September 2007
The Estrada Plunder Trial

Legal eagles… and eaglets

OMBUDSMAN SPECIAL Prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio has two framed caricatures displayed prominently in his white office at the Sandiganbayan. One shows him locking up former President Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada inside a prison cell and shouting “Next!” The other has him knocking out Estrada in a boxing ring.

“They are both gifts to me,” says Villa-Ignacio, the special prosecutor who leads the team of government lawyers in the P4.1-billion plunder and perjury cases against Estrada.

The drawings reflect what Villa-Ignacio and his team want to happen on Wednesday, when the verdict on Estrada’s cases will be handed down. But if a caricature of Villa-Ignacio’s team and the defense lawyers were to be drawn, it may look like the meeting of several Davids against a number of Goliaths — the latter being members of the defense panel.

Estrada is being represented in court by a powerhouse of lawyers who by record and reputation in the Philippine legal community include the best and most cunning minds in litigation and criminal law. One veteran litigator also describes some of the lawyers in the defense panel as experts in “challenging the limits and the integrity of the rules.”

Among the members of Estrada’s defense team have been former Supreme Court Chief Justice Andres Narvasa, former Supreme Court Associate Justice Serafin Cuevas, former Solicitor General Estelito Mendoza (who was also justice minister during the Marcos regime), former Manila prosecutor Jose Flaminiano, the late Prospero Crescini, brothers Sigfrid and Raymond Fortun, Cleofe Villar-Versola, and former University of the Philippines College of Law Dean Pacifico Agabin. Former senator Rene Saguisag is the defense’s lead counsel.

Villa-Ignacio estimates that about eight to nine top law firms in the country worked together to defend Estrada. That meant that while the Sandiganbayan prosecutors have respectable credentials, they have had to contend with the added stress of not only going after a former president, but also of being pitted against a phalanx of lawyers who collectively have a wider range of court experiences than they have.

As Villa-Ignacio tells it, then Vice President Teofisto Guingona and leaders from civil society and religious groups who participated in the Edsa Dos uprising that culminated in the ouster of Estrada in 2001 asked him to join the prosecution panel a few months into the trial, supposedly to tilt the balance against the defense team.

“The civil society groups thought the defense team might be too much for the regular prosecutors to win the battle,” he says, adding that “too much” may even be an understatement.

The one who stayed

Guingona was one of the senator-judges at Estrada’s impeachment trial at the Senate. He was also the one who gave the powerful “I Accuse” speech that compelled the Blue Ribbon Committee to investigate then Ilocos Sur Governor Luis ‘Chavit’ Singson’s allegations that Estrada had enriched himself through jueteng pay-offs and misuse of the tobacco fund.

The irony is that while Villa-Ignacio remains with the prosecution, Guingona is now an Estrada supporter. Guingona had a falling-out with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in July 2002; he then resigned as foreign secretary following his opposition to Arroyo’s policy favoring U.S. military presence in southern Philippines. In the 2004 polls, he campaigned for the opposition and has since stayed firmly on the opposition’s side.

In the meantime, Villa-Ignacio has been adding more years to his public service career. The special prosecutor enjoys a good reputation in legal circles, but up until he began appearing for the people in the Estrada trial, Villa-Ignacio was not well-known — at least not among the general public. Now 65 years old, he has spent more than half his life in public service: as a prosecutor of the Department of Justice, as a military trial court lawyer, and later as presiding judge at Makati’s regional trial courts.

Among the more famous cases Villa-Ignacio has participated in as public prosecutor were that of the Maureen Hultman-Ronald Chapman murders in 1991, in which the accused was Claudio Teehankee Jr., son of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Claudio Teehankee.

Villa-Ignacio also helped in presenting prosecution evidence against San Idelfonso, Bulacan Mayor Honorato Galvez, in connection with the killing of brothers Alvin and Miguel Vinculado in November 1993, and in the rebellion cases against then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and then Army Colonel Gregorio Honasan during the term of President Corazon Aquino.

But by the time Villa-Ignacio was invited to join the prosecution team in the Estrada case, he was already retired and quite content in being a faculty member of the Ateneo College of Law and an instructor for a review class at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila (PLM). Having been a public servant for so long, he obviously also knew that the remuneration he would get would not be much — a pittance, in fact, compared to the six- up to nine-digit sums several of Estrada’s lawyers usually ask for in exchange for their services.

But Guingona proved persuasive. Villa-Ignacio recalls what the then vice president told him: “This is for the good of the country. Think of the fact that you would be involved in a very historic trial of the century. Not all lawyers would have a chance to be involved in such a significant case.”

Saguisag’s story

In all probability, Villa-Ignacio had an easier time deciding to accept the challenge compared to the defense’s Rene Saguisag, who found himself with a very upset spouse when it became clear he was mulling an offer to represent Estrada. In an interview with PCIJ in late 2005, Saguisag even said that his wife Dulce had cried and cried for at least three hours over the matter.

Even today, Saguisag is known more as a human-rights lawyer and for being one of the more prominent members of the Cory Cabinet. He told PCIJ that when Estrada was still in Malacañang, he had been one of the former action film star’s critics. He had been Estrada’s lawyer in the past, he admitted, “but even before he took his oath, we quarreled.”

But Saguisag said he had a soft spot for the underdog, which was what the ousted president had become. In the end, he said, Dulce asked him to consult former President Aquino, assuring him that whatever Aquino said, she would accept.

And so it was, recalled Saguisag, that “President Cory invited me to join her at the Pink Sisters (convent) where we prayed, and after that she really did not tell me what to do. She just said …for me to discern on my own. So I thought that it was really Erap against the world at the time, eh. So he was the underdog.”

His wife proved true to her word and held her peace when it was announced that he was to be Estrada’s lead counsel. The public was not as understanding as Dulce, but as Saguisag insisted to PCIJ, “He was despised. And as a human being, as a Christian, as a lawyer, I had no difficulty helping the so-called outcast.”

Shrewd defense strategists

At the time, the man who would become Saguisag’s counterpart in the prosecution was still preoccupied with the role of teacher to law students. But even if Villa-Ignacio came in five months late, he quickly got up to speed on the case.

It helped that he had worked with or appeared against many of Estrada’s lawyers in past cases and was therefore familiar with their court styles and strategies. It’s apparent that he holds members of the defense team in high esteem, but Villa-Ignacio singles out Jose Flaminiano as the “most remarkable of them all.” He says they had worked together in prosecuting businessman Rolito Go, who had shot dead motorist Eldon Maguan during a traffic altercation in Greenhills in July 1991.

“Flaminiano is shrewd, a good strategist,” says Villa-Ignacio. “He could outwit anyone. I learned a lot from him.”

At one point during Go’s trial, Villa-Ignacio recalls, Flaminiano already had an inkling that a witness, a policeman from Nueva Ecija, would lie in his testimony about several entries in the police logbook in favor of Go.

Villa-Ignacio says that to avert the witness’s expected lying under oath, Flaminiano brought in court a supposed photocopy of the original logbook. Villa-Ignacio says that Flaminiano later told his fellow prosecutors that the photocopy was not really that of the original logbook entries.

Interestingly, a similar ploy used by the Fortun brothers at the impeachment trial earned not awe, but ire, from the senator-judges. The Fortuns had challenged a prosecution witness to identify Delia Rajas, who they said was sitting in the gallery watching the proceedings. One Delia Rajas had done transactions at a Land Bank of the Philippines branch that had some connection with the case. When the witness failed to identify anyone in the gallery as the woman who had dealt with her at the bank, the Fortuns triumphantly called to the stand someone who identified herself as Delia Rajas. Her name was indeed that, but the Fortuns were soon forced to admit that they knew she was not the same Rajas who had gone to the bank.

Several of the senator-judges called the brothers’ action as “unfair, misleading, and a dirty trick.” Senator-Judge Franklin Drilon even asked the court to order the Fortuns, as well as lawyer Alfredo Villamor, who was also part of the defense panel, to show cause why they should not be cited for contempt. By most indications, however, that was as far as it went, with Edsa Dos cutting the impeachment trial short. The Fortuns have since been building up their practice, which has attracted clients like TV game show host Kris Aquino and dermatologist-to-the-stars Vicki Belo.

Harvard alumni meet

The PCIJ tried to secure a full interview with the defense team for this piece, but did not get an appointment. It did manage to get a hold of lawyer Adel Tamano, spokesperson of the Genuine Opposition. Tamano says, among other things, that the Fortuns “add credibility” to the defense team. He says the older brother, Sigfrid, seems quiet but thinks deeply about his next moves. In comparison, he says, Raymond has good court presence and “is theatrical.”

“I am very happy how the defense team handled the case,” says Tamano, who was part of the defense legal team during the impeachment trial from November 2000 to January 2001. But he reserves the most praise for Estelito Mendoza, who he apparently considers as his mentor. Tamano worked as Mendoza’s assistant for five years until 2003, when he left for the United States to take up his master’s in law at the Harvard University.

Mendoza has the ability to see the big picture and identify things that are crucial to address to win the case, Tamano says. “His success rate shows,” he adds. “He is one of the most sought-after litigation lawyers (in the country).”

Tamano says that in the last two years, he would occasionally meet Mendoza and lead counsel Saguisag during meetings of their fellow Filipino alumni of the Harvard Law School. They would talk about the Estrada case, he says. As Tamano sees it, the evidence presented during the impeachment trial was insufficient to lead to a guilty verdict, and notes that the same pieces of evidence were used in the plunder case. “Based on the summation itself,” he says, “President Estrada has a good chance of being acquitted.”

The prosecution, of course, is saying the exact opposite. Villa-Ignacio has even said, “I’m very confident. We don’t even discuss a scenario na talo (that we lost the case).”

Underestimated prosecutors?

Indeed, it could well be that many people have grossly underestimated the abilities of the prosecution team, which has included Deputy Special Prosecutor Robert Kallos, Deputy Ombudsman for Mindanao Humphrey Monteroso, prosecutors Raymundo Julio Olaguer, John I.C. Turralba, Pilarita Lapitan, and Elvira Chua, Chief State Prosecutor Jovencito Zuno, Assistant Chief State Prosecutor Richard Fadullon, and prosecutor Perfecto Lawrence Chua Cheng V.

Turralba, for instance, has been entrusted with other high-profile cases, such as those against former First Lady Imelda Marcos involving the Technology Resource Center Foundation Inc., as well as the infamous PEA-Amari case, in which officials of the Public Estates Authority (PEA) stand accused of entering into an anomalous joint-venture agreement with the Amari Coastal Bay Corporation to reclaim and develop three islands.

Olaguer, meanwhile, recently had his book Fighting Corruption published, even as he handles another high-profile case on corruption, this time involving the construction of the President Diosdado Macapagal Boulevard. Again, PEA board members and officers are on the dock, along with Commission on Audit officials and a private contractor. All of them are accused of irregular and overpriced payments amounting to P837 million.

Olaguer highlighted this case during his oral summation at the Estrada trial, to show that the Arroyo administration gives the Sandiganbayan a free hand in investigating high-profile cases. Unfortunately, his efforts elicited jeers from the audience, especially when he uttered things like “Honesty is the best policy” and “It is a sin to tell a lie.”

Still, other prosecutors are confident their team got the job done. Kallos, for one, says that they even made it a point to have strategic committee reports during the presentation of evidence. “Before we go to court,” he says, “we convene and ask each other on what to do and what strategy to use.” He adds that frequent “scenario-setting” helped them identify possible answers to strengthen their presentations. And after each trial, he says, they would discuss what had transpired, even during lunch, so they could identify weak areas and think of ways to remedy these.

An ‘invisible’ team

Villa-Ignacio, meanwhile, acknowledges the generous help they got from an “invisible” parallel team made up of private prosecutors, among them respected lawyers Arno Sanidad, Alex Padilla, Anthony Peralta, John Balisnomo, Christian Lim, Joey Peñafrancia, and former Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo. Villa-Ignacio points out that several of the private prosecutors had also participated in the impeachment proceedings and thus knew the evidence by heart.

“We performed well,” he says, “but if we were alone — minus the private prosecutors — we would (have found) this very hard.” At the very least, prosecuting the country’s former chief executive complicated matters. Villa-Ignacio admits, “In other cases I handled, I would just stay focused on the legal issues. Here, you cannot separate the political color of the case.”

But the prosecution and defense teams agree on one thing: that the Sandiganbayan justices must be careful in making their decision on the historic case.

“The justices would not want a decision that would be assailed or reversed in the future,” says Villa-Ignacio.

Mendoza, for his part, had suggested to the justices earlier to declare publicly that they will not accept any promotion for themselves or their relatives from the Arroyo administration. This would then assure the public that they had arrived at their decision with no strings attached.

Mendoza’s former assistant, Tamano, also explains, “It is their loss if they decide in a particular way and later get appointed in the higher courts. There would always be doubts in their decisions.”