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Of course Panelo endorsed it

/ 05:06 AM September 10, 2019

In “referring” ex-mayor Antonio Sanchez’s application for executive clemency to the Board of Pardons and Parole, Secretary Salvador Panelo, the presidential spokesperson and chief presidential legal counsel, did not use the words “recommend” or “endorse.” But understood from the perspectives of both ordinary language and cultural practice, his Feb. 26, 2019 letter to executive director Reynaldo Bayang can be justifiably described as a recommendation or an endorsement. And the many-layered context in which the referral was made proves that the intervention, far from being the merely ministerial task Panelo now says it was, was a problematic exercise of public authority, and was meant to help secure Sanchez’s release.

Of course it was a recommendation, an endorsement.

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Panelo’s letter first came to light when Bayang disclosed it during the Senate blue ribbon committee hearing on Sept. 2. Committee chair Sen. Richard Gordon repeatedly described it as a referral, but in a subsequent tweet, he called it a recommendation. “I commend the Board of Pardon [sic] and Parole for not letting the recommendation of Secretary Panelo sway your decision to reject Sanchez’s application.” If Gordon, a lawyer, did not write the tweet himself, but a member of his staff did, then that only reinforces the reasonable belief that ordinary language would describe Panelo’s letter as equivalent to a recommendation.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, who served as justice secretary when Sanchez was convicted of the rape and murder of University of the Philippines student Eileen Sarmenta and the torture and murder of her friend and schoolmate Allan Gomez, used another term in a sense that, while not original to the Philippines, is familiar to many because it is part of the language of Philippine bureaucracy. “On the surface, it appears that the letter is a plain endorsement.” By that, Drilon meant that Panelo had, under his own name, transferred or relayed the letter of the Sanchez family to the appropriate office. Gordon said the same thing: “I fault him for bad judgment… He just endorsed the letter.”

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Panelo’s belated defense is that the language of his letter was neutral; it did not expressly ask that Sanchez’s application be approved, only that it be evaluated.

But in Philippine political culture (and I suppose in other personality-driven, less rules-bound political cultures, too), a person occupying a superior office need not specify what he wants from a subordinate office in writing. Sometimes it is enough merely to suggest that high officials are interested in a favorable outcome; in Panelo’s case, because he is writing as the chief legal adviser to the President himself, it is not unreasonable to expect that Bayang and the other members of the board would read his letter as having the support of the President.

That is why Gordon praised the board for not being swayed; that is why Drilon expressed his concern about Panelo’s use of his position, about it carrying “a lot of weight.”

But why did Panelo write the letter in the first place?

During the Sept. 2 hearing, Sanchez’s eldest daughter asserted that their family did not solicit help from politicians to secure their father’s release, but — perhaps mindful of the consequences of perjury — Elvira Sanchez, the former mayor’s wife, interrupted to say that that wasn’t accurate. “Attorney Reynaldo Bayang asked me to ask recommendations from some of our friends. That’s what we did.”

Here, then, is the true context of Panelo’s letter. It was one of those RECOMMENDATIONS solicited by the Sanchez family from their friends. Despite its neutral language, it was solicited as an ENDORSEMENT, not merely in the bureaucratic sense but in the positive, we-have-friends-in-high-places sense.

We can add other layers to the context. Panelo had earlier claimed that he had not intervened in the Sanchez case. (The Feb. 26 letter is proof that he did.) He also claimed that the last time he spoke to the Sanchez family — he was the former mayor’s lawyer then — was around 1998. (Malacañang’s own security records show that he met with members of the Sanchez family at least twice in February of this year: the first was the day before the Sanchez family wrote him a letter, the second, curiously, was on the day he referred that letter to the board.) Even more telling, Panelo first received the news of Sanchez’s impending release with a shrug. (“The Palace cannot oppose the law,” he said on Aug. 22.) It was only later that he told reporters that he had advised the President that the new law did not extend to those convicted of heinous crimes; if he had known it all along, why didn’t he defend the law and oppose Sanchez’s release from the start?

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These and more create a pattern — a matrix, if you will — that show Panelo enmeshed in “impropriety” (to use Gordon’s term). It is not only NOT libelous for journalists to report on the story; it is a matter of duty.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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TAGS: Antonio Sanchez, board of pardons and parole, GCTA, john Nery, Newssstand, Reynaldo Bayang, Richard Gordon, Salvador Panelo
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