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.