Scandal at DOJ
The best and brightest—that was the promise the Filipino people heard from President Duterte, at the beginning of his term, as to who he would choose for his Cabinet.
Seven months later, that promise has become a laugh in the case of his choice for justice secretary: Vitaliano Aguirre II, who has lurched from one controversy to another and spouted statements that, at the very least, call into question his fitness for office.
The justice portfolio is not only central to this administration’s avowed campaign against crime; it is also, and more importantly, the vanguard of the state’s basic duty to implement the law fairly, to go after those who break it, and to ensure justice for all. But, to take just one recent example, is that mandate served in any way by a justice secretary who, with breathtaking injudiciousness, declares that “the criminals, the drug lords, drug pushers—they are not humanity”?
That statement was in relation to an Amnesty International report decrying the thousands of alleged state-sponsored extrajudicial killings that have occurred under the Duterte administration’s war on drugs, and hinting that these killings may constitute “crimes against humanity.” Aguirre’s statement was, of course, merely a reiteration of the mindset of his boss, who has said essentially the same thing more than once. But surely the justice secretary—the supposed chief champion of the law—can be expected not to serve as the hatchet man of the right to due process and of the presumption of innocence accorded all Filipinos under the Constitution?
If Aguirre’s intellectual and philosophical bearings vis-à-vis his job appear this problematic, his administrative record so far is even worse. The latest to be laid at the doorstep of the Department of Justice is the disappearance of Wally Sombero, the middleman of casino mogul Jack Lam. Sombero is accused of facilitating the P50-million bribe given to former immigration commissioners Al Argosino and Michael Robles, who are incidentally fraternity brothers of the President and his justice secretary.
Aguirre himself had said that he thought he, too, was being offered a bribe by Sombero. That’s how high up, and how crucial, Sombero’s testimony would appear to be. And yet, at the last Senate hearing on the bribery scandal, it was revealed that Aguirre had allowed Sombero to fly to Canada “for medical purposes.”
Not only that: Sombero allegedly sought permission to leave a mere day before his departure. His request was immediately granted by an Aguirre underling, immigration commissioner Jaime Morente, there being no objection from the boss despite Sombero’s scheduled Senate appearance, and despite the fact that he was on an immigration lookout order issued by Aguirre himself.
Sombero is but the latest high-profile suspect to fly the coop; earlier there was the alleged drug lord Peter Lim, and then Jack Lam, who is accused of illegal online gambling and human trafficking activities. All under Aguirre’s watch, and on top of the unresolved, tawdry tangle he has had with
Sen. Leila de Lima, whom he has failed to definitively pin down on sensational charges of profiteering from convicted drug traffickers in the national penitentiary.
Lately, what has emerged is how far Aguirre seems willing to go in his campaign against his predecessor in office. According to a Bureau of Corrections document obtained by this paper, Aguirre authorized the grant of privileges—“e.g., use of electronic gadgets, smart television sets, air conditioning units, internet, cellular phones”—to drug convicts in exchange for their testimonies against De Lima. He has denied the charge, but the BuCor memo is clear in saying it was upon the “express instruction of the Hon. Vitaliano N. Aguirre II.”
By now it should be clear: It’s a scandal that this man holds the justice portfolio.