Petitioners raise the sole issue of whether or not the respondent Sandiganbayan gravely abused its discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction in ordering their preventive suspension. Petitioners contend that the issuance of the preventive suspension order is violative of their constitutional right to due process as they were denied the opportunity to question the validity of the criminal proceedings against them; that there was no pre-suspension hearing to determine the validity of the information; that the proceedings leading to the filing of the Information were irregular, and that there was only one (1) complaint-affidavit but the charges resulted to the filing of three (3) Informations.
The contentions are untenable.
It has been a settled rule that it is mandatory for the Sandigabayan to place under preventive suspension a public officer accused before it. The imposition of suspension is not automatic or self-operative since the accused is given adequate opportunity to challenge the validity or regularity of the criminal proceedings against him. But once proper determination of the validity of the Information has been made, it becomes the ministerial duty of the court to forthwith issue the order of preventive suspension. The rule on the matter is specific and categorical and leaves no room for interpretation.11 Segovia vs. Sandiganbayan, 288 SCRA 328; Socrates vs. Sandiganbayan, 253 SCRA 773; Bolastig vs. Sandiganbayan, 235 SCRA 103; Gonzaga vs. Sandiganbayan, 201 SCRA 417; People vs. Albano, 163 SCRA 511. The court trying a case has neither discretion nor duty to determine whether preventive suspension is required to prevent the accused from using his office to intimidate witnesses or frustrate his prosecution or continue committing malfeasance in office.12 Bolastig vs. Sandiganbayan, supra.
Is should be noted that petitioners filed their "Opposition to the Motion to Suspend Accused, with Prayer for the Court to have a Second Look on the Prosecution’s Weak and Shallow Evidence" alleging that the motion rested and shallow grounds, i.e., there was no solid evidence to justify the suspension. Respondent Sandiganbayan, in the assailed Resolution of August 16, 2000, stated that petitioners, in effect, assailed the validity of the Informations basically on the ground that there is no basis for the finding of a prima facie case. And as pointed out by the prosecution, upon petitioners’ arraignment, they had, in effect, acceded to the validity of the Informations filed against them.
Petitioners further argue that they were deprived of full-blown preliminary investigation and a chance to present evidence. They claim that a mere ocular inspection of the project sites will settle once and for all the existence or non-existence of the projects. They likewise allege that the denial of their Motion to refer the cases to the Commission on Audit contributed to a violation of their right to due process. The matter raised by the petitioners are evidentiary facts which are matters of defense and better addressed in a full-blown trial.
It should be noted that in the assailed Resolution, the Sandiganbayan found the Informations "valid and sufficient" and that the duly authorized prosecution officer certified that a preliminary investigation was conducted in these cases. It has been consistently held that "neither will the absence of a preliminary investigation, assuming that it is necessary to conduct a new one, affect the validity of the information" filed against petitioners. It does not impair the validity of the criminal information or render it defective. Dismissal of the case is not the remedy.13 Socrates vs. Sandiganbayan, 253 SCRA 773. Further. "(O)nce the information is found to be sufficient in form and substance, then the court must issue the order of suspension as a matter of course. There are no ifs and buts about it. This is because a preventive suspension is not a penalty. It is not imposed as a result of judicial proceedings."14 Segovia vs. Sandiganbayan, supra citing Bayot vs. Sandiganbayan, 128 SCRA 383 and Libanan vs. Sandiganbayan, 163 SCRA 163.
This being the case, the Court is satisfied that the Fourth Division of the Sandiganbayan, after upholding the validity of the Informations against herein petitioners, correctly ordered their preventive suspension for a period of ninety (90) days. Public policy is involved in preventively suspending a public officer charged under a valid information. The protection of public interest will prevail over the private interest of the accused.15 Socrates vs. Sandiganbayan, supra citing Bayot vs. Sandiganbayan, supra.
[G.R. No. 145030. December 11, 2000]
TEOFILO G. PANTALEON, JR., et al. vs. REP. OF THE PHIL., et al.