The Big Fish Who Got Away

IF YOU can’t jail them, elect them. If you do jail them, well, you can always elect them again.

This appears to be a recurring theme in the Philippines, where the popular saying that a public office is a public trust seems to be misconstrued as meaning the public must simply put their full trust in their public officials, regardless of their behavior.

And what behavior some public officials have displayed.

In early 1989, then Rep. Rodrigo Gutang (North Cotabato), chairman of the House Committee on Public Order and Security, and then Rep. Renato Unico (Camarines Norte), vice chairman of the House Committee on National Defense, tried importing 600 Uzi submachine guns and Galil automatic assault rifles, firearms made popular by the famous Israeli armed forces.

The Customs bureau held up the first shipment of 150 firearms after finding that the guns did not have the necessary importation clearance from the Department of National Defense (DND).

Gutang and Unico, both former military officers, claimed they already had clearances from then Constabulary chief Ramon Montano (who, by the way, ran for a Senate seat in 2013 and lost).

The two congressmen said they did not know they needed a separate permit from the DND to bring in 600 firearms.

This happened when the country on the edge; the government was being rocked by bloody coup attempts by cashiered colonel Gregorio Honasan (who now has just won yet another term in the Senate) and the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM).

Incidentally, the Galils and Uzis first became popular in the Philippines because they were the military rebels’ favored firearms. In fact, former defense minister and now Senator Juan Ponce Enrile (whose son Jack Enrile ran and lost in the 2013 senatorial elections) famously carried an Uzi submachine gun during the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolt.

An ordinary Jose would probably get thrown in jail for owning a paltik even today. But the two legislators got off with barely a slap on the wrist.

The reason: the 600 Uzis and Galils, more than enough to arm a battalion, were actually for members of the House of Representatives. In their roles as chairman of the committee on public order and security and vice chairman of the defense committee, Gutang and Unico collected orders for the firearms from their House colleagues.

The guns were supposed to be for the security and protection of individual legislators, who claimed feeling threatened by the New People’s Army and the military rebels. At least half of the 202 sitting members of the chamber allegedly placed an order for firearms with the two congressmen.

According to the legislators, they purchased the guns with their own personal money, and not with taxpayers’ money. What this also meant was that the congressmen would get to keep the guns even after their terms ended.

In the ensuing scandal, then House Speaker Ramon Mitra Jr. ordered an investigation by the House Committee on Ethics, then headed by Davao Rep. Jesus Dureza. After a series of hearings, including one where PC chief Montano (a friend of Gutang from their Constabulary days) cleared the two legislators, the ethics committee declared that there was no discrepancy in the arms deal, but recommended censure for the two congressmen.

The recommendation for censure was further watered down when the matter was put to a plenary vote, or what Mitra then called a “conscience vote,” by the entire House of Representatives in executive session. In its conscience vote, the entire chamber found Gutang and Unico not guilty of any wrongdoing, and deferred action on the courtesy resignations the two legislators had submitted as chairman and vice chairman of the committees on public order and security and national defense.

With that vote, the issue died down, or was overtaken by other events. A few months later, Honasan would stage the bloodiest coup attempt against the Aquino administration.

Interestingly, PCIJ bumped into Gutang in 2010, during a DND-sponsored forum on how to stamp out private armed groups in the wake of the Maguindanao massacre. He was one of the resource speakers.

Of course, one doesn’t have to look very far for examples of big fish who appear to have gotten away.

Deposed President Joseph Estrada, elected to the presidency in 1998 with one of the highest electoral margins in Philippine history, was convicted of plunder and sentenced to reclusion perpetua by the Sandiganbayan in 2007. Almost immediately after his conviction, Estrada was granted a full and absolute pardon by his archenemy, then President Gloria Arroyo.

Arroyo ran and won a seat in Congress after her stint as President, but this did not stop the government of Benigno S. Aquino III from filing a case of electoral sabotage and plunder against her and placing her under arrest. Arroyo ran and won a second term this year as representative of the 2nddistrict of Pampanga. She is still detained at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center.

Estrada for his part continued to seek public office after his conviction and pardon. This, even though he had committed not to run for public office again in his letter-application for pardon that he sent to then President Arroyo.

In the 2010 elections, less than three years after he was convicted for plunder, Estrada ran and almost won again as President of the Philippines, coming in second to Aquino. In the latest polls, Estrada ran and won as mayor of Manila.

Estrada’s opponents have tried to have him disqualified because of his conviction. But the Commission on Elections (Comelec) ruled that the pardon Arroyo granted Estrada in 2007 was “absolute and unconditional,” thus restoring fully Estrada’s civil and political rights. In her proclamation of executive clemency for Estrada, Arroyo merely mentioned that Estrada had committed in his application not to seek any future public office; Arroyo failed to make that a condition for his pardon.

The same issue was raised again in 2013, when Estrada ran and won as mayor of Manila. In April this year, the Comelec restated its position that Estrada was not disqualified because Arroyo gave him a full pardon. Estrada’s critics have elevated the matter to the Supreme Court.

Moving down south, former Zamboanga del Norte Rep. Romeo Jalosjos tried to run for mayor of Zamboanga City in the 2013 elections even though he was convicted and jailed for statutory rape in 1997.

Jalosjos’s failed candidacy appeared part of a move by his clan to wrest control of the Zamboanga peninsula at the local level, with clan members from brothers to children to in-laws, running in Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, and Sibugay.

Comelec, however, said Jalosjos was disqualified because of his conviction. It stood its ground when Jalosjos argued against his disqualification, saying the Local Government Code allows a convict meted an accessory penalty of disqualification to run again two years after having served his sentence.

In December 1997, a Makati trial court found Jalosjos guilty of two counts of statutory rape and six counts of acts of lasciviousness, against an 11-year-old girl. In his defense, he said that the girl was a sex worker and that he was not told of the girl’s age.

Jalosjos appealed the ruling before the Supreme Court, but it merely affirmed his conviction in 2001 and 2002.

Yet despite the lower court’s guilty verdict in 1997, and pending his appeal before the high court, Jalosjos from his New Bilibid Prison quarters managed to run and get re-elected as a congressman in the 1998 and 2001 elections.

He held on to his post, and the House of Representatives accorded him all his salaries, emoluments, and pork barrel shares for four years — until the Supreme Court upheld his conviction with finality in 2002. His name was subsequently dropped from the roll of members of the House of Representatives.

After Jalosjos had served the minimum sentence of 10 years for the crime, and supposedly for “good behavior” while in prison, President Arroyo commuted his sentence and freed him in 2009.

The commutation of Jalosjos’s sentence did not reverse, however, the loss of his rights and status as a voter, on account of his conviction for the heinous crime of statutory rape, according to Comelec Commissioner Christian Robert S. Lim.

But if Jalosjos’s conviction continues to haunt him, other candidates appear to have luck and time on their side.

Take the case of former Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., one of those accused of masterminding the 2009 Maguindanao massacre. Long before his surname became attached to the worst case of election violence in the country, the Ampatuan patriarch had already made a name for himself as a ruthless clan leader.

In fact, Ampatuan was jailed for around a year in the mid-eighties for shooting dead his nephew.

Yasser Ampatuan, a nephew of Andal Sr., remembers that Andal shot dead his brother Datu Unsa Ampatuan, who was then eating at a restaurant in Maganoy (now Shariff Aguak) town. According to Yasser, Andal suspected Unsa of supporting a political rival, Surab Ampatuan, who also happened to be a relative of both of them.

For this crime, Andal Ampatuan would spend at least a year in jail before the families came to an out of court settlement. Here, the clan and blood ties worked their magic, as murder is a criminal case that may not be settled out of court. The man responsible for “fixing” the case was Rep. Simeon Datumanong, the first governor of Maguindanao province, and also member of the clan.

Yasser says his family chose to accept the decision of the clan elders for an amicable settlement out of respect for the elders, and because they had no means with which to seek justice.

“We went along,” he says. “We did not want a repeat of what happened if we showed that we were fighting back, maybe we would have been eliminated, so we accept what is going on. If there is a situation like that, we face reality and dance with the music.”

After he was freed from jail, Andal Ampatuan managed to claw his way up Maguindanao’s hierarchy, first as vice mayor of Shariff Aguak, then its mayor, and in 2001, as governor of the province of Maguindanao. — PCIJ, June 2013

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