Editorial : Holes in DoJ

Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: January 08, 2009

The jury is still out on the case of the alleged bribery involving the “Alabang Boys” but already it seems clear that the Department of Justice (DoJ) has some housekeeping to do.The most glaring instance of irregularity is the preparation on official DoJ stationery by Felisberto Verano, the defendants’ counsel, of a release order for the three young men, for signature by Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez. This is of course anomalous, since such orders should be prepared only by government lawyers.

Verano explained this bit of legal exuberance as prompted by the Christmas spirit. “I was trying to catch the Christmas season and I waited and waited and waited,” Verano said, after he caused the draft order to be sent to Gonzalez on Dec. 23. “Unfortunately, he refused to sign it.”

That the draft order even reached the justice secretary’s desk (literally) is cause for concern. We have long known that, whether out of bureaucratic sloth or individual avarice, lawyers of involved parties have sometimes ended up writing official decisions: court rulings, prosecutors’ resolutions, release orders. Verano’s transparent effort shows us how it is done.

He used long experience to accumulate favors; this, for instance, is how he was able to obtain official DoJ letterheads.

He used the convenience of a high-level connection to facilitate the paper work. In this case, Verano used his relationship with Justice Undersecretary Ricardo Blancaflor, a fellow member of a law school fraternity, to his advantage. This convenience works even though, as in this case, Blancaflor was not in his office and did not have a chance to look at the document. All it takes is the cynicism to insert the draft order into “the proper channels.”

Not least, he also used the ambiguity inherent in language. When Blancaflor’s secretary called him to ask what the document was about, Verano simply replied that he and Gonzalez had already discussed it.

Indeed they did, but Gonzalez has told reporters that in that discussion he told Verano that he would not sign any release orders. In other words, Verano used the most tenuous connection to reality (that he had spoken with Gonzalez) to assure Blancaflor’s secretary that his document was in order.

It was, of course, no such thing. Chief State Prosecutor Jovencito Zuño, who signed the original DoJ resolution on Dec. 2 already incorporating the release order for the three young men, called Verano’s maneuver “not normal.” Verano himself explained it in terms anyone dealing with a corrupt organization would find familiar: “I [was] just facilitating the order. Maybe I was a little bit overzealous.”

The justice department also seems to have tolerated a culture of confusion. The answers of DoJ lawyers to questions at the House committee hearings about the procedures involved in the release of suspected illegal drug users and pushers have been less than illuminating. Under the Manual of Prosecutors, the chief state prosecutor has the authority to conclude the resolution of a case. Gonzalez, however, had issued a department order requiring his personal approval of the resolution of important cases, especially those involving drugs and smuggling cases. In Gonzalez’s own words: “If it is a drug or smuggling case, if the punishment is more than five years, and you dismiss a case of that nature, you must get my imprimatur.”

Under questioning, however, state prosecutors like John Resado described a work culture where the justice secretary’s circular providing for automatic review was either honored in the breach or interpreted laxly.

This confusing state of affairs allows a state prosecutor to act on the assumption that a resolution signed by the chief state prosecutor is effective immediately even while it is awaiting automatic review.

None of this is to say that the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency’s performance is flawless, and that therefore every single arrest it makes must end in conviction. But the many loopholes in DoJ processes help explain why the burden of responsibility, in this high-profile case, rests largely on the Department of Justice.

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