The aggravation of Alberto Agra

Acting DOJ chief cheated in law school

IT’S not every day that you see subordinates publicly criticizing their boss, which is what acting Justice Secretary Alberto C. Agra is experiencing as government prosecutors assail his recent decision to absolve two members of the Ampatuan clan over the grisly salikillings last November in Maguindanao.

By all indications, Agra is not least aggravated by the criticisms. Yesterday, at the flag ceremony of the Justice department personnel, he declared: “I stand by that decision and the process I went through to arrive at it… I bow neither to political dictates nor to public opinion.”

He admits to being a crybaby but says won’t quit his post. “’Di po ako magbibitiw sa aking posisyon, Wala akong balak atrasan ang mga hamon sa aking opisina….matibay si Al Agra kahit iyakin.”

Ateneo Law School batch 1990. Acting DOJ Secretary Alberto Agra was supposed to graduate in 1989, but was delayed by a year after failing a class wherein he was caught cheating. Source: Ateneo Law School Yearbook (1990), Ateneo de Manila University. Photo by Katreena Cosme and Beatriz Bermundo.

But then this isn’t the first time Agra has had to endure the ire of his fellow men of justice, and closest buddies in law school.

Two decades ago, one of his professors at the Ateneo de Manila Law School also got infuriated after discovering that Agra and six of his friends had exactly the same wrong answers in an exam – down to the decimal points. To their teacher, that was hint enough that the students had cheated.

“It was a scandal at the time,” says an Ateneo staffer privy to the incident but who declines to be named. “There were about 100 students who took the exam. Agra and his classmates were accused of cheating by their professor who had them investigated.”

The case reached the dean’s office and went all the way up to the office of the university president, says the staffer.

Agra won’t reply

Over the last five days, the PCIJ had tried to get Agra’s side of the issue. Last Thursday he told the PCIJ over the phone that he prefers a face-to-face interview early this week.

On Friday, via a text message, the PCIJ requested him to fix the date, time and venue of the interview. The PCIJ called again.  Agra said he had changed his mind about the face-to-face interview and would now prefer to answer questions via email, with a promise to send his reply by Sunday. The PCIJ sent a reminder text yesterday, and Agra texted back, “will email later today.” At the close of office hours 5 p.m. Monday, Agra had not done so.

Two other Ateneo personnel interviewed separately by PCIJ corroborate the staffer’s story. They also say it was the final exam in the Law of Wills and Succession subject under then professor Avelino Sebastian Jr.

Sebastian, who has retired from teaching at the Ateneo, in a recent phone interview with the PCIJ neither confirmed nor denied that Agra was among those he had found cheating in his class.

Nonetheless, according to one of the Ateneo personnel, the incident happened in 1988 when Agra was on his third year in law school. As a result, Agra had to retake the class, which meant he could not graduate with the rest of his batch. Originally belonging to Batch ’89, he graduated in 1990 and passed the bar the following year.

But Agra would redeem himself from his rather unpleasant academic past, establishing himself early in his career as a defender of the defenseless. Unfortunately, say his present critics, he later moved to the other side of the fence and became a defender of a highly unpopular but impeachment-proof president.

In the late 1980s, though, the then young lawyer was earning praise from activists for, among other things, helping found and later heading the nongovernment Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal (Saligan).

Saligan is an Ateneo-based alternative lawyers’ groups catering to the needs of the poor and marginalized sectors of society.

Do-gooder gone bad?

“He was respected as one of the founders of Saligan,” says lawyer Marlon Manuel who had worked with Agra as a law student-intern and later replaced the latter as Saligan’s executive director after 1994. “He was very committed in his work. As an alternative lawyer, he worked for social justice and human rights. Everybody in our group looked up to him.”

Efficient s’ya talaga,” says Saligan lawyer Raissa Jajurie, who began working with Agra when she was still a law student in 1989. “While driving his car he would have a notepad with him, jotting down things that he didn’t want to forget. Kumbaga sa karpintero, he was the one who built the house.”

Jajurie adds, “He jumpstarted the operations of the organization. I would like to think that he was sincere in founding Saligan.”

Former education secretary and Liberal Party (LP) general campaign manager Florencio ‘Butch’ Abad, who is also among Saligan’s founders, describes the young Agra as “one of the idealistic lawyers that we had.”

“He worked pro bono for poor people who could not afford legal expenses for their cases,” says Abad.

But while labor law was one of Agra’s early interests, he would branch out to local governance and election laws. These led him to dealing with influential politicians who sought lawyers specializing in these legal fields. Eventually, Agra would wind up doing what his colleagues in alternative lawyering would consider highly objectionable.

During the Estrada administration, Agra got involved in local governance work and had then San Juan City Mayor Jose ‘Jinggoy’ Estrada, who was also national president of the League of Municipalities of the Philippines, as his client.

In 2004, Agra became the election lawyer of the K-4 coalition made up of the then ruling party Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats, Liberal Party, Nationalist People’s Coalition, and the Nacionalista Party. The coalition pushed for the presidential candidacy of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who by then had occupied Malacanang for three years.

Many doubted Arroyo’s 2004 poll victory because of lingering allegations of widespread fraud as a result of the highly-publicized ‘Hello, Garci’ wiretapping scandal in 2005.

Switched to Gloria side

Subsequent events would finally bring Agra to Arroyo’s turf.

Following then LP president Franklin Drilon’s 2005 call for Arroyo to resign over allegations of massive cheating in the 2004 polls, a faction of the party led by Arroyo’s ally, Lito Atienza, broke away from Drilon’s group and elected Atienza as the faction’s new president.

The Drilon and Atienza factions became locked up in a legal battle that began at the Commission on Elections and ended up at the Supreme Court. In March 2006, Agra agreed to become the legal counsel of Drilon’s group. Yet after a few days, Agra withdrew from the case without explaining his decision, according to Drilon’s camp.

“I remember (Agra) telling us that he had decided to help us dahil prinsipyo na ang pinag-uusapan dito (because we are talking about principle here),” says LP Director General Jose Luis Martin ‘Chito’ Gascon. “We filed the case at the Comelec on March 3, Friday, then he withdrew Monday. GMA (Arroyo) got to him over the weekend.”

While Agra supposedly kept mum about his reasons for leaving Drilon’s group, some of those privy to what had happened believe his decision had something to do with his then 14-year-old daughter, who at the time was already a globetrotting champion tennis player.

“He (Agra) is a family man,” says a politician. “His life revolves around his daughter. I think he was afraid that his daughter who was then getting some support or scholarship from the government would be affected if (he did not) withdraw from defending Drilon’s LP.”

Another politician seconds this, saying, “He really wanted his daughter to excel. He was afraid that his daughter might lose support if he goes against the government.”

Tennis fanatic, too

Agra is a known tennis fanatic who fully supports his daughter’s dream of becoming a world-class athlete.

“We look at this as a family project which requires a commitment from each and every one of us. We talk regularly, and assess (my daughter’s) progress on a regular basis,” Agra told writer Stephanie Coyiuto of The Philippine Star in August 2006, when asked about how he was supporting his daughter’s tennis career.

Agra is president of the Futures Tennis Scholarship Foundation, Inc. that was established in June 2001, documents obtained by the PCIJ from the Securities and Exchange Commission showed.

Agra’s wife, Evangeline L. Agra is the foundation’s treasurer. The other officers and trustees are Liza S. Go; Luisito L. Hipolito; Victoriano Z. Naluz Jr; Domingo S. Feliciano; and Remegio P. Flores.

The foundation holds office at the Medical Plaza in San Miguel Avenue, Pasig City.

In its 2001 to 2003 progress report, the foundation said its goal is “to promote the development of the sport of tennis by providing assistance and support to its beneficiaries particularly outstanding junior tennis players.”

It also “provides assistance to underprivileged, deserving and promising tennis players as well as extend support to coaches and tennis professionals” and “undertakes programs and projects for grassroots development and formation of players for international competition.”

The foundation’s financial statements showed that from 2002 to 2006, its “cash donation and contribution income” amounted to P5.88 million, including  P1,141,596.66 in 2002; P1,444,517.40 in 2003; P2,111,475.94 in 2004; P690,000 in 2005; and P489,250 in 2006.

Donors galore

Among the corporate donors listed in the foundation’s 2001 to 2003 progress report were the government-controlled Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation; the International Container Terminal Services, Inc . of Arroyo ally Enrique Razon Jr.; the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company; Smart Communications; and San Miguel Corporation.

The foundation has launched “special projects and entered into partnership arrangements with corporate sponsors,” according to the organization’s progress report.

Among these was a Memorandum of Agreement with Mandaluyong City that provided the foundation with funds “sourced from the Philippine Development Assistance Fund earmarked by the Office of Senator Francis N. Pangilinan.”

In July 2006, Agra’s daughter won the International Junior Champ prize in the Girls Double Event Tennis Competition in Egypt. The following month, she paid Arroyo a courtesy call in Malacañang.

By then, Agra was serving as Arroyo’s lawyer during the impeachment proceedings at the House of Representatives. In the same year, Agra also stood as legal counsel of Sigaw ng Bayan, a group identified with the administration that led the call for Charter change (Cha-cha) through a people’s initiative and took their petition to the Supreme Court.

Manuel, then among the lawyers opposing Cha-cha, recalls that during the oral argument at the Supreme Court, he found his group and Agra on opposite sides.

“I remember Butch (Abad) jokingly telling Al before the hearing at the Supreme Court that he should sit with us and not at the opposite side,” says Manuel.

Conflict of interest

In March 2007, Arroyo appointed Agra as head of the Office of the Government Corporate Counsel, and then later as chief regulator of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System, a post that he relinquished in June 2008 due to allegations of conflict of interest.

Agra's entry in the Ateneo Law School batch 1990 yearbook. Source: Ateneo Law School Yearbook (1990), Ateneo de Manila University. Photo by Katreena Cosme and Beatriz Bermundo.

Since 1993, Agra has served as a professor at the Ateneo Law School handling classes on the 1991 Local Government Code, Law on Public/Government Corporations, Administrative Law, and Law on Public Officers.

In January 2010, Agra assumed the post of solicitor general and became concurrent acting justice secretary last March.

Sitting on an interim basis in the eight-man Judicial and Bar Council, Agra was the body’s only member who did not support its opposition to the Supreme Court’s ruling that allows Arroyo to appoint a new chief justice despite the ban on midnight appointments during her final three months in office.

Agra even filed a separate comment that asked the high tribunal to fill up all vacancies in the judiciary during her final months in Malacañang.

Only this month, Manuel’s Alternative Law Groups, a coalition of 20 alternative lawyers’ organizations and which Agra also helped organize, sought the acting justice secretary’s inhibition from the JBC’s deliberations on the nominees for the next chief justice.

Manuel says that Agra’s participation would compromise the JBC’s independence because as solicitor general, Agra has also consistently defended the government’s position on Arroyo’s authority to appoint a new chief justice.

Also, this month, Agra issued a resolution exonerating suspended Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao governor Zaldy Ampatuan and Mamasapano, Maguindanao mayor Akmad Ampatuan Sr. of their involvement in the November 23, 2009 killings of 57 people in Maguindanao.

Agra’s resolution triggered protests not only among families of the victims of the Maguindanao massacre, but also among state prosecutors, who are now asking their superior to “revisit” his resolution.

“Otherwise, we dishonor the primary reason for which our institution exists and its very name: the Department of Justice,” says Chief State Prosecutor Claro Arellano.

Disappointed friends

Meanwhile, his former Saligan colleagues can’t help but get disappointed with the acts and pronouncements of someone who was once their mentor.

“I don’t have any ideas about what had happened to him,” says Manuel. “He used to be one of us.”

“I feel sad and perplexed,” says Jajurie. “Four months na lang siya sa posisyon niya, di naman siya magtutuloy beyond June 2010 (He will only be at his post for four months; he won’t be there beyond June 2010). Why did he have to do that?”

Yet those who see Agra as being a “fall guy” of sorts in his decision to exonerate two of the Ampatuans in the massacre discern a similarity with the role he ended up playing in the law school exam scandal.

While all seven friends were accused of cheating, it was only Agra who bore the brunt of the group’s supposed wrongdoing.

“Sa totoo lang, nakakaawa si Agra (The truth is, Agra was pitiful),” says one of the Ateneo personnel interviewed by PCIJ. “All of them cheated but it was only Agra who admitted the wrongdoing. Because he had no influence at the time, he became the sacrificial lamb.”

The Ateneo insider says that most, if not all, of Agra’s six friends who were absolved of cheating, had money or influence or both, which got them off the hook. One was even a senator’s son.

Agra, himself from a relatively well-off family, actually didn’t voluntarily admit that he was guilty of cheating, says the insider.

“There were just two of them left who were then still being investigated,” recounts the Ateneo staffer. “There (had to) be someone penalized (for the cheating) or else the school’s disciplinary system would collapse or it would look like it was the professor who accused them who was the real problem.”

“Thus the two were told that one of them must admit to cheating or both of them will fail,” says the staffer. “It was only Agra who admitted to cheating, thus he flunked the subject.” – PCIJ, April 2010