Governor Joseph C. Cua has chosen not to report to his office at the provincial capitol last Monday, Jan. 20, 2021, ending a few days of mild political drama set off by his surprise assumption last week.
The duly elected provincial chief executive did so after receiving notice that the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) would order him to vacate the post.
Wednesday last week, Cua’s lawyer, Atty. Maria Nympha Mandagan, sent a letter to the DILG regional and provincial offices informing that her client would assume his duties and responsibilities as governor of Catanduanes effective that day.
The lawyer claimed that the assumption of the governor is pursuant to Section 66 (b) of the Local Government Code which states that the penalty of suspension shall not exceed the unexpired term of the respondent or a period of six (6) months for every administrative offense.
“His term of office ended on June 30, 2019 at twelve o’clock noon, thus, the suspension cannot go beyond the term for which the offense was allegedly found to have been committed”, Atty. Mandagan said.
She also cited as basis the Ombudsman’s ruling on the same LGC provision that is rendered in a separate case in December 2017, as well as jurisprudence in the United States on the same issue.
“The law provides that each term of office is separate and distinct, thus the suspension cannot continue during his reelected term,” the veteran lawyer said.
She pointed out that the suspension pertains to the findings of the Ombudsman of the offense of gross neglect of duty not for violation of R.A. 3019 Section 3, that was cited in the DILG Memorandum attached to the department’s order dated April 29, 2019.
Violation of Section 3(e) R.A. 3019 is within the jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan and not within the competence of the DILG, Atty. Mandagan averred, thus the suspension is not only premature considering that a timely motion for reconsideration was filed but also the basis as stated in the memorandum is not proper.
The Cua counsel explained the situation to several key department heads and then discussed the matter with provincial legal counsel Atty. Evelyn Lucero-Gutierres in the presence of Gov. Cua and Acting Gov. Shirley Abundo.
Transactions at the provincial government stalled, with Abundo receiving a letter from DILG regional director Atty. Anthony Nuyda that while it referred the issue to the office of Secretary Eduardo Año, “this level still recognizes you as the Acting Governor of Catanduanes.”
Despite the assurance, the acting governor still sought a definitive declaration from the DILG chief, who then publicly declared that Cua’s assumption of his office is unauthorized.
Sec. Año warned the governor that his action is tantamount to usurpation of authority which could be another administrative case that may be filed against him if he insists on holding on to his post.
“He has to serve the one-year suspension imposed by the Ombudsman which is due up to April 30, 2020. I am warning him to vacate and wait until April,” he was quoted as saying.
It may be recalled that based on a complaint filed by Rey Mendez in September 2018, the Office of the Deputy Ombudsman of Luzon placed Cua under a six-month preventive suspension on Jan. 8, 2019, just five days before the start of the election period.
The complaint accused Cua and Bato town Mayor Eulogio Rodriguez of alleged abuse of authority, conduct prejudicial to the interest of public service, dishonesty, and grave misconduct, over the use by ER Construction of a vacant lot owned by the provincial government without authority from the Sangguniang Panlalawigan.
At the height of the heated campaign for the gubernatorial post, a special panel of investigators composed of seven Ombudsman prosecutors found Cua guilty of gross neglect of duty and imposed on him a penalty of suspension without pay for one year beginning April 29, 2019, just two weeks before election day.
Despite the obvious disadvantage, the governor won his reelection bid handily, beating Congressman Cesar Sarmiento by more than 25,000 votes.
In an interview at the governor’s office on Jan. 16, Cua lamented that until now the Ombudsman has yet to act on his motion for reconsideration.
Aside from the LGC provision, he cited two more grounds regarding the “highly irregular”
and “misplaced” suspension that moved his lawyer to advise him to assume office last week.
Cua claimed that, as a provincial governor, his suspension order should have been signed by the DILG Secretary himself and not by a mere undersecretary.
He noted that gross neglect of duty is not a violation of RA 3019 but is an administrative offense outside its purview.
On the second day that he was at the capitol, Cua told the Tribune that his team would take the necessary legal steps in case the DILG serves an order directing him to vacate the office.
Sources say that the Ombudsman has yet to file criminal charges against Cua and his co-accused over the same issue with the Sandiganbayan, as it has not acted on Cua’s still pending Motion for Reconsideration.