Seares: Nery Soon-Ruiz suspension didn’t come at a good time. Two counts.

Pachico A. Seares

NERISSA Soon-Ruiz, former congresswoman of Cebu’s sixth district and now councilor of Mandaue City, has been suspended for 90 days on charges of corruption the Ombudsman filed against her. She pleaded not guilty before the Sandiganbayan last Nov. 15 and her suspension was publicized last Friday (Jan. 10).

Here’s how the timing of the suspension is not good for her:

[1] It comes when “Inday Nery” is no longer a congresswoman. She ended her five-term stint in 2010. If it came before then or if she were still a member of Congress now, the House leadership might choose to ignore the Sandiganbayan order, as it did for many of its members who were similarly “sanctioned.”

[2] It comes after the Supreme Court (SC)changed the role on “inordinate delay.” At least 13 persons accused in the Soon-Ruiz case, including Nery, filed during a period in July and August last year (July 5 to Aug. 22, 2019) motions to dismiss the criminal case or quash the information against them, for lack of authority or for “inordinate delay.”

Ruling on consolidated motions filed by one Margie T. Luz, Aug. 22 last year, the Sandiganbayan noted that Luz argued that their case was “[one of the longest], if not the longest preliminary investigation in recent history of our justice system.” In her count, it took 12 years for the preliminary investigation to be completed and the information filed by the Ombudsman before the anti-graft court. Luz must have counted from 2007, when the pork barrel fund was allocated to then congresswoman Soon-Ruiz, until Feb. 3, 2015, when a formal complaint was filed with the Ombudsman. The anti-graft court, relying on an SC ruling, rejected all the motions.

Refuge in Constitution

A number of House members got around a preventive suspension and even an order of dismissal from the Sandiganbayan. How? By seeking refuge in the provision of the Constitution which Congress leaders have used as mantle to protect its members in trouble with the law.

The House and the Senate see an “order” from the Sandiganbayan or Ombudsman as an affront to the Constitution, which provides that Congress may suspend or expel a legislator “for disorderly behavior” by a two-thirds vote. Apparently, “disorderly behavior” is deemed to cover not just conduct in Congress but any other larceny or crime, including the pilfering of public funds. And the provision is interpreted by them to exclude all others, except the SC in final judgment, from the job of disciplining its members.

Rule on counting delay

The long, long delay in the filing of the charges before the anti-graft court also didn’t help Soon-Ruiz.

The Sandiganbayan, refuting Luz and Soon-Ruiz and the other accused, cited Cagang vs. Sandiganbayan (promulgated July 31, 2018) in which the SC ruled that, for purposes of determining “inordinate delay,” the count should be “from the filing of the formal complaint and subsequent conduct of preliminary investigation,” not from the start of fact-finding by the Ombudsman.

Soon-Ruiz apparently knew that those two defenses wouldn’t work anymore for her.

Instead, she attacked mainly the “impracticality” of the suspension, pleading that suspension was moot as she had long left Congress and could no longer tamper with evidence or witnesses, theoretically the sanction’s purpose.

Similar plea by others had been refused before and the Sandiganbayan saw no reason to junk the rule. What Section 13 of the Anti-Graft & Corrupt Practices Act provides, the court said, is mandatory, even if the accused is already out of the office where the crime was allegedly committed.

Graft issue didn’t work

Not totally bad timing for Inday Nery though. When she sought the mandate of Mandaue City in 2019, especially during the campaign when voters were making up their minds, most of them were not sure if she probably committed the charges of pocketing or wasting away public funds.

When the Ombudsman finally filed the information, ruling that there was “probable cause,” it was on May 3 last year, or only 10 days before the May 13 balloting. Apparently, that didn’t sink into the electors’ mind since Soon-Ruiz won. One might say she had been swept to victory along with Mayor Jonas Cortes’ slate but her topping the councilors’ race (98,424 votes) should tell us the city’s voters might not have considered the issue of corruption against her at all.

That doesn’t mean the justice system need not be improved. If results of its investigation or trial were not long delayed, they could help inform and influence the voters in choosing their leaders.