Cleaning house at the DOJ
Menardo Guevarra inherited a monumental mess when he assumed office as the new justice secretary in April, and he said as much.
The Department of Justice is “suffering from a huge image problem,” he acknowledged in a short speech he made before DOJ employees during his first flag ceremony as justice chief.
“It looks solid, but its structural integrity is suspect, both literally and metaphorically,” he added. “So it is my personal mission to restore the DOJ’s dignified and respectable image.”
The words were a subtle but unmistakable rebuke of the misdeeds and excesses of his predecessor, Vitaliano Aguirre II, who had resigned in a morass of controversy after two tumultuous years in the department.
By the time Guevarra came in, the justice portfolio had been sullied by one outrage after another — the exoneration of confessed drug lord Kerwin Espinosa and Cebu drug suspect Peter Lim, for one, and the grant of witness protection status to accused pork barrel mastermind Janet Napoles, for another.
It was also under Aguirre that two former deputy immigration commissioners — his and President Duterte’s fraternity brothers — attempted the farcical caper of handing over only P49.9 million instead of the P50 million they had received as
bribe from casino mogul Jack Lam.
The missing P1,000 was apparently a way to evade the threshold number for plunder and to have their charges downgraded to graft and direct bribery.
It was a brazen mockery of the law, but Aguirre himself appeared not the least bit bothered. His pathetic defense was that it wasn’t the DOJ that counted the money, but a bank.
The Office of the Ombudsman would have none of that nonsense, however, and went ahead with a charge of plunder against the two ex-commissioners.
Now that Aguirre is out of the DOJ, more questionable transactions are coming to the surface.
The Commission on Audit recently flagged the disbursement of nearly P816 million that was done during the only full-year fiscal term of Aguirre.
This was on top of the “undocumented transfer” of another P621 million of department funds, and about P33.5 million that the COA said had been deposited in bank accounts without the proper authorization.
Guevarra simply has his hands full sorting out the veritable Augean stables that his predecessor had left him, but it looks like the former Ateneo law professor and former deputy to Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea in Malacañang is living up to the good governance promises he made on his first day in office.
He has promised to look into the fund mess uncovered by the COA, and seems intent on further cleaning house by recently suspending three prosecutors — Pasay City Prosecutor Benjamin Lanto, Inquest Prosecutor Clementine Villanueva, and Assistant Prosecutor Florencio dela Cruz — for 60 days.
Before then, he also filed charges against the three at the DOJ Internal Affairs Unit for alleged gross neglect of duty, gross incompetence and inefficiency stemming from their supposed roles in the release of suspects involved in jewelry smuggling at the
Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
Most crucially, Guevarra has reversed Aguirre’s howler of a decision granting Napoles the mantle of government protection.
Last Friday, the DOJ announced that the principal accused in the pork barrel scam is no longer under the Witness Protection Program — a privilege Napoles was provisionally granted by Aguirre in February after she executed an affidavit implicating more names in the multibillion-peso scam she is accused of running in conspiracy with a host of lawmakers.
The fear, then, was that Aguirre would use the new list to harass other political opponents of the Duterte administration.
In stopping the DOJ-Napoles arrangement, Guevarra, it appears, will not be party to any ploy to use his department’s powers that way.
He deserves to be commended for doing the right thing in this regard. May there be more such reforms to come under his watch.
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