An impeachment case is a rare occurrence within the University, yet it is one that lures the full attention of the student body upon the announcement of a hearing.
Since 2015, there have been a total of seven impeachment cases filed against University Student Government (USG) officers. Part of these were the recent cases against Miguel Tabucao, who was removed from his position as FOCUS 2016 Legislative Assembly (LA) representative, and Aya Watanabe, College of Liberal Arts (CLA) College President, who was given the verdict of not guilty of charges after a retrial.
In an interview with USG Judiciary Chief Magistrate Christine Hizon, The LaSallian looks into impeachment cases; how they arise and the process behind the publicity.
Reviewing past cases
In 2015, Norben “Bim” Sagun Jr. filed cases against former USG Executive Treasurer Rupert Laurel, former USG Vice President for External Affairs Michelle Mae “Mae Mae” Gonzales, and former EXCEL 2015 Batch President Zed Laqui. The cases were for illegal disbursement and undermining integrity. The issue arose after Sagun, who won first place in former OVPEA-OTREAS joint program Lasallian Exchange Scholarship Program (LESG), failed to receive the full sum of his grant after a string of notices and formal complaints. Gonzales and Laurel were subsequently found guilty.
A year later, former School of Economics (SOE) College President Erielle Chua faced an impeachment complaint accusing her of posting campaign propaganda in a USG unit’s official Facebook page during election period. The charges were dropped later on, with Chua being mandated to release a public apology. Another former officer, Steven Whang, also faced a complaint and was made to release an apology like Chua.
Recently, FOCUS 2016 LA Representative Miguel Tabucao was impeached due to gross negligence following six unexcused absences. He pleaded guilty on trial. LA Chief Legislator Pia Ramin comments that Tabucao, who ostensibly wanted to resign, filed a resignation letter that the LA subsequently rejected due to him being impeachable.
The most recent trial was against incumbent CLA College President Aya Watanabe, who was accused of gross negligence after five unexcused absences from the Activities Assembly (AA). She faced a one-week suspension and was found not guilty after a second trial.
Impeachment trials always have profound effects on the student body. Sagun’s cases caused turmoil during the 2015 Special Elections, an already turbulent time for the University’s political landscape following a failed General Elections earlier that year. While such cases cause backlash and trouble within the University, it is proof however that democracy works, with former USG President Pram Menghrajani saying, “The fact that regular students can file complaints against different facets of the USG is proof that the democratic system is working.”
Grounds for impeachment
According to Article 20, Section 2 of the constitution, there are five identified grounds for impeachment: (1) Any willful violation of [the USG] constitution and its by-laws, (2) gross negligence of duty, (3) illegal disbursement of funds, (4) any behavior which undermines the integrity of the USG, and (5) any other forms of gross misconduct as provided by the USG policies.
Hizon discusses that anyone in the USG can be impeached, including the magistrates. “No one is above the law with this,” she says. Equally, any undergraduate student, whether an elected USG officer or not, can file a case against a defendant. “Any student can file a case on us [or any other USG officer] if they see something like corruption [or] if they violate the constitution and its by-laws.”
Since 2015, Sagun remains to be the only undergraduate to bring a USG officer to court without being affiliated to the USG in any form or function.
Starting an Investigation
Magistrates are authorized to summon or order an investigation when deemed necessary, written under Article 18, Section 3.2 of the USG constitution. Hizon provides an example, “So if we see that there is something wrong, or if someone in the USG talks to us about someone saying, ‘What would you do if this certain officer has been absent for an amount of time?’. [We repeatedly hear this] so [there may be] something wrong. And because of that, we summon an investigation from them.”
Magistrates do not play a role in the investigation process to avoid any imposition of biases, since they are the ultimate decision makers of an impeachment case.
A plaintiff who wishes to file a case may secure a complaint letter template from the Judicial secretary and send a letter back to the judiciary secretary for investigation. It is best if a plaintiff procures enough witnesses and evidence to support their claim before filing a complaint for the case.
The processing of a case and its investigation usually takes three weeks before any decision is made.
The first stage of an investigation includes the processing of evidence and witnesses by the Judiciary to validate and verify the strength of the plaintiff’s claim. Investigating officers (also called council officers), prosecuting officers, and student lawyers handle the investigation stages of a case.
Hizon asserts that if the Judiciary appraises the given evidence as insufficient after investigation, there may not be a proceeding hearing. Consequently, there is a chance that the case may be fully dismissed. From the year 2015 to the present, Hizon claims dismissed cases have not yet transpired. To the best of her knowledge, cases filed since 2015 were all brought to hearings. The closest to a case being ‘dismissed’ as a result is the resolution of a settlement. Cases before AY 2015-2016, however, cannot be discerned if they were dismissed.
Upon the approval of the Judiciary, the plaintiff will be provided a note of their complaint which they may choose to dismiss if they wish. However, if the Judiciary deems the reason for dismissal is not substantial, they may decide to proceed with the impeachment process nevertheless.
The Judiciary utilizes the whole three-week duration of the process to ensure all areas are covered. If a hearing does not transpire after the end of the three-week duration, the case may be discontinued. However, there is still a prospect for the hearing to proceed through what is called an “urgent hearing.”
Hizon explains, “If there is ample reason for it to be urgent, even though it’s not within the three-week scope, we can still push through with an impeachment.” She postulated the recent case of Watanabe as an example. Most of the magistrates were not available for the scheduled initial hearing. Thus, an urgent hearing was scheduled to accommodate all the magistrates and ensure fair judgment is reached.
Making a decision
“When the magistrates talked, we found out that there are two kinds of opinions, the majority and minority opinion,” Hizon shares. Based on the facts and evidences presented, the six magistrates will separately decide on a decision. From there, they will settle with the majority decision. Hizon points out that the decision of the magistrates should only be based on the facts and the evidences presented during hearings.
However, “Just because someone is found guilty of all charges does not mean that he or she will be removed from the office,” Hizon says. The outcome will still depend on the consolidated decision of the magistrates and the gravity of the charges.
Even if impeachment cases can be filed by any undergraduate student, only four cases were encountered since 2015. Hizon says that she is trying to find a way for the plaintiff to be anonymous. “Especially because they know these people, they don’t want to ruin their friendships with them,” Hizon explains. She shares that it is hard to push students in filing necessary charges in such situations.
“As a student government official, you took the oath to serve the students, you have to be professional,” Hizon says. “So if you know that you’re doing something wrong, you must take responsibility [for] all your actions,” she adds.