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CA confirms Aguirre amid BuCor, BI controversy

Camille Elemia
CA confirms Aguirre amid BuCor, BI controversy
Senator Antonio Trillanes IV sees politics at work in the confirmation of Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II

MANILA, Philippines – The Commission on Appointments (CA) on Wednesday, February 15, confirmed the appointment of Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II despite the formal opposition of Senator Antonio Trillanes IV.

Aguirre faced the CA anew, after his confirmation was deferred on February 1.

On Wednesday, Aguirre found support from CA members, including Senator Loren Legarda, chairperson of the CA committee on justice; and Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III.

“It is thus with honor and privilege that the chairman endorses the confirmation of the ad interim appointment of Vitaliano Napeñas Aguirre II as secretary of the Department of Justice,” Legarda said on Wednesday.

Trillanes sought to block Aguirre’s confirmation and filed his opposition with the CA, centered on 3 points: Aguirre’s alleged psychological and emotional incapacity, lack of integrity, and lack of competence.

Aguirre had called Trillanes “gago” (fool) and “sundalong kanin” (useless soldier) during a Senate hearing in January, which Trillanes cited in his opposition to the Cabinet official’s confirmation.

“The act of resorting to shameless name-calling instead of responding to issues is clearly uncalled for and unbecoming of a person considered for confirmation,” Trillanes said at the CA hearing.

Aguirre admitted this and explained he did so because he felt bad that he was being accused of involvement in the P50-million bribery scandal at the Bureau of Immigration (BI).

Aguirre then apologized to the senator for calling him names. Trillanes accepted the apology.

The justice secretary was also called out for his statement saying criminals “are not humanity.

On this point, Aguirre found defenders in Legarda and Sotto. Legarda said Aguirre only made the remark out of frustration, while Sotto said Aguirre had a different point.

“He only said it out of frustration. It is not to be taken literally. It was brought out by frustrations. Let’s just move on,” Legarda said.

“Ang intindi ko sa statement na ‘yan, ‘di mo puwede ikumpara humanity (7 billion people) against a 100-200-300 million in drugs. ‘Di mo puwede ikumpara. Ang humanity mas malaki kaysa dito sa involved sa droga. That is simply my interpretation of the statement,” Sotto said.

(My interpretation of that statement is that you cannot compare humanity against 100-200-300 million in drugs. You can’t compare them. Humanity is much bigger than those involved in drugs. That is simply my interpretation of the statement.)

BI bribery, BuCor

Trillanes also raised the issues of the BI corruption scandal and Aguirre’s alleged  VIP treatment of inmates who testified against Senator Leila de Lima in a House probe into the drug trade in the New Bilibid Prison when she was justice secretary.

He asked the CA panel to suspend Aguirre’s confirmation hearing until the Senate hears the testimony of retired police general Wally Sombero, the alleged middleman of Chinese gambling tycoon Jack Lam, at the hearing on the BI scandal on Thursday, February 16.

Aguirre earlier admitted meeting Sombero and Lam in a private hotel room in Taguig City. The justice chief had initially accused them of attempting to bribe him to free the Chinese workers at Lam’s Pampanga casino who had been detained for working without permits. (READ: Senate BI probe: 3 hard questions for Aguirre)

The senator also asked the panel to subpoena Alvin Lim, chief legal officer of the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor). Lim wrote the confidential memorandum that said Aguirre allowed gadgets and other valuable equipment for the inmates.

Legarda denied this, saying only CA members could request for subpoenas.

Aguirre, for his part, denounced the memo, saying its contents were mere hearsay. He also went on to cast doubt on Lim’s credibility.

“There’s no proof that there were electronic gadgets, smart television sets, airconditioning units, internet, cellular phones. These are all hearsay because Attorney Lim did not see this,” he said.

In an interview with reporters after the hearing, however, Aguirre himself admitted that he allowed some inmates to use air “coolers” or airconditioners for health reasons. (READ: Aguirre: ‘No proof’ of VIP treatment of inmates)

‘Lack of decency, propriety’

Trillanes said Aguirre was unfit to head the justice department as he lacked the “basic decency and propriety” after ordering the BuCor to probe the privileges allegedly granted to inmates in exchange for their testimonies against De Lima.

“To conduct an investigation on the matter despite the fact that he was the one being clearly charged with anomaly shows his lack of basic decency and propriety. Clearly, no fair and objective [investigation] can be expected from said investigation,” the senator said.

Trillanes also questioned Aguirre’s “possible complicity” in the BI bribery scandal. The justice chief denied any involvement in the incident.

“It would be tantamount to a failure of this chamber to perform its primordial task of vetting its candidates for important positions in government if it will not investigate scandalous and serious allegations,” the senator pointed out.

“I can understand the pressure of standing up to a president such as Duterte. But let us stick always to our principles, to what is right,” he said during the hearing, prior to Aguirre’s confirmation.

Trillanes also said that if the justice chief were confirmed despite the issues against him, this could only be due to “pressure from Malacañang.”

In a separate interview, the senator said: “This is not the end of it. We will continue to be vigilant and guard against abuse and misuse of power.” – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com