Tsinoy Beats and Bytes

Corruption strikes ivory towers too

In my 25 years of working for reforms in the criminal justice system, I thought I have heard and known the worst cases of travesty of justice. I thought wrong.
Feelings of shock, dismay and sadness competed while I read the news that the Office of the Ombudsman has ordered the dismissal of Dr. Ester B. Ogena, president of the Philippine Normal University, and her three senior colleagues for grave misconduct.
It was an unfounded accusation. In today’s corrupt environment, Ogena’s mistake may have been to go after unscrupulous people in the university she headed, and the culprits retaliated with trumped-up charges. I have known Ogena for nearly a decade. She is a fellow awardee of The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service in the field of education.
Outstanding scientist and former University of the Philippines president Dr. Emil Javier described Ogena’s case thus in his Feb. 3 and 10 columns for the Manila Bulletin:
The case of Dr. Ester Ogena (and her three subordinates at PNU) is particularly tragic and ironic. Ester Ogena was an outstanding alumna of Philippine Normal University, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in education. She obtained her masters and doctoral degrees in mathematics teaching from University of the Philippines, Diliman.
She spent most of her public service career at the DOST where she rose through the ranks to become Director of the Science Education Institute. From SEI, she was recruited by the PNU Board of Regents to become her alma mater’s 10th president. Testaments to her outstanding and blemish-free record of public service were the Presidential Lingkod Bayan award conferred to her no less than by the Civil Service Commission and the prestigious The Outstanding Women of the Nation award for education.
All of these for naught because of the case of grave misconduct frivolously and so unjustly brought upon her and her colleagues by the Ombudsman.
The decision was handed down in January. This means that since then, Ogena has been out of a job. All her benefits from more than 30 years of teaching are forfeited. She has filed a motion for reconsideration with Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales.
The Ombudsman’s decision was unjust and unfounded, anchored as it was on the complaints of finance officials of PNU who were suspended for failure to account for P2.4 million of the university cafeteria’s operating fund. The money was lost to “creative accounting.” Since she took her oath as president of PNU, Ogena had been instituting significant reforms at the university.
In her first year in office, Ogena stopped the anomalous practice of finance officials pocketing student’s tuition payments. They would issue a student an original receipt but alter the second and third copies of the receipt or cancel them. She uncovered the scam when many students complained that their names were not in the roster of enrolled students – and were able to produce original receipts of payments.
Needless to say, corrupt officials at PNU lost millions of pesos when Ogena put a stop to the nefarious racket, said to have been in place for some time. These desperate officials then wove a cloth of lies against Ogena, using a $25,000 (roughly P1.3 million) advertising contract the university had signed with an international publication to showcase to the world the country’s strides in higher education as their ammunition.
The contention was, Ogena and her staff awarded the contract without public bidding. However, Ogena proved that they did not violate any rule on procurement, citing provisions in the law that allow exceptions to public bidding, subject to the approval of the head of the agency. No less than the chairperson of the PNU Board of Regents, Dr. Patricia Licuanan, recommended the advertisement which was subsequently approved by the entire board. The approval thus fully satisfied the requirement for the exception.
What is strange is that the Ombudsman’s decision copied the complaint verbatim and made no mention of the defense Ogena provided in her counter affidavit. The facts of the case were completely ignored. This is blatant travesty of justice.
Ogena and her co-respondents’ counter affidavit clearly stated that:
1) They did not personally benefit from the contract.
2) The contract in fact was at the behest of, and approved by, the chairperson and the entire Board of Regents of the university.
3) The law on government procurement allows for exemptions under certain circumstances which were satisfied.
4) The implementing rules and regulations of the procurement law specifically cite advertisement in media among the exemptions.
Ogena privately told me that because she was convinced that there was no case at all, she never even inquired into the status of the case after filing the counter affidavit. Neither she nor her staff were summoned to a hearing by the Ombudsman to explain their side. They were, therefore, shocked when the dismissal order came out of the blue. She feels terribly humiliated and pained, especially after those people she had suspended boasted how powerful and well connected they are and that Ogena just did not know whom she had taken on.
Both my children are with the academe. My in-laws have been discouraging both from pursuing academic careers and to go into business instead. I argued that they will not end up “beggars” as feared, that many people can do business but few are willing to take up the noble profession of teaching, so they should be allowed to continue.
But the case against Ogena jolted me awake. What I thought was a noble profession could be as ugly as any other because of snakes from within spewing venom to get what they want. The case bears serious consequences on the morale of our outstanding academics, scientists and professionals. Why assume key positions in state universities and research institutions, and run the risk of being persecuted like Ogena?
Read more about Ogena’s case and that of the Philippine Rice Research Institute in this two part series of Dr. Emil Javier published in the Manila Bulletin.