Some readers were puzzled by my seeming sympathy for a justice secretary actively weaponizing the rule of law. But I saw in his descent into the depths the story of many other Filipinos who had lost their way. Today’s scandal over the proposed dismissal of charges against confessed drug lords shows the new lows he and his men have plumbed. Published on September 19, 2017.
At some level, I knew writing this installment in my occasional series on unfortunate appointments was inevitable, but I resisted because I’ve interviewed Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre and I thought I glimpsed the essential decency in the man. (Teddy Locsin once wrote about this occupational hazard, of encountering the difference between disagreeable policy and agreeable personality.) Aguirre told me, to my face, that he would not file a case against Sen. Leila de Lima without obtaining the necessary bank documentation, what he called a paper trail. He said he knew from 40 years in litigation that he needed that kind of evidence, and he did not want to lose. That he proceeded to file the case anyway — based on what we can call a finding of improbable cause — proved to me that he was under severe pressure from President Duterte to put De Lima behind bars, even if only temporarily.
There was also the matter of the confrontation between Aguirre and the late Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago in 2012, at the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona. Contrary to what may already be conventional wisdom, the redoubtable Santiago was in the wrong, and Aguirre was right, to defend his ears from a supercilious scolding. For the second time in an impeachment trial, Santiago had acted imperiously toward lesser mortals; Aguirre, a private prosecutor in a very public proceeding, was a stand-in for the ordinary citizen.
But his record as justice secretary and his increasing belligerency toward any criticism lead me to only one conclusion: He is not so much dedicated to the administration of justice as the consolidation of power — the President’s, primarily, and then for his own survival, secondarily. We’ve had justice secretaries before who politicized their departments, but no one has weaponized the Department of Justice like Aguirre has. Part of the reason is he is vulnerable to manipulation by friendly contacts.
For instance, the operator Wally Sombero’s attempt to turn him into a padrino for his client, Jack Lam, is telling. In Aguirre’s own recollection, said under oath at the Senate, Sombero had directly propositioned him. “He told me nobody’s been taking care of Lam for a long time. Is it OK if the secretary of justice becomes his ninong (godfather)? I knew which direction our conversation was headed.”
To which Sen. Richard Gordon responded: “You knew where it was headed so you should have charged him there and then. That’s a proposition.” (Senator Gordon’s original understanding of Aguirre’s role in the Jack Lam bribery case was the right one; like many, I do not agree with his final conclusion.)
A justice secretary should conduct himself in a way that discourages overtures like Sombero’s. But he did not only not threaten Sombero with the full force of the law, he also (to quote Gordon) “did not shut the door” on this inducement to corruption. “Had you shut the door, all of this wouldn’t have happened,” Gordon said. He was referring to the P50 million that ended up in the hands of two deputy Customs commissioners, but in truth “all of this” can refer to the many other mysteries of justice under Aguirre’s watch.
At the Senate public order committee hearing on Sept. 5, visitors and VIPs alike took pictures of the scene — as always happens in a hearing open to the public. To Aguirre’s eternal regret, one of those photos, when enlarged, shows him conspiring via text message to file a case against another opposition senator, Risa Hontiveros. His message read, in damning part: “Kaya expedite natin ang cases ninyo vs her” (So let’s expedite your cases against her).” This does not strike me as a mastermind telling his underlings to do what needs to be done, but a willing tool telling a user: Use me. “All of this wouldn’t have happened,” if only Aguirre cared more about justice rather than power.
The willing abuse of this power is most evident in the manufactured cases against De Lima. What happened to the man who told me he would first track down the paper trail? I believe a decent man has lost his way.
Here, then, is the tragedy of a Filipino like Aguirre: Where once he represented the ordinary citizen, at the mercy of the elite, now he is a mere instrument, his department a potent weapon, of that ruling class. This is — truly, simply — unfortunate.