Seares: How much of a threat to Mike Rama's career is the complaint of nepotism, which critics say might get Cebu City's mayor suspended again?

CEBU. Cebu City Mayor Mike Rama with his wife Malou and their son MJ.
CEBU. Cebu City Mayor Mike Rama with his wife Malou and their son MJ.Cebu City PIO File

[] Mayor Mike Rama in 2023 publicly justified hiring of his two brothers-in-law as an act of love, a dash of romance.

[] His opposition to transfer of nepotism case from Ombudsman Visayas to central office in Quezon City is procedural, doesn't relate to core issue whether a crime was committed.

THE complaint for nepotism, with grave misconduct and graft and corruption, that was filed in 2023 against Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama surfaced again in the local news Wednesday, June 19, 2024, with the suspended mayor opposing the move to transfer the case from the Visayas Ombudsman to its central office in Quezon City.

QUEZON CITY OR CEBU? The civil and criminal charges were reportedly filed last January 24, 2023 with -- put a pin on this -- the main office of the Ombudsman. The complaint accuses Rama of hiring two brothers-in-law as casual employees at Cebu City Hall: Elmer Jimenez Mandanat, process server in the mayor's office, and Gomer Jimenez Mandanat, laborer at the city hospital. (Some news outlets use "G" instead of "J" for Jimenez.)

This week, Rama opposed before the Visayas Ombudsman the move to transfer the nepotism complaint from the Visayas Ombudsman to the Quezon City central office, arguing the case had already been initiated, "tried, and heard by OMB Visayas" and hearings were conducted, position papers received, and the facts investigated in Cebu. Rama said the Visayas Ombudsman is "in a better position" to assess the complaint. The case has "every reason to remain in OMB Visayas" and "no reason to depart therefrom." Rama called the move "haphazard," "last-minute" and "absurd."

(At least two news outlets differed in their 2023 reports as to where the complaint was filed by one Jonel Saceda, aka "Inday Josa Chiongbian Osme a." SunStar said Quezon City Ombudsman; Rappler said Visayas Ombudsman in Cebu.)

Rama argued that the local Ombudsman has been doing the investigation ("in full throttle," he said). If true as reported in local news last year -- that it was originally filed with the Quezon City office -- the case must have been assigned for Cebu to investigate but the central office would now have it back and Rama is opposing the transfer.

PHOBIA ON TRANSFERS. Rama -- still serving a six-month preventive suspension ordered by the Ombudsman last May 8, 2024, over delay in the payment of four Cebu City assessor's office employees -- may have some phobia to case transfers in the anti-graft agency.

In his comment and opposition on the nepotism case, Rama "raised concerns" about another case (obviously, the assessor employees' case) that, he said, was filed in the Visayas Ombudsman but transferred to the central office. He wasn't notified, Rama said, about the pending case in the main office "only to be preventively suspended." He wasn't given, he alleged, "the means to defend himself," and he received "duplicate orders from the OMB Central Office, which bear different signatories and different channels."

In effect, Rama fears he might be suspended anew, as he was last May, through the transfer of the case from the local Ombudsman to its Central Office.

DEVELOPMENT DOESN'T TOUCH NEPOTISM ISSUE. What has surfaced in Rama's comment/opposition before the Visayas Ombudsman is a question on procedure, not the core issue of nepotism.

Rama has not added to the defenses made public in 2023 by Collin Rosell, one of the mayor's lawyers and then city administrator.

LEGAL DEFENSES at the time the Rama camp answered the nepotism charge were, namely: (1) the appointments were not nepotism because they were coterminous with the mayor's term; and (2) the brothers-in-law have been working since 2015, or six years before they and Rama became relatives.

Possible foil to the co-terminus argument, which News+One earlier reported (Seares: Mayor Mike fends off nepotism charge, February 1, 2023), was that the appointments were coterminous -- being for a specified period not beyond the appointing mayor's term -- but they were not the confidential or personal job position.

As to their City Hall employment before the marriage, that may not be relevant if it can be proved their current work is covered by an appointment signed by Rama as mayor and they were already relatives at the time of appointment. Determining factor is the relationship between them and the appointing authority when they were appointed.

PROHIBITED ACTS. The Revised Administrative Code of 1987 (Executive Order #292) considers as nepotism any appointment in the national government or a local government unit or any of its branches and instrumentalities made in favor of a relative of the appointing authority, the office or bureau chief, or the immediate supervisor.

The Saceda/Inday Josa complaint cites the Administrative Code as well as the Local Government Code on the bar against the appointment of local officials' relatives within the fourth degree of consanguinity or affinity. Plus the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Law, which prohibits acts "that cause undue injury to any party, including the Government or giving any party unwarranted benefits, advantage or preference... through manifest partiality, evident bad faith or gross inexcusable negligence." Saceda alleged that Rama removed 800 casuals and hired his two brothers- in-law.

WHO'RE COVERED, WHO'RE NOT. The word "relative" and members of the family covered by the prohibition are "those related within the third degree either of consanguinity or affinity," by blood or marriage. Brothers in law, such as the brothers of Mayor Rama's wife, are within the second degree.

Among those exempted -- along with teachers, physicians and Armed Forces members -- are those employed in a confidential capacity. Is the position of process server or hospital laborer confidential? Interestingly, Rama's defense pushes not the confidentiality but the fact that the jobs are co-terminus with the mayor's. More plausible will be the defense that Rama didn't appoint them and had nothing to do with their appointment.

RAMA DEFENDED HIMSELF WITH A DASH OF ROMANCE when the issue came up in 2023 and he was asked if he'd remove his two brothers-in-law. His reply: "Who wants them removed?... Should love be stopped? Should marriage be removed?"

If that isn't quickly grasped, one may consider that Mike Rama married his current wife, Malou Jimenez Mandanat, on October 28, 2021, seven months before the May 2022 elections. The alleged nepotism was committed in 2022, just after the marriage and during Rama's third full term as mayor. Had he not wedded Malou, her brothers wouldn't be his relatives, there wouldn't have been allegation of an offense by the mayor. But then equating their eviction from City Hall with loss of love or ruin of marriage might be a stretch.

CRUX OF THE COMPLAINT. The issue of nepotism involves only (a) the power to appoint and (b) abuse of the power by favoring one's kin. Love or marriage may be needed to confer the status of relative but is not an element of nepotism as a crime. Besides, the offense, if it was committed, cannot be wiped out by firing the brothers-in-law before the ruling.

Rama was obviously playing to the gallery, love and marriage being subjects the audience can quickly relate to. In defending himself against the charges though, Rama needs to convince the Ombudsman, then the court if would come to a trial, that the essential elements of the crime are absent. It must be shown the appointments were not covered by the law or the act didn't constitute abuse or corruption.


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