New Comelec commissioner has tainted record in judiciary

Written by Carmela Fonbuena
Thursday, 03 July 2008
www.newsbreak.com.ph


Newly-appointed Commission on Elections (Comelec) Commissioner Leonardo Leonida has a tainted record in the judiciary, where he served in the last two decades. In a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court in 2006, he was admonished for violating four rules in the Code of Judicial Conduct.

He and another appointee, newly-retired Court of Appeals (CA) Justice Lucenito Tagle, took their oaths this morning before Comelec Chairman Jose Melo. Prior to his appointment to the Comelec, Leonida was a Malabon regional trial court judge.

Leonida was appointed to serve the unfinished term of the late Comelec Commissioner Romeo Brawner, which ends in 2011. Tagle, on the other hand, was appointed to a full seven-year term.

One position remains vacant in the seven-man poll body.

SC’s Admonition
When he was presiding judge of the regional trial court, branch 27, Sta. Cruz, Laguna, Leonida was found to have compromised the integrity of the court because of his irregular judicial conduct, earning him an admonition from the Supreme Court (SC).

"The fact alone that he allows surety agents to freely enter his chambers and discuss with their business with him and either wittingly and unwittingly permit these agents to give instruction or orders to members of his staff already indicates that there is something wrong in the way he manages his office," the SC said in an April 2006 en banc decision penned by Justice Alicia Austria-Martinez.

In a phone interview with abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak, Leonida expressed his disappointment with the Supreme Court decision. "It’s not true. I don’t entertain visitors inside my chambers. I don’t know why the Supreme Court believed it," he said.

"And it was only an admonition. I was not charged," he added.

The administrative case was rooted in his attempt to punish four of his staff—legal researcher Alegria Ramos, stenographers Irma Agawin and Veronica Nequinto, and court aide Mauro Callado—for issuing release orders without his approval. An investigation by the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) found 20 spurious release orders issued by Leonida’s court, resulting in the unwarranted release of detention prisoners.

"I wish I didn’t file the case," Leonida said. "I was the one who reported it. How can I be involved? I did the right thing. I have a clean conscience. I never received even a single centavo from the surety agents," he added.

The court found Leonida’s staff guilty of falsely certifying release orders as true xerox copies of the originals even when, as the OCA found out, the originals do not bear Judge Leonida’s signature. The staff relied on the instructions of the surety agents like a certain Ana Marie Reyes coming out of Leonida’s chambers to issue the release orders of their clients without verifying these instructions with Leonida.

But these errors were partly a result of Leonida’s dealings with the surety agents and were not prompted by corrupt motives, the court said. The decision noted that the staff were "one in saying that surety agent Reyes possesses some clout in their office considering that she can freely enter and exit the chambers of Judge Leonida and even instruct the stenographers to type release orders upon alleged authority of the judge."

"It’s easy to create stories. They were afraid that they will be dismissed from service," Leonida told abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak.

He said he did not pursue his plan to ask the court to reconsider its ruling. "I don’t want more stress," he said.

The staff were found guilty of gross neglect of duty and were suspended for two months to six months. Leonida was told to observe four provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct:

RULE 2.01 - A judge should so behave at all times as to promote public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.
RULE 2.03 - A judge shall not allow family, social, or other relationships to influence judicial conduct or judgment. The prestige of judicial office shall not be used or lent to advance the private interests of others, nor convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge.
RULE 3.08 - A judge should diligently discharge administrative responsibilities, maintain professional competence in court management, and facilitate the performance of the administrative functions or other judges and court personnel.
RULE 3.09 - A judge should organize and supervise the court personnel to ensure the prompt and efficient dispatch of business, and require at all times the observance of high standards of public service and fidelity.
‘Very Jealous’ Wife?
Leonida is not well-known outside of the judiciary. When he became MalacaƱang’s bet for Comelec commissioner, the legal community was in the dark. Close observers of the Comelec were clueless of his background and of who backed his nomination. He made the second short-list submitted to MalacaƱang in May, which was expanded from 10 to 20 allegedly because of politics in the Palace, a source privy to the selection told abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak.

But in Laguna, Leonida’s reputation was affected by the administrative case. It was not so much due to his dealings with surety agents, but with the alleged involvement of his wife in the filing of the administrative case against his staff and her reasons for doing so.

Court records show that during the investigation, the staff also alleged that the report submitted to OCA by the Office of the Clerk of Court, RTC of Sta. Cruz, Laguna, which sought to punish them for the spurious release orders, "were just orchestrated by the wife of the judge who wanted to ease out [stenographer] Mrs. Agawin from the court. They claimed that Judge Leonida’s wife is very jealous of her and in fact is always present in their office, presiding over even in their staff meetings…."

Leonida denied all these allegations involving his wife. He told the investigators that his wife only goes to his office to provide him moral support. The Supreme Court found "no substantial evidence" to support the allegations.

Other Cases
abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak was able to talk with five sources who either had recent dealings with Leonida or was familiar with his track record in the judiciary. All of them said separately that he has a "bad reputation."

In response to this, Leonida said, "These people don’t personally know me. As you said in your earlier report, I am unknown."

Asked who backed him to get the appointment, Leonida said, "It was a personal application. I sent to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines and the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting."

Asked to confirm reports that Tuguegarao Archbishop Eduardo Talamayan and Iglesia ni Cristo leader Erano Manalo who backed his appointment, Leonida said, "Bishop Talamayan was among those who helped me. If Bishop Manalo also helped, I would like to extend my personal gratitude."

Fighting the Banks
Aside from the administrative case involving his staff, Leonida is also facing another complaint filed by a law firm on behalf of a group of lenders involving at least one of the country’s biggest banks. The complaint involves alleged irregularities with his decision on a case on "corporate rehabilitation."

"Cases like this are a matter of discretion," Leonida said, when asked about this complaint. "We wanted to give distressed companies another chance. It’s natural that the banks will complain."

We failed to obtain copies of this separate administrative complaint from the OCA because pending cases are confidential in nature. According to one source familiar with the complaint, "The case would not have been filed if it was just minor." The administrative case was endorsed by Chief Justice Reynato Puno to the OCA, a source said. (abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak)

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