Guevarra: DOJ should be 'cornerstone' of PH justice system

MANILA, Philippines – New Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra will report for duty this week, as soon as Vitaliano Aguirre II winds up his work and leaves the Department of Justice (DOJ) after a year and 9 months at the helm.

Guevarra said his focus for now will be illegal drugs and terrorism but his ultimate goal is to turn the DOJ into a "cornerstone" of the country's justice system.

“[My vision for the DOJ] is an agency that will truly be a cornerstone, not just a pillar, of our justice system,” Guevarra told Rappler on Tuesday, April 10.

Guevarra takes over a justice department still reeling from back-to-back controversies under his predecessor, Vitaliano Aguirre II. Before Aguirre resigned, he was under fire for a DOJ panel's dismissal of drug trade charges against alleged Visayan drug lords Peter Lim and Kerwin Espinosa.

Following public outrage, and after President Rodrigo Duterte himself indirectly threatened to replace him, Aguirre scrapped the dismissal, and assembled a new prosecution panel to conduct a fresh investigation into the case.

Guevarra said he would talk to the panel members as soon as he assumes his new post.

Napoles case

Weeks before his resignation, Aguirre brokered a deal between the government and alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles by putting her under state protection in exchange for a new affidavit that would target allies of the Aquino administration.

What Guevarra would do differently in the Napoles case is he would bring back the Ombudsman's special prosecutors in the case. Under Aguirre, the DOJ would conduct a reinvestigation of the pork barrel scam without the participation of the Office of the Ombudsman, even though the law states that the DOJ would have to later transmit its findings to the Ombudsman.

“I will let the prosecutors handling her (Napoles') cases deal with her – that’s the Office of the Special Prosecutor (OSP) – then we can consult with each other,” Guevarra said.

The OSP is the prosecutorial arm of the Office of the Ombudsman, headed by Chief Special Prosecutor Edilberto Sandoval. 

As for Napoles’ state protection, Guevarra said he would have to review this first. (READ: Stephen David using Palace connections for Napoles?)

“I’ll have to review what actually happened, I can’t say for now. Prosecution belongs to OSP, and the Witness Protection Program (WPP) belongs to the DOJ. Coordination is very much advisable,” Guevarra said.

Staff changes

Guevarra said his first course of action would be to reorganize the Office of the Secretary, as Aguirre’s staff would be co-terminus with him.

“I will replace those who are co-terminus with Secretary Aguirre unless there’s a need to retain some of them. I want good people whom I’ve worked with in the past to help me,” Guevarra said.

The undersecretaries and assistant secretaries who Aguirre brought into the DOJ – most of them fellow graduates of San Bedan College – are presidential appointees, and can stay unless they resign or the President replaces them.

Undersecretary Erickson Balmes, who handles media for Aguirre, said none of them has resigned as of yet.

Guevarra admits being media-shy, but he said he was considering holding organized press briefings similar to the news conferences in Malacañang, where he was invited as a resource person for a few times when he was Senior Deputy Executive Secretary. Guevarra was the right hand man of Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea in the Palace.

Aguirre used to be like his predecessor, Leila de Lima, when it came to dealing with the media – he would accommodate chance interviews inside the DOJ, and hold regular press conferences. Such events became rare after the political opposition branded him as a "king of fake news" following his false allegations against some opposition lawmakers.

Farewell speech

FAREWELL SPEECH. Vitaliano Aguirre II addresses officials and employees of the Department of Justice in his last flag-raising ceremony at the DOJ on April 10, 2018. Photo courtesy of the DOJ

FAREWELL SPEECH. Vitaliano Aguirre II addresses officials and employees of the Department of Justice in his last flag-raising ceremony at the DOJ on April 10, 2018.

Photo courtesy of the DOJ

Aguirre led his last flag ceremony at the DOJ on Tuesday.

Though there were speculations that Duterte wanted to fire him, in the end, the President announced that it was Aguirre who quit

“I sincerely thank our beloved President, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, for the trust and the confidence he reposed on me as his first Secretary of Justice and for his support in allowing us to achieve what we have done,” Aguirre said on Tuesday.

“Lagi ko pong sinasabi sa lahat na the DOJ is worth improving because there are still a lot of good persons there who deserve the improvements we are working on. Nawa po ay hindi ko kayo nabigo sa aspetong ito," he added.

(I always say that the DOJ is worth improving because there are still a lot of good persons there who deserve the improvements we are working on. I hope I didn’t let you down in this aspect.)

Aguirre went on to enumerate his achievements in the DOJ, mainly the expansion of the agency and benefits for the staff.

“I am not sad that it has ended, rather I am thankful that it happened….Moving forward, I humbly ask everyone to welcome with the same degree of enthusiasm and cooperation, more if need be, the team of incoming Secretary Menardo Guevarra,” he said. – Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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