Defining ‘Betrayal of Public Trust’

Published February 24, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Senator Francis Tolentino

‘TOL Views

Senator Francis N. Tolentino

The 1987 Constitution introduced ‘betrayal of public trust’ as a ground for impeachment for the President, Vice President, members of the Supreme Court, members of the Constitutional Commissions, and the Ombudsman. This is in addition to treason, bribery, graft and corruption, culpable violation of the Constitution and other high crimes as grounds for impeachment also present under the 1973 Constitution.

From the deliberations of the framers of the 1987 Constitution, it appears that the inclusion of ‘betrayal of public trust’ as a ground for impeachment was introduced to deter arguments that no ground for impeachment can be invoked if the acts or omissions are neither punishable nor considered penal offenses. It was explained that said term is a “catch-all phrase to include all acts which are not punishable by statutes as penal offenses, but nonetheless, render the officer unfit to continue in office. It includes betrayal of public interest, inexcusable negligence of duty, tyrannical abuse of power, breach of official duty by malfeasance or misfeasance, cronyism, favoritism, etc. to the prejudice of public interest and which tend to bring the office in disrepute.”

There is no clear-cut definition, however, that would markedly provide for the metes and bounds of what would constitute ‘betrayal of public trust’; hence, this relevant discussion on the matter.

Notably in recent news, the term ‘betrayal of public trust’ proved to be an important piece to the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee’s partial report concerning Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corporation, specifically in holding the President accountable for any anomaly.

The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, invoking its constitutional authority to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation under Article VI, Section 21 of the Constitution, held several committee hearings to investigate the award of the controversial Pharmally contracts. In doing so, the committee questioned several of the administration’s executive officials.
On Feb. 1, 2022, the committee released its draft partial report finding, among others, that the President betrayed the public trust under the 1987 Constitution for appointing and defending the people linked to the Pharmally controversy and preventing his Cabinet members and other officials of his administration from attending the hearings.
Here lies the importance of defining ‘betrayal of public trust’.

Since ‘betrayal of public trust’ is one of the grounds to impeach a President, to uphold the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee’s findings that the President betrayed the public trust would mean that impeachment proceedings may follow.

It behooves the committee to note the Supreme Court’s pronouncement in the case of Gonzales v. Office of the President of the Philippines, 679 SCRA 614 (2012), where ‘betrayal of public trust’ was first defined.

While the court recognized the broad nature of such ground to cover all acts not punishable by statutes as penal offenses but, nonetheless, render the officer unfit to continue in office, “the impreciseness of its definition also created apprehension that such an overarching standard may be too broad and may be subject to abuse and arbitrary exercise by the legislature.” Indeed, such a broad definition could be easily utilized for every conceivable misconduct or negligence in office to the detriment of public service.

Notably though, the framers of the Constitution recognized that plain error of judgment, where circumstances may indicate that there is good faith will not constitute betrayal of public trust. As such, the Supreme Court in the same case held that “acts that should constitute ‘betrayal of public trust’ as to warrant removal from office may be less than criminal but must be attended by bad faith and of such gravity and seriousness as the other grounds of impeachment.” ‘Betrayal of public trust’, for purposes of impeachment, was not intended to cover all kinds of official wrongdoings and plain errors of judgment.

Applying the foregoing, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, in my view, failed to establish that the President committed ‘betrayal of public trust’ absent any compelling evidence of bad faith and proof that said acts are of such gravity and seriousness as the other grounds of impeachment.

The President cannot be adjudged to betray the public’s trust by his mere appointment of Cabinet members and other officials of his administration. To do so would set an absurd precedent where all missteps of the appointee may lead to the impeachment of the appointing authority regardless of the latter’s participation in the controversial act or omission. Unless proven otherwise, Presidential appointments are presumed to be done in good faith and in the exercise of the President’s constitutional prerogative.

(Senator Francis “Tol” N. Tolentino is a member of the 18th Congress and obtained his Masters of Law (LL.M.) from the Michigan Law School, specializing in Constitutional law.)