08 January 2009

DoJ Needs Housekeeping

Department of Justice (DOJ)
Accusations and counter-accusations may have already muddled the issue for ordinary pinoys to make a quick judgement on the alleged bribery case involving the “Alabang Boys”, but one thing is certain though. The supposedly guardian of the country's justice system and protector of basic human rights, the Department of Justice (DoJ), needs a major overhaul to get it back on its original track.

The case of three alleged drug pushers who all came from affluent families exposed one of the most glaring instance of irregularity inside the DoJ - preparation of public documents. The defendants counsel, Atty. Felisberto Verano, publicly acknowledged that he was the one who prepared the draft release order for signature by Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez using an official DoJ stationery.

If his admission is not enough to facilitate his disbarment, then the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) may also have to do some housekeeping within its organization. Preparation of an official public document by a private lawyer, who obviously is not authorized to do it, is anomalous. This is the job of government lawyers and they should do it properly since the taxpayers expect nothing less from them.

Atty. Verano explained in major dailies and television appearances that this bit of legal exuberance was prompted by the Christmas spirit. “I was trying to catch the Christmas season and I waited and waited and waited,” Atty. Verano said, after he caused the draft order to be sent to Gonzalez on 23 December 2008. “Unfortunately, he refused to sign it.”

It is not surprising for some lawyers who thinks that they can use their connection at the legal department to facilitate fast processing of their documents. What is surprising is that the draft order that Atty. Verano prepared easily reached the justice secretary’s desk. If not for the timely expose by the media and growing public interest, who knows what could have happened to that draft. Maybe it could have been signed and encouraged other lawyers to do the same to shorten the process. If this happens, justice would again be biased against those accused who cannot afford to hire enterprising lawyers, as if it is not already biased as it is.

Atty. Verano's seemingly effortless preparation and submission of a draft order, complete with the official DoJ letterheads, is a caused for concern for the DoJ. Is this the usual practice in the department?

Atty. Verano admitted that: “I [was] just facilitating the order. Maybe I was a little bit overzealous.” Overzealous or not, it is still not proper and should be punished appropriately by both the law firm that employs Atty. Verano's services and by the IBP.

During one of the hearings at the House of Representatives, a more alarming practice within the DoJ was also revealed.

The hearing uncovered the fact that Atty. Verano used the convenience of a high-level connection to facilitate the paper work. In this case, Atty. Verano used his relationship with Justice Undersecretary Ricardo Blancaflor, a fellow member of a law school fraternity, to his advantage. Even if USec Blancaflor is not at the office at that time, posed no problems for the resilient Atty. Verano. All it takes is the cynicism to insert the draft order into “the proper channels” and silenced the curious Blancaflor's secretary by saying that he and her boss had already discussed it.

Fortunately, Secretary Gonzalez had already made a press release saying that he will not sign any release orders. Maybe it was from the pressure of public opinion, but President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo supports the move not to release the suspects.

It was also evident from the hearings that the DoJ also seems to have tolerated a culture of confusion. It is not clear what is really the procedure to follow in releasing suspected drug pushers. 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. One does not need to be a lawyer or a law student to appreciate that these two elements could run counter to each other, just like what happened to this case.

Unless the DoJ takes some immediate and huge organizational steps before 2010, there seems to be no end in sight to resolve all these issues. The loopholes must be plugged first to discount the perception that many high-profile suspects want the DoJ to handle their cases because their lawyers can easily go around the procedure and facilitate their release.