SC orders dismissal, forfeiture of retirement benefits of ex-NEDA Chief Neri on ZTE deal

Published November 12, 2021, 1:01 PM

by Rey Panaligan 

Supreme Court (SC)

Instead of only suspension or fine, the Supreme Court (SC) has ordered the dismissal of then Director General Romulo L. Neri of the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) for brokering, “despite knowledge of corruption,” the aborted 2007 transaction with Zhing Xing Telecommunications Equipment (ZTE) for the $325.9 million national broadband network (NBN) project of the government.

While the dismissal is already academic since Neri is no longer NEDA director general, what could be enforced in the SC’s decision — once it becomes final — are the accessory penalties of “cancellation of eligibility, forfeiture of leave credits and retirement benefits, and perpetual disqualification from reemployment in the government service.”

The SC decision, promulgated last July 5 and made public last Nov. 11, was written by Associate Justice Marvic M.V.F. Leonen.

It reversed the Aug. 21, 2009 ruling of the Office of the Ombudsman (OMB) which found Neri guilty of misconduct and imposed on him a six-month suspension without pay as NEDA director general.

On Neri’s appeal, the CA modified the OMB’s ruling as it declared him guilty of simple misconduct and imposed on him a fine equivalent to his six months salaries. He elevated the case to the SC.

Published reports stated that Neri’s graft case filed in 2010 in the NBN-ZTE deal had been dismissed by the Sandiganbayan in 2016. The anti-graft court granted his demurrer to evidence, a pleading filed to dismiss the case on the ground that the prosecution’s evidence cannot sustain a conviction.

Former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who scrapped the NBN-ZTE deal, had also been cleared of the graft and other charges by the Sandiganbayan, also on a demurrer to evidence. When the judgment of acquittal was elevated to the SC, the High Court dismissed the petition on Arroyo’s constitutional right against double jeopardy.

The NBN-ZTE deal, which started in 2006, was for the installation of a nationwide public telecommunications infrastructure to link all government agencies and offices.

After the deal was awarded to ZTE in 2007, there had been allegations of corruption which, among other incidents, led to a Senate inquiry.

Thereafter, a complaint was filed before the OMB against Neri, then President Arroyo and several other persons for alleged graft and violations of the Revised Penal Code (RPC). Among the complaints were Teofisto T. Guingona, Jr., Harry L. Roque, Jr., Ma. Dominga B. Padilla, Roel Garcia, Bebu Bulchand, and Fr. Jose P. Dizon.

In the case of Neri, the complaints alleged that he should be charged with dereliction of duties under Article 208 of the RPC for maliciously refraining from instituting prosecution and tolerating the corruption surrounding the deal.

The complainants also alleged that as head of NEDA, Neri had a hand in approving the deal because the agency’s approval was required. After a fact-finding investigation, he was charged with grave misconduct and dishonesty.

On April 21, 2009, the OMB found Neri guilty of misconduct and suspended him for six months without pay.

On Neri’s appeal, the CA found him liable for only simple misconduct. The appellate court imposed a fine equivalent to six months salaries.

In his SC petition, Neri alleged that he could not stop the evaluation of the ZTE’s bid for the NBN because NEDA had to automatically review the transaction.

He also told the SC he even warned NEDA’s staff to be cautious in evaluating the bid because of a bribe offer. At the same time, he said NEDA’s approval only pertained to the economic feasibility of the project and his office did not choose ZTE as the contractor.

At the same time, Neri said his meetings with other personalities involved in the deal and his dinner with ZTE officials were invitations from the Chinese Embassy officials as part of diplomatic protocols. He insisted he did not accept any bribe.

He also pointed out that he merely followed the President’s advice “to refuse the bribe offer … and just proceed with the processing of the … project.”

Thus, he said, he acted in good faith in obeying the orders of a superior, he being the vice chair of NEDA while the President was its chairperson.

Denying his petition, the SC, among other legal points, said:

“Petitioner (Neri) attempts to wash his-hands by claiming that he was merely following then President Macapagal-Arroyo’s orders. He maintains that he cannot be held accountable because he was only a part of the collegial body that approved the deal.

“We cannot accept this argument. As part of the Board of the National Economic and Development Authority, petitioner cannot pass on his liability to the President. His vote and opinion on the matter must be viewed separately from the President’s. His roles as the director general of the agency and the vice chair of its board cannot be emasculated as a powerless position, blindly following the President’s orders.

“All these make it clear that petitioner committed grave misconduct. To reiterate, this Court shall respect the Office of the Ombudsman’s findings of fact when they are supported by substantial evidence.

“Here, the Court of Appeals erred in deeming the misconduct as only simple, seeing as how the elements of corruption and clear intent to violate the law are quite patent.

“Petitioner actively brokered for ZTE’s bid by using his public position despite knowing the corruption involved in the project. There is no cogent reason to justify the lowering of liability to simple misconduct.

“The Constitution and our laws demand a high standard of ethics from public officials and employees. Petitioner’s acts undoubtedly fell short of this standard and diminished the people’s confidence in the government.

“WHEREFORE, the Petition for Review on Certiorari is DENIED. The assailed July 3, 2013 Decision and May 5, 2014 Resolution of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP. No. 114299 are REVERSED and SET ASIDE. Petitioner Romulo L. Neri is DISMISSED from service, which includes the accessory penalties of cancellation of eligibility, forfeiture of leave credits and retirement benefits, and perpetual disqualification from reemployment in the government service. SO ORDERED.”