Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

P-Noy’s dismissal order a warning to Merci loyalists

In dismissing Deputy Ombudsman Emilio Gonzalez III on orders of President Aquino, Palace defenders sought to lend credence to talk that Gonzalez was trying to extort the amount of P150,000 from slain Luneta hostage-taker Rolando Mendoza.  But to the citizens this may not sound credible, for what is P150,000 to that high office, when before it are cases far more stupendous than trying to “fix” the problems of a police officer in trouble?  If Gonzalez is truly an extortionist, would he run after an officer who cannot command as much money as others with pending cases, but who could easily inflict physical revenge on him?  

Another looming legal battle

 It’s easy to suspect that P-Noy fired Gonzalez to make the case tougher for Ombudsman Merci Gutierrez, whose instant reaction to her deputy’s dismissal was to declare that the President was trying to “isolate” her from her subordinates.  Doubtless, to the ordinary citizens Gonzalez’s firing would appear as P-Noy’s warning to Merci’s people, who have shown no hesitation to display incredible loyalty to their boss, to watch out.

Gutierrez, losing no time to defend her subordinate, stressed that he was already cleared by the Ombudsman’s Internal Affairs Board (IAB) of any liability in the hostage-taking, after a thorough investigation. She said this clearance should be considered final under RA 6770, the law that carried out the constitutional mandate to create the Office of the Ombudsman;  it provided that the latter “shall have disciplinary authority over all appointive officials of the government, except over officials who may be removed only by impeachment, or over members of Congress and the judiciary.” 

It’s not clear what Gonzalez or his boss would do as regards the President’s order; but it’s easy to see that a legal battle could loom once again between the Office of the Ombudsman and the Palace, as P-Noy’s order may be challenged in either the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court.

Holding officials truly ‘accountable’

Also suffering from credibility was Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa’s statement that P-Noy’s decision “reflects this administration’s commitment to hold those responsible for the (Luneta) hostage-taking incident accountable.”  If making  officials “responsible” is what this administration truly seeks, it should have begun with DILG Undersecretary Rico Puno and Mayor Fred Lim, who were in charge of the hostage rescue but who, from media accounts, spent more time eating at a Chinese restaurant near the Luneta than seeking serious solutions to the fast-deteriorating crisis. They only got a limp slap on the wrist for their failure to avert the crisis, when Justice Secretary Leila de Lima had recommended harsher action, while Deputy Ombudsman Gonzalez gets fired. 

Unconscionably high legal fees on Naia 3 case

Another interesting case in the news last Monday was the report in the Inquirer by Gil Cabacungan that the House of Representatives will investigate the “atrociously” high legal fees amounting to about P2.3 billion paid by the Philippine government in its dispute with Piatco and its partner, German airport-builder Fraport.  It quoted  Bicol party-list Rep. Rodel Batocabe as stressing that the House should investigate the “unconscionable” legal fees incurred by the past administration in local and international courts to determine whether these were “properly documented and justifiable.” News about these huge fees paid to a battery of foreign lawyers surfaced at a recent hearing of the House committee on transportation.

It cited the long battle between Fraport/Piatco and the government in the latter’s takeover of Naia 3 in 2003, which the consortium owners questioned not only in local courts, but in arbitration courts in Singapore (initiated by Piatco) and Washington, D.C. (initiated by Fraport).  The government won the Singapore round, but it lost to Fraport/Piatco in the Washington, D.C. decision last December 2010, which had been initially favorable to RP three years ago.

Manila Times’ three-part expose

The Inquirer story did not identify the local and international lawyers involved in the huge fees-pay-off, but interestingly, there was an earlier three-part expose in mid-January 2011 in the Manila Times, filed by Jomar Canlas, the reporter in charge of the Supreme Court beat, entitled “SC Justice Recipient of Lavish Fees.”

 Canlas wrote that the first SC justice appointed by President Noynoy, former AIM Policy Center executive-director and UP Law professor Ma. Lourdes Aranal- Sereno, and the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) were ”part of the losing legal team that had received lavish attorney’s fees and allowances amounting to P2.65 billion from the government.” Canlas asserted that Sereno, “along with her mentor, retired Justice Florentino Feliciano, were both recipients of the huge amount of money for defending the Philippine government.”

The Times said it was able to obtain half-inch thick documents containing disbursement vouchers indicating “payment for the OSG-hired lawyers, International Counsel White and Case Law Office, and including experts and consultants Sereno and Feliciano…” It further said that “President Aquino even rewarded Sereno with the SC justice portfolio after winning the first round of the case. She, however, has suffered a setback after a final decision of an Ad Hoc committee in Washington overturned the cited International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).”

Big factor in Sereno’s appointment

Canlas quoted from an August 2010 briefer on Justice Sereno’s appointment which stated that “She was co-counsel with Justice Florentino P. Feliciano of the Fraport case before the (ICSID) in Washington, D.C., and the Piatco case before the International Chamber of Commerce—International Court of Arbitration, Singapore.”  Both cases were resolved in favor of the Philippine government, but on Dec. 23, 2010, or after three years of consideration, Canlas wrote, the ICSID reinstated Fraport’s right to file an arbitration/compensation case against the Philippine government.

The Times reporter noted that “Another high-ranking government official who refused to be identified said that Sereno’s appointment was pushed by a big law firm linked to defeated candidate for vice-president Manuel ‘Mar’ Roxas II.”  Canlas also wrote that “The source said that Roxas did not know anything about Sereno until his lawyers, the Villaraza, Cruz Marcelo Angangco Law Office, popularly known in legal circles as ‘The Firm,’ allegedly helped her.”

Willingness to settle with government welcome

The Inquirer news item about the astronomical legal fees paid to local and international lawyers by the government recalls equally huge fees paid by the PCGG in various administrations to recover the hidden wealth of the Marcoses and their cronies. Which is why Fraport/Piatco’s announced willingness to settle with the government is welcome news, as this would eliminate the need to pay those atrociously high fees especially to international lawyers. 

More intrigues about SC

But far more interesting in the above cited news is the intrigues raised about personalities in the High Court.  For one the Times report hinted that P-Noy was allegedly “duped” into appointing law professor Sereno to the Court when it was made to appear that she led the RP legal team to victory in the Naia 3 case.  It quoted an unnamed government official involved in this case who sought to reduce Sereno’s role to being “just a documentation lawyer” on the ground that “she couldn’t argue at all in the Piatco case because she does not have any experience in litigation.”

I happen to know that Prof. Sereno graduated at the top of her class in the UP College of Law and that she was well-respected as a professor there and at the AIM, which is why the attempt to reduce her capability as a legal mind may not be fair to her. But if it’s true indeed that, as media speculated, Justice Sereno got her appointment to the SC because P-Noy was “duped” about her real role in the Naia 3 case, then it would show one thing:  the continuing clout of “The Firm” in various political climes, and the extent it would go to, to achieve its goals. A feat amazing in itself.

Clinical psychologist comments on Japanese traits

Don't fail to listen to the DZRH program (666 on the AM band) that Cecile Guidote Alvarez and I co-host every Sunday evening at 8 pm. Tomorrow, Sunday, April 3, also at 8 pm., prominent clinical psychologist Dr. Francis Sta. Maria, who obtained his undergraduate degree from the UP and his Ph.D. from the University of London, helps us analyze and understand what makes the Japanese behave the way they did so admirably during the three giant catastrophes that visited their country last month, and what we Pinoys can learn from them.
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