Justice Jose Sabio Victim of Demolition Job

I don’t know Justice Jose Sabio, Jr. of the Court of Appeals (C.A.) personally, although I have sat through one his lectures on legal ethics during a continuing legal education seminar series. He seems like a likeable enough fellow, although a tad too friendly for a C. A. justice.

He’s now at the center of a controversy involving an alleged bribe offered to him by an emissary of Meralco to inhibit himself from ruling on the GSIS-Meralco shareholders’ tussle. Justice Sabio claims he was offered P10 million by businessman Francis De Borja, a casual friend, to recuse himself from the Meralco case originally brought before the former Special C.A. 9th Division, which Sabio chaired.

In view of his refusal to even consider the bribe offer, Sabio claims that the case was suddenly and unceremoniously transferred to the C.A. 8th Division, which immediately issued a decision on July 24, 2008 penned by Justice Vicente Roxas, unanimously upholding Meralco’s argument that the Securities and Exchange Commission had no jurisdiction over the GSIS-Meralco intra-corporate dispute.

Justice Sabio brought the matter to the attention of the Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeals, Justice Conrado M. Vasquez, Jr., urging an investigation into the circumstances of why the case was transferred to another division and decided with unseemly haste.

Businessman Francis De Borja turned the tables on Sabio by claiming that it was the latter who told him that for P50 million, he could be made to appreciate the issues Meralco’s way. De Borja, a self-described broker and deal-maker engaged in “project-packaging”, admitted to having sought out Sabio simply to “chitchat” about the Meralco case. Apparently, Sabio and de Borja have done business in the past and were casual friends. De Borja also admits that Meralco honcho Manolo Lopez and “The Firm” (which also represents Meralco) senior partner Pancho Villaraza are long-time pals.

De Borja also said that Sabio admitted to having been offered money and a seat in the Supreme Court to cooperate with government interests bent on taking over Meralco.

Who are we to believe ?

Looking at the facts, it seems that Justice Sabio is the victim of a smear campaign apparently orchestrated by Lopez allies out to ensure that Meralco thwarts the Arroyo administration’s designs on it. Sabio was a bit too deliberate and careful in approaching the issues brought before the appellate court and Meralco was thus unsure of how he would rule. Having failed to influence the good justice, it now seems the company had to find other ways to ensure a favorable decision. Sabio, with the backing of his colleague in the Special 9th Division, Justice Myrna Vidal, then decided to blow the whistle on the whole affair.

Why else would De Borja, with his admitted close personal ties to the Lopez family, approach Sabio just to make, in his words, “chismis” (gossip) ? What other reason could De Borja have for seeking out Sabio, who, by his own narration, was more a business acquaintance than a close friend ? And now De Borja, after being rebuffed, is at the forefront of charges that his “friend” , in effect, asked for P50 million to change his mind.

This new twist in the struggle between the GSIS and Meralco has given birth to another scandal which puts in question the integrity of the second highest court in the land. This also brings to light the almost routinary practice of parties litigating before our courts of looking for a “padrino” or intermediary who can approach the judge or justice where a case is pending. (Ahem, I, of course, condemn such acts in the strongest possible terms)

To be sure, Justice Sabio is not entirely blameless in this entire mess. As I noted, he appears a bit too friendly for a magistrate. His seeming “approachability” is his undoing. He violated one of his favorite dictums, as contained in the Judicial Code of Ethics and in his letter to the C.A. Presiding Justice, that “Judges shall ensure that not only is their conduct above reproach, but that it is perceived to be so in the view of a reasonable observer”.

He also admits that he has had business dealings with De Borja, at a time when he was a Regional Trial Court judge in Cagayan De Oro city, wherein he made at least P300,000.00. This, in itself, is a slippery slope which he should have avoided as a public official.

Be that as it may, there seems to be more reason to believe rather than mistrust Justice Sabio’s revelations. Personally, he had little or nothing to gain from his disclosures, except the balm of a clear conscience. If anything, he has gained the suspicion, if not enmity, of his peers in the court as one who doesn’t play ball. It may have even cost him a shot at the Supreme Court, as a too independent-minded appointee is not looked upon with favor by the powers that be. And to take on the Lopez empire, and its media clout, is no light matter. As he himself put it, he is “up against the Lopez billions”.

I just hope he does not go the way of most of our whistleblowers, who quietly fade into obscurity after the controversy has died down. Worse, the cause which they fought for often fades away with them.

The Supreme Court will investigate in an en banc (full court) session on Tuesday, August 5, the bribery allegations involving Justice Sabio.

The Chief Justice takes charge of resolving C.A. row.

Ramon Tulfo writes on bribery in the Court of Appeals.

Three retired S.C. (Aquiono, Romero, Callejo) justices are appointed to a panel tasked to investigate the C.A. bribery scandal. They will present their findings before the end of the month.

Justice Vicente Roxas met with members of The Firm, which represents Meralco, on the day he issued the ruling favoring the electric company, according to the GSIS. The name partners of CVC Law (as are the majority of the male lawyers) and Justice Roxas are brothers in the Sigma Rho fraternity of the U.P. College of Law.

Justice Sabio admits that his elder brother, PCGG Commissioner Camilo Sabio, tried to influence him in the Meralco case.

19 thoughts on “Justice Jose Sabio Victim of Demolition Job”

  1. It’s sad that in the Philippines legal decisions are won or lost on the basis who gives the highest bribe.

    Justice is not blind here.One eye looks at how much you will give.

    Look at the SC scorecard of 9:6.That’s the way SC decisions on Gloria will look like regarding of the real merits of the cases.

    Sad but true!

  2. The Meralco-GSIS Case :

    In the affidavit of Francis Roa De Borja,he admits asking the question to Justice Sabio of the Court of Appeals “What would it take for you to resist the government offer?

    EQ View:What was the purpose of the question? Was this an auction? Was the CA decision dependent on the highest bidder?

  3. “At the school’s lobby, Sabio said De Borja told him that the P10 million was ready and bragged that Meralco chairman Manuel ‘Manolo’ Lopez was with him when he called up.”

    This was a brilliant ploy by De Borja to allow Manolo to deny by establishing an alibi that he was abroad.Therefore ,it projects Sabio as the liar since he claimed that Manolo was waiting in the car.

    Good screenwriters!

  4. I read Justice Sabio’s Legal Ethics book when I was reviewing for the Philippine bar. Philippine Legal Ethics, like most law subjects in the Philippines look pretty good on paper. They even look as good as the American Bar Association Code of Professional Responsibility. Like most Philippine laws, it needs to be updated. Justice Sabio admitted to receiving P300,000 from De Borja “not as a judge but as a confidant.” These are merely semantics. Unless De Borja owes him that amount, that argument won’t fly. That alone will nail him not only under the Ethics rules but under the Graft and Corrupt Practices Act. What business does a CA Justice have receiving money as a consultant from a party close to a litigant? He very well knows that a judge may not engage in practices that will cause his office the appearance of impropriety. After practicing in the Philippines for several years, I realized that there is a significant number of judges in all levels of the court system on the take not to mention the President and probably half of the legislative. The Philippines is becoming a Banana Republic. All your arguments are for naught because the other party has bribed the judge. It is sickening to the core. And the IBP doesn’t lift a finger to disbar lawyers or lawyers who commit crimes starting with the President’s husband. If the goodness of Philippine law stay in the books and not actually enforced, except for some, lawyering has ceased to be a noble profession in the Philippines. I only learned real legal ethics in the U.S. You can see their legal system work because most lawyers see ethics as a rule to be followed rather than an exception. It is high time that the IBP should be more proactive in kicking out lawyers and should condition one’s privilege of practicing law with compliance with Ethics rules.

  5. “I know Francis de Borja but I have not authorized him or anybody to make representations for any matter that involves cases of Meralco and the Lopez family,” Lopez said. “We have retainers and lawyers to handle the legal matters. Further, Francis is not a lawyer nor is he connected with Meralco.”ONLY LAWYERS KNOW HOW TO BRIBE?

  6. @ RJ, very valid observations. It saddens me too. Your are absolutely correct in saying that as a judge Sabio should not have even acted in a “personal capacity” as a “family adviser” in a business transaction. His justification will probably be that a judge’s salary is hardly enough to support a family. The ethical rules of our profession are merely given lip service here. The Philippine judicial system is surely in a sorry state.

  7. I would agree that while generally Judge Sabio comes across as a magistrate beyond reproach, as culled from many sources including our and my friends’ personal associations with him and his family, I would not be sure how the general public would view his having accepted 300k pesos for his role in the sale of the huge Roa property which has now become site of the premier golf course in the island of Mindanao and the novel upscale subdivision township composed of various satellite subdivisions.

    Except maybe to say that in that particular milieu of which many of us old Cagayanons would be familiar with, giving away and accepting tokens of appreciation, though some would be considered rather substantial and valuable, would be considered and accepted as quite common and customary.

    By way of example, I can vaguely recall stories about the late Pedro N. Roa, who made his fortune in logging and became the Toyota dealer in our area, gifting Toyota vehicles to some of his friends or associates.

  8. Both justice sabio are telling the truth. It is a deal gone sour.
    1. As legal ethics professor, justice sabio should not have discussed the pending case with anyone, much more with a deal maker like Mr. De Borja.
    2. I believe the correct sequence of the deal is the following:
    Mr. De Borja- ” Judge, para win-win, maginhibit ka na lang, di naman ilegal dahil wala ka namang gagawing desisyon. May 10 M ka pa.
    Justice Sabio – “Ang liit naman. Pangako sa akin SC justice appointment, may konting pera pa.”
    Mr. De Borja -” O sige, what will it take for you to inhibit from the case ”
    Justice Sabio -” fifty million”

    3. The deal failed because both parties failed to agree on the exchange. Malayo ang 10m sa SC position plus little money and 50m.

    4. Both parties seem to corroborate that there was a bribery but it did not push through because of the wide disparity in exchange value.
    5. justice sabio’s integrity and credibility would have been strengthened if he reported the bribery to PJ Vasquez immediately after the event of bribery took place on july 1 and he(justice sabio) did not wait for the 8th division decision on july 24.
    6. Justice sabio is not entirely clean because he never took any action to ward off the sttempt to bribe him. He was turned off because he was remove from the judicial processd but not the ongoing bribery attempt that subverts the process.

  9. an allegation of criminal wrongdoing, such as justice sabio’s, should have been discreetly reported to the court administrator or a proper prosecutor (or perhaps the nbi) first for a confidential inquiry. only if there is probable cause and sufficient evidence to prosecute and/or convict in a court of law, would it be appropriate to feed it to the media.

    it seems that in the philippines, the first trial of a criminal case involving important personalities occurs in the media where no accused survives unscathed. the effect on the accused, or the institution involved, is instantaneous.

    the law on perjury, defamation and malicious prosecution (false reporting of a crime) must be strengthened and vigorously enforced.

  10. The case of Justice Sabio is merely the tip of the iceberg. Judicial and legal corruption has become the standard operating procedure in the Philippines. I guess I am naive idealist.

    I onced worked for a 15 lawyer Makati firm, I quit after the partner asked me to deliver money to the fiscal. I transferred to the office of a friend (who graduated from the number 2 law school in the country) who I found out later that he was bribing several labor arbiters to win cases. I even dated a former bar topnotcher who’s presently a partner in the second biggest firm in the Philippines f(the one founded by Marcos cronies), whom when I asked if she was familiar with bribery within the practice chose to bury her head and denied she ever knew any. It’s truly amazing. If a bartopnotcher can deny it exists, I guess I’ll be expecting too much from others below her intellectual caiber. Maybe one’s character is not measured by intellect but by one’s sense of morality.

    I became a lawyer because I hate crime and here I was lawyering in the midst of it. Is this what legal profession in our country has gone to? If lawyers commit crimes (e.g. bribery, obstruction of justice) to win cases can we blame bank robbers for robbing banks? Whether the crime is white collar or blue collar, justice being blind, does not and should not distinguish.

    I long for the days when my grandfather practiced law where delicadeza was pretty much the norm and integrity was the lawyer’s capital. There were two political parties then. The voters seemed to know how to chose the most qualified leaders. And leaders seem to know what’s best for the country. Now with a defective multiparty system founded on a culture of corruption, the fact that the polls are showing an inexperienced, deficiently educated broadcast media personality, seconded by a convicted felon ex-President shows that the mentality of the Philippine voting public is disturbingly very low. It probably doesn’t matter that much if the country is doing well. But to elect an incompetent or a criminal in the midst of a global crisis is like shooting oneself in the foot. The educated class, except for a few, has become dangerously indifferent and would rather take a vacation out of the country than vote in the elections. Then they have the gall to curse the elected.

    We can’t seem to enforce our laws. And the people who are duty bound to enforce them are helping themselves to the little money that should have been spent to educate, heal and improve the lives of our people.

    What happened to the rule of law (no one is above the law)? I guess in the Philippines some are above it by committing crimes with impunity. Our society has become a hypocrital system that has two standards: one for those who have money and power and another for the those who have not. We see petty thieves on TV being mauled by the community, but the bigger thieves in government are spitting at people’s faces with their lies and cover-ups. They strut around with their stupid sense of entitlement. You see them abroad, living in huge homes, able to send their children to schools abroad, riding in luxurious vehicles when they clearly could not afford them with their legitimate incomes. Nevermind millions of Filipinos have to work abroad and are far from their families. Nevermind, there are children beggars walking barefoot in the streets. Nevermind people are living under bridges and earning less than $2 a day. Nevermind our population is exploding and making the country poorer. So long as they can buy their Expeditions and build their mansions, it appears that everyone is fine with it. Thank God hell exists.

  11. @ Amadeo, yes it may have been the specific milieu of CDO, in which everyone knows practically everybody, that allowed Sabio to have no qualms about receiving the 300K despite it being unseemly. I heard too about the generosity of the late Oloy Roa, a nephew of his having been a batchmate of mine in U.P. In view of the actual value of the property and amount of the transaction, it may have been seen a token amount for services rendered.

  12. @ Melvinsky, a very likely scenario. Hindi nagka-ayos sa presyo. Ang galing ng dialogue mo! It’s as if you have heard this before.

    @ Bencard, you are right. The matter should have been brought before the PJ or S.C. authorities and Sabio should have waited for them to act on it before going to the press. But that’s the pattern now. Unahan sa media. Whoever gets his version of events out first draws first blood in the war to win public opinion.

    @RJ, I admire your courage and integrity, ‘panero. I too come from a lawyering family and my dad (at least from what I know) and my grandfather never paid a single centavo to bribe a judge. Now it seems to be the norm.

    Believe it or not, there are still a few close friends of mine who refuse to play the game and will slug it out on the merits. And they have successful practices, too. The best approach is still preparation, preparation and further preparation. At the very least, if you present and substantiate solid arguments, you give the crooked judge or arbiter a hard time in drafting a decision against you. And you lay a good foundation for appeal.

    But the fact that there is a dirty underbelly to law practice in the country cannot be denied. And it goes all the way to the top. Sometimes, I too despair about this sad state of affairs but hearing from someone like you makes me believe there might still be hope for our profession. Thanks for the insightful and honest comments.

  13. I agree that lawyering and the judiciary are in a sorry state. When I took my oath in 2003, a long-time friend and classmate (grade school, HS and college) who had been a lawyer since the late 80’s, texted me: “Welcome to the filthy world of lawyering”. I know what he meant but I had confidence that well-meaning lawyers would make a difference. I was and am right. The difference is I am poor even now.

    If you want to know why the Philippine Government is corrupt, tell me and I’ll expose here my thoughts. You will be surprised how easily we have corrupted our own government. I’ll wait for your invitation.

  14. parang runaway jury pala ang plot ng drama. only that the justice himself is involved and minus the noble agenda. just pure greed, pure lust for money. . .(see inquirer editorial today)

  15. Yup, I read the editorial today at PDI. Since it is an editorial, we only hear somebody’s opinion on the matter, and only receive a third person account of the hearing. I personally know someone who attended the hearings and concluded the obvious bias of PDI against Justice Sabio (intention – we cannot know) because the Supreme Court hearings on the case show favor to Justice Sabio. I guess we have to be careful in taking someone’s opinion as Bible truth. For all we know, journalists, like lawyers and other judges, are also bribed.

    P.S. In the beginning of the CA scandal, PDI actually seemed to be in favor of Sabio even writing articles in testimony for his integrity. I guess somewhere in between that and today’s editorial, some bribing happened. In any case, this is just my observation.

  16. I differ on your assertions, that (1) the Supreme Court proceedings on the case tend to show favor to Justice Sabio and (2) that like lawyers, journalists are also bribed.
    Recent news on the proceedings which appeared in different dailies reported that Justice Sabio was castigated for not reporting the other side of the story that his brother was likewise attempting to influence
    him in behalf of the government.
    I don’t think the current editor of the Inquirer who has seen many administrations and has equally
    treated them with an objective lens would allow such insinuations. Sorry, but in my opinion, true-blooded journalists are more credible than lawyers. If I’ll choose between two evils I’ll stand by the fourth estate.

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