Seares: Ex-councilor Niña Mabatid found guilty of forcing City Hall workers to sell poultry meat, other goods during 2020 Covid lockdown. Meted a fine of half-year pay instead of one-year suspension for 'conduct prejudicial to service and oppression.' Ombudsman dumps other administrative charges.

CEBU. Cebu City Councilor Niña Mabatid and the vehicle that was allegedly used in distributing dressed chickens and other goods.
CEBU. Cebu City Councilor Niña Mabatid and the vehicle that was allegedly used in distributing dressed chickens and other goods. SunStar File/Screenshot from video posted on social media

FORMER Cebu City councilor Prisca Niña O. Mabatid was found administratively liable for compelling her employees, under threat of dismissal, to sell poultry and meat products during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020.

Mabatid was one of only two Barug Party candidates who survived, even finishing as #2 with 113,908 votes, in the 2019 north district councilors' race. She was sued in a complaint filed with the Visayas Ombudsman by one Joel Sanchez Sta. Rita Jr., an administrative aide assigned in the then councilor's office.

PENALTY CONVERTED. She was found guilty of "conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service and oppression," for which she was meted the penalty of suspension for one year. But since she had already completed her term as councilor -- in May 2022 she ran for congresswoman in the city's first district and lost to Representative Rachel Marguerite "Cutie" del Mar --, the penalty was converted into a fine amounting to the equivalent to the councilor's pay for six months.

Mabatid told me Friday, January 19, 2024, she was not notified about any clarificatory hearing to attend or a counter-affidavit to submit. She may file a motion for reconsideration, the ex-councilor said. 

“I am not guilty. We have not received any notice from the Ombudsman. We will exhaust all legal remedies as soon as we receive a written copy of the decision.”

The January 11, 2023 ruling -- penned by Graft Investigator and Prosecution Officer Jess Vincent de la Pena and reviewed by Director Gaudioso Melendez and Assistant Ombudsman Jane Aguilar -- ordered DILG (Department of the Interior and Local Government) to implement the decision. The fine may be deducted from Mabatid's retirement benefits or accrued leave benefits.

(Why the long wait for the ruling: It was approved on January 19, 2023 by Deputy Ombudsman for the Visayas Dante Vargas and on August 30, 2023 by Office of the Ombudsman OIC Jose Balmeo Jr. The Visayas Ombudsman released it December 1, 2023 to City Hall's Human Resources Division and ultimately reached the City Council for its session of January 10, 2024.)

NOT RELATED TO NIÑA'S FUNCTIONS. The administrative offense of "conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service and oppression," the ruling said, doesn't have to be related to Mabatid's official's functions.

In contrast, the charge of "conduct unbecoming of a public official" is not one of the offenses under administrative laws. It "appears to be a catch-all phrase to create an administrative liability, akin to a misconduct," the Ombudsman said, which the ruling said, must be "related to or connected with the councilor's functions." Making her legislative staff sell poultry and meat products during the pandemic wasn't connected with her official duties.

Thus, the Ombudsman dismissed the charge of "conduct unbecoming." Mabatid's use of her staff "can hardly be an act of dishonesty." "It cannot be said that it showed her disposition to defraud or deceive," the ruling said.

CHARGES THAT WERE RETAINED. But the anti-graft office held on to the charge of "conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service," which "didn't have to relate to Mabatid's official functions." And oppression, also known as grave abuse of authority," the ruling said, is deemed "conduct prejudicial."

The acts of "oppression" might include the firing of Sta. Rita Jr. purportedly for "lack of trust and confidence," without formal notice of termination, and with no pay. "I was willfully and tyrannically deprived of what is due me legally and morally," he alleged then.

The Ombudsman arrived at the conclusion that the councilor "took advantage of her position" when she ordered complainant Sta. Rita Jr. and other members of her staff "to perform acts outside the scope of their duties or engage in a private enterprise for her personal benefit." She did so, the ruling said, "under the pretext of public service or work- from-home arrangement" during the ECQ phase of the pandemic.

SHE IMPLIEDLY ADMITTED GUILT, the Ombudsman said, by not appearing during the clarificatory hearing and by failing to submit her counter-affidavit and position paper. Even without her side, the anti-graft office found "substantial evidence," which Mabatid didn't dispute or refute formally.

MABATID 'DONATED' FOOD; OMBUD DIDN'T BELIEVE HER. The Ombudsman obviously believed the version of the complainant who, interestingly, used the name "Roldan de los Reyes" when the case was publicized in 2020 but came out as Joel Sanchez Sta. Rita Jr. in the investigation and the 2023 decision. If there was no switching complainants, there was switching names.

In the complaint filed September 21, 2020 and reported by local media, "de los Reyes" alleged Mabatid "used her position to perpetuate a series of illegal acts for her personal financial interest and advantage, disregarding existing government rules and regulations" of the Civil Service Commission.

[Related: Bzzzzz, September 21, 2020. Councilor Mabatid denies "side business," says it is a livelihood program]

Mabatid denied to the media that she sold the foodstuff, saying she "donated, not sold, the dressed chicken as part of her livelihood program to help the poor during the health crisis." She also distributed face shields for free, she said at the time, and "the supposed butane business has not even materialized yet."


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