October 14, 2010

Alter Egos

I. The Forest, not the Tree

I don't know Mr. Rico E. Puno. I have never met him. I had never heard of him until the day that President Aquino announced his appointment as Undersecretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG).

In the 100 plus days since that time, however, not only I, but the entire nation and CNN-watching parts of the world, including Hong Kong and China, have come to know his name as well as his character.

His recent public statements have shown one thing--he has an ego problem. That he thinks of himself as indispensable to the President is revealing for the condescension he feels towards his friend and boss, the President. And that is a problem for one who is supposed to be the alter ego of the President, as the "eyes and ears" for all matters "PNP." His insistence on remaining as Undersecretary despite one actual screw up, which left eight (8) dead on his watch, and one perceived stain on his reputation--that of coddler to "friends and relatives" who would have wanted to lobby the President on jueteng (remember his selective amnesia on this matter before the Senate?) is not helping the President. Instead of the sturdy narra that would support this fledgling President and administration, he is turning out to be driftwood--others would even say deadwood.

One of the major plusses of the Second President Aquino is that he shows trust and loyalty to the people he works with. He takes up the cudgels for his cabinet secretaries (strangely, it should be the other way around--the cabinet secretaries should be insulating the President from having to explain all of these distracting missteps by not screwing up) publicly. But this major plus is also a big minus, especially when it comes to Mr. Puno apparently. What has become clear to many is that when it comes to Puno, the President cannot see the forest because of this one tree.

Despite admitted lack of training, experience, and capability, Mr. Puno was not even admonished for the major bungling of the Hostage incident at the Rizal Park; the President's own IIRC made a categorical recommendation for the filing of charges against him yet after a review by the President's two-person legal team (the Executive Secretary and the Chief Presidential Legal Counsel), Mr. Puno escaped unscathed. Not even a private reprimand. It is hard to imagine how Mr. Prisco Nilo, a career meteorologist at PAG-ASA felt: he was publicly scolded by the President and, thereafter, fired--all for failing to predict correctly the path of a natural disaster called Basyang. Mr. Puno's bungling led to the death of eight (8) persons, the wounding of several others and the "death by a thousand cuts" to the country's attempt to reinvent itself as being "open for business." Yet, Mr. Puno escapes unscathed.

Mr. Puno has an ego problem. He thinks too highly of himself; this is shown by his interview that appeared in the Inquirer. For an alter ego of the President, that alone should be enough reason for the President to fire him. The only ego an alter ego carries is that of his principal.

Mr. President, some unsolicited advise that you've already heard many times, Mr. Puno is not helping; rather he's dragging you down. Loyalty and friendship are great, especially in this lonely job that has been thrust on you. Yet, you have said, in response to the Bishops on the RH issue, that you are the President of everyone, of every faith. Your refusal to make Mr. Puno accountable to you, if not the Filipino people, contradicts that statement. Sabi nga sa text na kumakalat (tila ata galing kay Kgg. Teddy Casino)--mahirap maglakad sa daang matuwid kung may Puno sa gitna.

II. The De Lima Dilemma

I know Ms. De Lima; I've met her, and have gotten to admire her for her commitment to making the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) much better during her watch. I was among those who applauded her appointment to the Department of Justice.

Ms. De Lima now finds herself in the horns of a dilemma. Chairing the IIRC, she and her panel submitted very clear recommendations on what the President ought to do. She led the panel through the marathon hearings (despite being sick with pneumonia and against doctor's advice) in a sober, deliberate and very organized way. While I did not agree with all the recommendations of the IIRC Report, I thought that it was a very well-made Report and had much to commend itself; that much, I told her. I also thought it was a brave effort, made with full knowledge of the personalities involved and their closeness, perceived or apparent, to the President.

The Justice Secretary is the Lawyer of the Administration; the Solicitor General is the Lawyer of the Government and the Tribune of the People; the Chief Presidential Legal Counsel is the Lawyer of the President. Both the Justice Secretary and the Chief Presidential Legal Counsel are alter egos of the President. Understandably, they would not be appointed if the President did not have trust and confidence in them. They should not stay one minute longer in their posts if the President no longer trusts their legal opinion.

More than being the Lawyer of the administration, however, the Justice Secretary is also the Head of the Prosecutorial Arm of the Government. Thus, the Justice Secretary's opinion on the existence or non-existence of a criminal case should carry much weight especially if one considers that in the filing of criminal cases, the President no longer reviews the Secretary's determination of probable cause.

It is perhaps for good reason that Ms. De Lima has publicly aired her being aggrieved over twin moves that have made quarters think that the President may trust his other lawyers more than her.

First, the IRRC Report Recommendations were specifically ordered reviewed by the President's two-person legal team of the Executive Secretary and the Chief Presidential Legal Counsel; this, we now know, has resulted in a controversial conclusion--Mr. Puno, apparently the President's BFF, and Mr. Versoza, the immediate former Chief of the Police, were spared any sanction--not even a word raised in correction or reprimand.

Egged on by some quarters, the media included, Ms. De Lima hinted at the possibility of resignation later only to backtrack by issuing a sufficiently ambiguous statement promptly published online.

Second, the President signed and promulgated Proclamation No. 50 granting amnesty to those accused in the Oakwood takeover, the Pensinsula siege and the Marine standoff--all of whom are facing criminal charges before the regular courts with DOJ Prosecutors leading the charge. The Justice Secretary was, similar to the Interior Secretary during the bus hostage incident, kept out of the loop.

Understandably, Ms. De Lima felt aggrieved, perhaps not only for herself but also for the Prosecutors who have tried this case for seven (7) years. The promulgation for the Oakwood takeover is on October 28, 2010. Perhaps the more prudent way forward would have been to wait for the promulgation and, if necessary, issue the amnesty proclamation; if necessary, meaning the accused are convicted. Issuing an amnesty proclamation ahead of the promulgation sends a clear message to the prosecution: the seven year trial doesn't really count for much. (Note: I am counsel for 4 of the accused in the Oakwood takeover and I am confident that my clients will be acquitted. My comments on the propriety of the timing of the amnesty proclamation are my own, not my clients'.)

Ms. De Lima, like Mr. Puno, is the President's alter ego. Unlike Mr. Puno, however, Ms. De Lima has seen the start of the graffiti on the wall--she may not enjoy the full trust and confidence of the President, her principal. That is why she has hinted at leaving the Justice Department. Her problem is that, unlike Mr. Puno who had tendered a courtesy resignation only to later take it back and now insists that he is indispensable, Ms. De Lima has not seen fit to follow through and has simply left the possibility of resigning out there--in the minds of the people through the media.

This, of course, has led a former Justice Secretary, the current Senate President to tell Ms. De Lima, "Shut up or quit." To date, she has shut up.

Unlike Mr. Puno, De Lima is not driftwood or deadwood. She has demonstrated her ability to get things moving; in her short stint at the CHR, she managed to turn the agency around and get people to sit up and take notice. She has performed creditably so far at the Department of Justice and it would be a waste of talent and commitment if the President were to simply let her go. The De Lima Dilemma is the opposite of the Puno proposition--letting the former go would be a monumental waste whereas letting the latter remain would be a tragic farce.

III. BFFs and Alter Egos

What has clearly emerged from the 100-day plus Aquino II Presidency is that he maintains a closed inner circle in whom he reposes almost absolute trust. Similar to Mr. Puno, many of these people are perceived to be good friends of Mr. Aquino from way back. The popular term for this would be BFF (Best Friends Forever).

Unfortunately, governance does call for hard choices and tough calls. The President must show that he is able to make these hard choices and tough calls. There is a much larger interest at stake--that he demonstrate that he is capable of leading and taking charge and not, as condescendingly hinted at by Mr. Puno in his interview, controlled by BFFs like Mr. Puno.

I did not vote for Mr. Aquino, neither did I support him. But he is the President of the only country I am a citizen of. And unlike others, I want him to succeed--not because it will bring him glory, but because it is about time we got our acts together. I want to forge a future, not fight it.

Mr. Aquino as the President is the alter ego of the people, in whom all sovereignty resides and from which it emanates. He has, correctly, said in his inaugural, "kayo ang boss ko."

Mr. President, do not waste this window where you still have tremendous goodwill, when you still have the support of a people united only by the prospect that there is still hope that our country will get out of the muck. Make the hard calls and the tough choices. Draw the line in the sand clearly and sharply and make sure your team knows where the line is. You have six years--which is short for a great president but an eternity for a terrible one.