Menardo Guevarra: The President’s good servant

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The Task Force Against Corruption (TFAC) headed by the Department of Justice (DoJ) recently launched an anti-corruption campaign to bolster the government’s battle against corruption. The campaign called upon the public to have the courage to call out all forms of corruption.

A video encouraging the public to report acts of corruption is aired by different TV and radio networks. The video shows Department of Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra saying: “Maliit man o malaki, ang korapsyon ay korapsyon. Kapag hinayaan, sisirain nito ang kinabukasan ng bayan. Kaya maglakas-loob sumigaw ng ‘Hindi sa ’yo ’yan!’” (“Whether small or big, corruption is corruption. When tolerated, it will destroy the future of the country. That is why, have the courage to shout ‘That is not yours!’”)

I find Guevarra exhorting the public to have the courage to call out all forms of corruption as nothing but a desperate and pathetic attempt to cover up the massive corruption in the Duterte administration. Nine senators, including Franklin Drilon and Leila de Lima, both former Justice secretaries themselves, and lawyers Richard Gordon, Francis Pangilinan, and Koko Pimentel have been calling out massive corruption in the purchase of pandemic items such as goggles, face shields, and infrared thermometers from Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp. for several months, yet Guevarra had not acted on those call-outs.

The Secretary of Justice has the discretion to investigate through the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), a government agency directly under him, even without a complaint. In fact, the Secretary has used that power for much lower thresholds before. The last time the NBI investigated motu proprio (on its own) it was to hunt down peddlers of the fake “no vaccine, no aid” rumors. But the attitude of Secretary Guevarra with regard to Pharmally had been passive. Political activists say he defers to President Duterte, who appointed him DoJ Secretary and who was his former client when he was in private law practice, as some of those involved in the controversial deal are people close to the President.

Last Thursday, Senator Leila de Lima blasted Guevarra for his decision to continue her prosecution despite three key witnesses retracting their statements that led to her detention. “Up to the end of his term, Secretary Guevarra is minded to stand by the lies and manufactured evidence of the Duterte government, not wanting to displease his principal. He is, after all, Duterte’s alter ego. Never mind justice. Never mind fair play. Never mind that an innocent person was kept in jail for the past five years, and counting, without real evidence except for the lies of mostly convicted felons,” De Lima decried.

The detained senator added that it was “frustrating but not at all surprising or unexpected.”

“I guess it was wishful thinking to expect anything different from Sec. Guevarra. Regrettably, it is still a Pontius Pilate act when he simply relied on the so-called ‘assessment’ of the very panel of prosecutors handling the cases.

“One thing is clear. It is doubtful that Sec. Guevarra even read the recantation of Rafael Ragos where it was revealed that early on, Ragos already told the members of this panel not to expect his testimony to be perfect, given that it was all made up lies and forced upon him by former SOJ (secretary of Justice) Vitaliano Aguirre,” De Lima said. “Did he even confront the panel of prosecutors as to the truth of Ragos’s accusations against them?”

It will be recalled that she had requested a review of the charges against her after witnesses Kerwin Espinosa and Rafael Ragos retracted their testimonies against her. But Guevarra said the DoJ panel of prosecutors told him that there is good reason to continue the prosecution of the senator.

De Lima was implicated in the illegal drug trade inside the New Bilibid Prison when she was Justice Secretary of President Noynoy Aquino. She has vehemently denied the allegation, crying political persecution for being a vocal critic of Duterte’s policies and programs. Shortly after her election as senator in 2016 and upon her election by her fellow senators as Chairperson of the Justice Committee, she initiated the Senate investigation into the bloody war on drugs in Davao City waged by Duterte, then mayor of Davao City.

Guevarra was appointed as ad interim Justice Secretary in April 2018, replacing the much-criticized Vitaliano Aguirre. Addressing the employees of the Department of Justice on his first day as Justice Secretary, Guevarra said it was his personal mission to “restore the dignified and respectable image” of the department as his predecessor had badly damaged its image with his many questionable decisions and pronouncements. He did not accomplish his mission — it appeared he didn’t even try to carry it out.

Guevarra obtained his LL.B degree from the Ateneo de Manila Law School in 1985. The website of the school says: “Since 1936, the Ateneo de Manila University School of Law has formed men and women not only skilled in the science and art of the law, but also imbued with a burning passion for justice and the fervent desire to serve others.”

The school failed to imbue him with even the minimum of passion for justice as his handling of the case of Leila de Lima has shown so clearly.

In the chapel in the old Padre Faura campus of Ateneo, the original site of the School of Law (I was enrolled in the Graduate School of Psychology, which was also on the same campus in the 1950s and ’60s.), there was a bigger-than-life statue of St. Thomas More. He was an English lawyer, judge, and statesman. He served Henry VIII as Lord High Chancellor of England.

For opposing Henry VIII’s separation from the Catholic Church and the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he was convicted of treason and executed. On his execution, he was reported to have said: “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.” St. Thomas More must have inspired many graduates of the School of Law.

Written on the wall of that chapel in Padre Faura was the Biblical passage, “For what does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his soul?” One alumnus of that campus who rose to be Chief Justice did not heed the counsel. He fell from grace.

Menardo Guevarra must have gone to the Ateneo School of Law when it was on the Salcedo Village campus. (I was there as a member of the faculty of the Graduate School of Business, which was in the same place.) I don’t recall seeing a statue of St. Thomas More or the Biblical passage in the small chapel there. That is probably why Menardo Guevarra is the President’s good servant and also the President’s first.

Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, and management professor. He has been a politicized citizen since his college days in the late 1950s.

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