be established through conspiracy, considering that one’s administrative liability is separate and distinct from penal liability.

“Thus, in administrative cases, the only inquiry in determining liability is simply whether the respondent, through his individual actions, committed the charges against him that render him administratively liable. To reiterate, the 0MB failed to specify the individual acts or omissions of the petitioners.

“As such, We rule that the June 15, 2009 Joint Resolution of the 0MB effectively absolved petitioners of the charges against them, and had become final, executory, and unappealable, insofar as the administrative case is concerned.”