Seares: Ombudsman’s preventive suspension of Cebu City Mayor Mike Rama, 7 others rests on the anti-graft agency’s finding there’s probable cause the 4 complainants were 'oppressed and mistreated.'

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Seares: Ombudsman’s preventive suspension of Cebu City Mayor Mike Rama, 7 others rests on the anti-graft agency’s finding there’s probable cause the 4 complainants were 'oppressed and mistreated.'

[] What’s not ascertained, yet is widely speculated on, is the reason for the alleged harassment of the four City Hall employees and why they went to the Ombudsman: politics.

[] Would the suspension remove from the public stage at least for six months a front-runner in the 2025 election?

[1] A COCKTAIL OF CHARGES. The order for a six-month preventive suspension without pay -- signed Tuesday, May 7, 2024 by Ombudsman Samuel R. Martires and announced the following day -- was directed against Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama and his city administrator Collin Rosell and Rosell’s wife City Assessor Officer-in-Charge Maria Theresa C. Rosell, as well as three assistant department heads and two division heads in the city assessor’s office. 

Rama and the Rosell couple -- along with Atty. Francis May Jacaban, Angelique Cabugao, Jay-ar Pescante, Lester Joey Beniga, and Nelyn Sanrojo -- are facing the usual mix of charges directed against government officials in legal trouble: “grave misconduct, grave abuse of authority, conduct unbecoming of a public officer, conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service, and violation of the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.” 

Mayor Rama and company were all allegedly involved in the non-payment since July 2023 of the salaries of the four complainants who were allegedly reduced from tax-mapping to “non-related, menial and non-supervisory work” at the city’s Anti-Mendicancy Office, South Road Properties Management Office, Operation Second Chance, and Environment and Natural Resources Office. 

The complainants appealed to the Civil Service Commission, which decided that their reassignment was “invalid and without any legal effect” and ordered Mayor Rama to give them back their old jobs and pay their salaries. The mayor filed motions for reconsideration but they were reportedly denied.

[2] INITIAL EVIDENCE THE OMBUDSMAN SEES: ‘STRONG.’ Documents and public statements regarding the case don’t specify the reason for non-payment of salaries, reassignments and other alleged mistreatment of the four complainants. “Exigency of the service” or its equivalent doesn’t tell and is often regarded by most everyone as a vague, pro-forma reason.

The gap is thus left to speculation by critics who quickly label the mayor’s acts against the complainants as political, just as Mayor Rama’s defenders promptly tag the complaint as also political. 

What the Ombudsman sees though is the initial evidence in its hands. And Ombudsman Martires’s 10-page order against Mayor Rama and company says “sufficient grounds” exist for a preventive suspension, citing particularly “strong evidence showing their guilt.” Bases under the ombudsman rules are (one) strong evidence of guilt and (two) one of three circumstances, in this case “when the charge involves dishonesty, oppression or gross misconduct or gross neglect in the performance of duty…” That, aside from the built-in reason of preventing the officials from influencing witnesses or tampering evidence.

[3] CSC ORDER, CITY COUNCIL PLEA NOT HEEDED. The complainants executed a joint complaint/affidavit before Graft Investigation and Prosecution Officer Carmelle Baybay-Suson in the office of the Visayas Ombudsman last February 23, 2024. Two points cited in that complaint tend to show that respondent Mayor Rama must have known about the alleged abuse of authority or oppression and misconduct. These are: 

-- After the “invalid” memos (as declared later by the CSC) the mayor issued, Mayor Rama allegedly “disregarded and evaded” the directive of the Civil Service Commission director to restore the complaints to their former duties. 

(The complainants alleging they were victims of harassment and oppression were Filomena Atuel and Maria Almicar Diongzon, tax mappers; and Sybill Ann Ybanez and Chito dela Cerna, local assessment operations officers. The four employees have worked with the City Assessor’s Office for several years: Atuel, 30; Diongzon, 35; Ybanez, 19; and dela Cerna, 16.)

-- The Cebu City Council in a January 21, 2024 resolution requested Mayor Rama “to release for humanitarian purposes” the salaries from July 2023 to January 2024 and other benefits due to the four unpaid employees. The line "preferably on or before February 14, 2024" may not have tugged heartstrings in the executive office but is now used as evidence of “oppression.”

[4] MAYOR’S RESPONSE: NO CLUE. The initial reaction from Mayor Rama was that he had “no idea,” “no clue” about the Ombudsman order, which local news organizations made prominent as lift-out quotes, in big font and photo. And he reportedly wondered why he was suspended when he didn’t “receive any copy of the complaint.”

What the mayor said about not getting a copy of the complaint must be disturbing. That means he’s not keeping abreast with the news, at least the stuff that involves him, says former city administrator Nigel Paul Villarete, who says he reads the news although he’s not in public office. 

If Mayor Rama truly was clueless about the complaint, that would mean he entrusted the matter to someone else: a person who received, read and maybe decided for him. He was not the oppressor, somebody in his stead was. That defense, however, may not stand in court litigation.

[5] IT’S SIX MONTHS, NOT 60 DAYS. What must be sobering, aside from the Ombudsman’s observation that the “evidence of guilt is strong,” is that in this third suspension in his political career as mayor, Mayor Rama is slapped six months or 180 days, not two months or 60 days each, which his earlier two suspensions carried.

[6] TWO EARLIER SUSPENSIONS, which the matter of penalty brings us to: in December 2015, over the demolition of Barangay Labangon’s center island; and in April 2016, with then vice mayor Edgardo Labella and 12 councilors, over cash aid they gave every City Hall employee

after Super Typhoon Yolanda and that 7.2 mega earthquake struck Bohol and Cebu in 2013.

The 60-day suspensions of 2015 and 2016 weren’t imposed on Mayor Rama by the Ombudsman but by the Office of the President, occupied then by Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III. This one in 2024 is imposed by the anti-graft office, with its machinery of pre-trial investigation. A presidential decision is unavoidably tainted with political color while an ombudsman inquiry, followed by the Sandiganbayan trial, is publicly perceived as more credible. 

[RELATED: Seares: Mayor Rama was suspended twice, Governor Garcia once, SunStar, March 22, 2024]

[7] WHATEVER THE CAUSE, A SUSPENSION HURTS THE SUSPENDED OFFICIAL, more so if he is elective and will seek reelection as Mayor Rama said he will.

Suspension might sideline Mayor Rama, even take him out from the public stage during the period of suspension. He cannot legally use City Hall resources, including its government media, for exposure and sending messages and images to voters. A critic says suspended-mayor Mike might have to stand on his head or roll on the floor to get public attention; dancing and rapping might not be enough anymore. He may have to shun those “convergence” meetings and celebratory programs and activities.

But his supporters say MLR is known to bounce after a temporary fall. His public has to see what he can do this time.

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