The Legal Eagles Who Nailed Erap
Their victory was short-lived, but that shouldn’t diminish the heart and hard work that they put into the six-year trial.
They did what no legal team had done in Philippine history: win a corruption case against the biggest fish of all, a President of the Republic.
If the plunder trial of Joseph Ejercito Estrada were an inter-university basketball contest, it would have been a battle royale between the combined legal team of the Ateneo Blue Eagles and the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons versus the All-Star Team.
Estrada’s All-Star Team had a Michael Jordan in Estelito Mendoza. Not only is Mendoza the highest paid lawyer in the country; it was he who was able to get another big fish—former First Lady Imelda Marcos—off the hook in 1998 when the Supreme Court reversed a Sandiganbayan verdict convicting her of graft.
The other “superstars” in Estrada’s legal team were veteran trial lawyer Jose Flaminiano, former Senator Rene Saguisag, and former University of the Philippines College of Law Dean Pacifico Agabin. Two justices of the Supreme Court even showed up during major events of the trial to show their support for the ousted leader—retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Serafin Cuevas and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Andres Narvasa.
It took a great deal of teamwork and passion to beat star power.
The prosecution team was a mix of young, idealistic lawyers and senior colleagues disappointed with what their generation had done for the country. Together, they sought to apply the same rule of law that covers paupers to a former president, so that Lady Justice could perhaps start smiling at Philippine society.
The partnership between public and private prosecutors was the X factor, or the missing link, that finally enabled the State to win its plunder case against the popular Estrada.
Had the volunteer lawyers from the private sector not taken an active role in the early stages, he would have gotten off easily, because then Ombudsman Aniano Desierto filed defective complaints against Estrada.
Five of these contained similar information as the plunder complaint, thus violating Estrada’s right against double jeopardy.
The Team Captains
Dennis Villa-Ignacio. A graduate of Manuel L. Quezon University, Villa-Ignacio teaches at the Ateneo Law School. He served as a government prosecutor for 14 years and in 1994 became a judge in Makati. Among his most celebrated cases was the conviction of Claudio Teehankee Jr., son of the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Claudio Teehankee, in the 1991 Maureen Hultman murder case. Teehankee is still languishing in jail.
Villa-Ignacio has what it takes to be a team leader—he’s not prone to outbursts, and his reputation for courage and integrity has rubbed off on his colleagues.
As the Ombudsman’s Special Prosecutor, he also handles the plunder case against former military comptroller retired Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia. Soft-spoken, he does not exude an intimidating presence in court. But woe to anyone who underestimates him, for beneath the calm demeanor is an uncommon doggedness.
Simeon Marcelo. He is better known as the team’s court general and strategist. He first shot to national fame when he appeared at the impeachment trial of Estrada as one of the counsels for whistleblower former Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis “Chavit” Singson. At the time, Marcelo was head of the litigation division of the Carpio Villaraza & Cruz law office, which likewise counseled President Arroyo until recently.
This attorney almost became a priest. He finished high school at the Maria Assumpta Seminary in Cabanatuan City and spent a few years at the San Jose Seminary before realizing that priesthood was not for him. He then entered the Ateneo de Manila University where he finished his Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. Marcelo bridges both the religious and non-sectarian academic environment, making him an ideal leader for the Ateneo-UP team. After Ateneo, he went to UP where he took his Bachelor of Laws.
He joined the Arroyo government as Solicitor General in February 2001. More than a year later, he was appointed Ombudsman, the youngest to be named to the post at 50.
But the pressures of his office seemed too much for him. Citing poor health, he cut short his seven-year term in November 2005.
In a 2001 interview with Newsbreak, Marcelo, still fresh from the euphoria over Estrada’s ouster, vowed never to let Estrada get away with it. “In the case of Marcos, there was never any closure. You seldom have second chances and we’re very lucky as a people to have a second chance,” he said then. “To some, the lesson of Edsa 1 is that if you’re going to steal, steal a lot so you have money to pay lawyers and you can get away with it. We must learn from that and let those who did wrong pay for it.”
Ricardo Nepomuceno. This prosecutor died in the line of duty at age 74. Sometime in 2006, he was on his way to Makati for a meeting with prosecutors when he suffered a fatal stroke. An Atenean, Nepomuceno served as undersecretary in the Department of Justice and was a delegate to the 1971 Constitutional Convention. His fellow prosecutors describe him as their moral compass, the one who always held them together in times of fierce debates and frustration.
In a 2001 Newsbreak interview, Nepomuceno made a forecast of things to come. ‘There is a great possibility that this may be the first time in Philippine history that a high official, up to the level of the President, will be going to jail. The government and the people should not let the opportunity pass. In 1986, the people left everything to the government. That proved to be wrong.”
The Human Rights Lawyers
Arno Sanidad, Pablito Sanidad, Alex Padilla. All UP graduates, they’re known for their pro bono human rights cases during the martial law regime and the Kuratong Baleleng multiple murder case against former Philippine National Police chief and now Senator Panfilo Lacson. Free Legal Assistance Group lawyers Arno and Pablito Sanidad, plus other human rights lawyers like Alexander Padilla, brought into the legal team the activists’ fire and passion that was essential in pursuing a protracted court battle. Exposed to the hard edges of politics during the Marcos regime, they were familiar with Estrada’s game plan. “It was plainly a political defense, not a legal defense…like what we usually did during martial law,” says Arno Sanidad, who has defended many rebels.
He cites two critical factors in their success at prosecuting Estrada. The first is Chavit Singson. “It is almost impossible to prove plunder without a whistleblower,” he says. And the second is the role of the private prosecutors. “The public prosecutors have many cases so we prepare everything for them.”
Arno considers it an “honor to be given the opportunity to prosecute the biggest, the highest official of the land” but laments the pardon granted their target. To Arno, it sends a terrible message to the youth—that is right for a citizen to enter public service, steal big sums money (enough to pay the best lawyers if caught), and, if he loses the case, to get away with it by demanding absolute pardon.
If given an opportunity to go after another high official, Arno says he would. “We were working for the rule of law and not for any political interest.”
The Public Speaker
Marichu Lambino. The only woman on the team, Lambino was a student activist at UP Diliman in her younger years. She took her law degree from UP and now teaches journalism at the UP College of Mass Communication. With her background in law and journalism, she was able to appear on various talk shows on television and radio and explain in layman’s terms the prosecution’s case.
Today, she’s one of the country’s top bloggers and continues her crusade for good governance in cyberspace (visit her site at marichulambino.wordpress.com)
Lawyers from ‘The Firm’
For any team to succeed, it needs backdoor support that takes care of the so-called dirty work, from quick but solid research to networking and financing. The prosecutors got all these from the country’s law firm of the decade, the Villaraza & Angangco Law Offices (formerly Carpio Villaraza & Cruz). At least five of the private prosecutors in the Estrada trial came from what is referred to as The Firm.
John Balisnomo. This ebullient 35-yearold lawyer is the group’s “walking encyclopedia” on the Estrada plunder case. He wrote most of the pleadings submitted by the prosecution to the Sandiganbayan as well as many of the replies to Estrada’s countless pleadings.
He recalls Estrada’s most outrageous request, and that was for the court to grant him sunning rights, even if he was never kept in solitary confinement. As the chief tit-for-tat writer of the team, Balisnomo even had to work during his honeymoon in December 2003.
Having done so much reading and writing on the Estrada case left Balisnomo little time for exercise, and the joke among the prosecutors was that his size had grown commensurate to the number of volumes in the Estrada plunder saga.
An honors graduate of the Ateneo (ranking 5th in his class), Balisnomo joined Carpio Villaraza & Cruz in 1998 and worked under Marcelo. He joined his boss at the early stages of the impeachment trial in the Office of the Solicitor General and the Ombudsman, two positions that Marcelo subsequently headed.
Rafael Santos and Joe Nathan Tenefrancia. In the course of the Estrada trial, these two senior partners at the firm had the chance to work under the Arroyo government. At the impeachment trial, the low-key Santos worked quietly behind the scenes, while the dark and charming Tenefrancia immediately caught the media’s eye—earning him the “Richard Gomez” tag.
Santos served as defense undersecretary from November 2004 to November 2006, when one of the firm’s founding partners, Avelino Cruz Jr., was defense chief. He now heads the firm’s litigation department, replacing Marcelo. Tenefrancia joined public service much earlier, shortly after President Arroyo assumed power in 2001, and worked in Malacañang until 2005. He was first appointed assistant secretary for legal affairs of the Presidential Management Staff, then chief presidential legal counsel and then senior deputy executive secretary for legal affairs.
The two finished engineering courses at UP before taking up law. Santos holds an industrial engineering degree, while Tenefrancia has a mining engineering degree.
Miguel Silos and Elmar Galacio. Both lawyers join Balisnomo as the youngest in the crop of private prosecutors that tried Estrada. Silos graduated with honors from the Ateneo de Manila University in 1998 and obtained his master’s degree at Georgetown University two years ago. He teaches legal ethics at Far Eastern University. Galacio, on the other hand, ranked 8th in the Class of 1997 from the University of the Philippines College of Law. A Monbusho scholar, he obtained his master’s in public policy at Saitama University, Japan, in 2000. Other private prosecutors who helped through the years were Christian Lim, Dennis Funa, and Anthony Peralta. In the initial stages of the impeachment trial, the following lawyers were of great help as well: Leonard de Vera, Eduardo de los Angeles, Romeo Capulong, Marie Yuviengco, and Mildred Pfleider.
In government, the workhorses during the trial were Prosecutor Jovencito Zuño and deputy chief state prosecutor Richard Fadullon.