The return of Rudy Fariñas

Glenda M. Gloria
'They've seen the worst of me, now is the time to see the best of me,' says the once-troubled Rudy Fariñas

(This profile was first published in Newsbreak in March 2011, at the height of the impeachment proceedings against then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez. We are reprinting it now to give our readers a glimpse of the man behind “Palusot.”)

MANILA, Philippines—Who would have thought he could bounce back? Not too long ago, Rodolfo Castro Fariñas lost everything in succession—his father, his older brother, his seat in Congress, his wife, and some say even his sanity.

To listen to him talk about the law as if he had not been accused of breaking it and to see him now on national TV prosecuting a woman that’s not his wife—these are all images that cynics could not help but doubt. Is he photoshopped or for real?

The 59-year-old Fariñas walked into the interview in his office at the Batasan Pambansa with his usual coterie nowadays, his nice-looking young kids who are at their dad’s beck and call. They’re inseparable. The two girls in their 20s work for him in Congress. His two teenaged boys still sleep in one bed with him.

Fariñas has 8 children (aged 14 to 29)—two with a longtime girlfriend in the 1980s and six with his wife, the late Maria Teresa Carlson, who committed suicide by jumping from an apartment floor in 2001.

From out of the blue, the Ilocos Norte congressman is back on the national stage, this time not to defend himself from stories of domestic abuse but to fight for Congress’s power to impeach. He has done so lucidly, combining legal jargon with catchy TV soundbites that have earned him a seat as one of the lead prosecutors in the impeachment trial of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez.

Too, he has threatened to impeach some Supreme Court (SC) justices, those tyrants, as he described them.

As vice chair of the House committee on justice that shepherded the impeachment of Gutierrez, Fariñas is considered by some reporters covering the beat as the “brains” behind the panel. “He is seen as the real chair of the committee,” said one beat reporter.

The man is fighting President Aquino’s two political wars—on Gutierrez and Mrs. Arroyo’s SC appointees—and he’s not even an ally. (A member of the Nacionalista Party, he campaigned for Sen. Manuel Villar in the last elections).

What gives?

“Life is all about second chances,” he told Newsbreak.

Erap and the other side

In 2000, Fariñas as a congressman was with the other side of the debate. He vigorously opposed the way the House leadership handled the impeachment of former President Joseph Estrada.

At the time, the majority skipped plenary voting. Then Speaker Manuel Villar merely read a resolution signed by a number of lawmakers that met the basic constitutional requirements. Fariñas said that the absence of actual plenary voting violated the Charter. He prepared to question the move before the Supreme Court.

Since the justices themselves were impeachable officials, he said, he was confident they would side with him on what he believed was a legally flawed process. Fariñas hesitated at this point on whether to complete the story.

It deserves to be told, we assured him.

Estrada’s allies in the House stopped him from going to the SC, Fariñas recalled. He said he was called to a meeting at Rembrandt Hotel, where he was discouraged from lodging the petition despite his passionate defense of it.

Estrada’s allies told him they had the numbers in the Senate anyway and there was no point in prolonging the agony. “I told them this is legally defensible, we can stop the trial. Otherwise, baka ma people power kayo niyan.”

Last year, when he got involved in the impeachment proceedings against the Ombudsman as vice chair of the House committee on justice, Fariñas said he gave this piece of advice to colleagues: no shortcuts, let’s play by the rules.

That he knows his law is without doubt, although he never aspired to become a lawyer.

Problem child

As a college student at the Ateneo, Fariñas lived the life of a spoiled brat, a scion of a rich family that owned a fleet of buses to and from Ilocos Norte. The dashing young man drove flashy cars, dated numerous girls, and partied like there was no tomorrow.

When he graduated in 1971, he figured he could just work in the family business. For one, he was having fun with soldier-friends who were well-placed in the Marcos military; martial law was about to be declared then.

His disciplinarian father had stern orders though: take up law. So he did.

Fariñas spent 7 long years at the Ateneo law school, staying in 3rd year for three years. And it’s all because of a law dean named Fr. Joaquin Bernas. “He gave me a hard time. He wanted me to move to San Beda. He told me, you’re making a mockery of our standards here.”

The school indeed had a problem child. Fariñas cut classes beyond what was allowed, but they could not kick him out because he was topping his exams. The distraction came mainly from the hottest girl in town then, bold actress Vivian Velez, his girlfriend.

To please his classmates and distract his professors, he even brought the busty Velez to class. That’s an affair he could probably not live down soon. A google search of Rudy Fariñas is flooded with sites about the alleged sensational “Betamax tape” of him and Velez in bed.

Nonetheless, Fariñas finished law in 1978. He was one of only two Ateneo law graduates that year who made it to the top 10 in the bar exams, landing on no. 8 with a grade of 89.99.

Thus began the spoiled boy’s swift rise to power.

In 1980 at age 28, he became Laoag City’s youngest mayor. He served for six years before becoming governor for 10 years and congressman for one term (1998-2001).

He had it all too soon, too fast, he said.

There was an equally bright Ilocano lawyer who passed this way before and became president, Ferdinand Marcos. Fariñas relished the thought of repeating history. He ran for the Senate in 1987, calculating that he could use this to jumpstart a presidential bid. But he lost.

In between were women, booze, guns, stories of drug addiction and mauling aides.

When he was governor, Fariñas was jailed briefly for illegal detention charges filed against him by former aides. This dark episode culminated in an ugly and televised domestic squabble, where his wife Maria accused him of torturing her.

That’s why women’s groups don’t trust Fariñas to this day. It was Maria’s story, after all, that inspired Task Force Maria, an advocacy network that facilitated the passage in 2004 of Republic Act 9262, or the Anti-Violence Against Women and Children Act.

Fariñas said it was a troubled relationship to begin with and again sought to deny he abused her.

‘Pulled down to earth’

The year that Carlson died, 2001, was also the year he lost his congressional seat to Roquito Ablan. He was in Laoag when Carlson jumped from her apartment in Greenhills, San Juan. Their youngest child, now 14, was just 4 years old then. “I was pulled down to earth,” Fariñas recalled.

The single parent spent the following years driving the children to school in Laoag, doing the grocery with them, attending their schools’ parent-teacher meetings, bringing them abroad on vacations. He retreated from the outside world. Laoag residents remember that phase of Farinas’s life.

“He lost everything, and his aura gradually changed. He was no longer overbearing,” said veteran local journalist Juliet Pascual.

Didn’t he seek counseling, therapy? “No,” he said. “I just prayed the Rosary every day with my children. On long road trips, we pray together. I go to Mass every day. I have only my children now. I don’t even date. I can tell you I am celibate!”

In 2007, he ran for governor against someone he thought was not even a true-blue Ilocano, Michael Keon, a cousin of the Marcoses. Fariñas lost, a defeat that made many think he was gone for good.

But in 2010, it was the Marcoses’ turn to fight Keon, aligning themselves with the Fariñas clan. And so now he’s back.

And how.

In 2010, he was one of 43 solons who had a perfect attendance in Congress.

Last November, he proposed as a House rule random drug tests on all members of the House, an irony that was not lost on those familiar with his past.

He called his new world a result of “fate and faith.”

A lot of people would probably need more convincing. But Fariñas said: “They’ve seen the worst of me, now is the time to see the best of me.” –  published in March 2011, Newsbreak

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Glenda M. Gloria

Glenda Gloria co-founded Rappler in July 2011 and is currently its executive editor.