Lawyers in the RCBC scandal: High-profile, controversial

Jodesz Gavilan
Lawyers in the RCBC scandal: High-profile, controversial
The legal counsels of personalities in the biggest money-laundering scandal to hit the Philippine banking industry have a string of controversial cases under their belt

MANILA, Philippines – Every personality involved in the probe into the $81-million Bangladesh bank heist has one, two, or more lawyers working on the frontlines or behind the scenes.

You’ve probably seen them on national television or the livestream of the public hearings of the Senate blue ribbon committee – whispering or coaching their clients as senators grill them. To date, the committee has held 5 sessions and there’s another one scheduled for the coming week. (READ: Network: Who’s who in the RCBC money-laundering scam)

But who are these lawyers or legal counsels representing the key personalities linked to the biggest money-laundering scandal to ever hit the banking industry in the Philippines? Here’s what we found. 

HELP. Lawyer Ferdinand Topacio and Maia Deguito during the Senate blue ribbon committee hearing. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

Ferdinand S. Topacio
Lawyer of Maia Santos-Deguito

The former RCBC Jupiter branch manager Maia Santos-Deguito’s legal counsel is no stranger to controversial cases.

Lawyer Ferdinand S. Topacio’s roster of clients includes celebrities and politicians like Claudine Barretto and former Palawan Governor Joel Reyes, among others.

A self-confessed “amateur historian” who thinks Adolf Hitler is “one of the most misunderstood historical figures“, Topacio also lawyered for Andal Ampatuan Sr who is the principal accused in a case involving the biggest election-related violence in the country – the 2009 Maguindanao massacre.

However, Topacio’s most notable clients are the Arroyos: former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her husband Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo. Topacio has represented the former first couple in a string of cases filed by the government including graft and plunder charges.

In 2011, he even said he was willing to cut off his balls if the former First Gentleman refused return to the Philippines after seeking treatment abroad. This statement of his trended on social media with the hashtag, “#ItlogNiTopacio”.

His involvement with Deguito, meanwhile, triggered rumors that she was a “kapatid”. The lawyer, a member of Iglesia ni Cristo, denies this. (READ: RCBC’s Maia Deguito: Who said she’s Iglesia?)

TAG TEAM. RCBC legal and regulatory affairs head Maria Celia F. Estavillo listens as CEO and president Lorenzo V. Tan speaks during a Senate hearing. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

Ma. Celia F. Estavillo
Lawyer of Rizal Commericial Banking Corporation

Ma. Celia Fernandez-Estavillo, who represents the embattled bank during Senate hearings, is RCBC’s Head of Legal & Regulatory Affairs.

She was a 1997 bar topnotcher and had served as chief of the Presidential Management Staff under the administration of former president Joseph Estrada. Prior to her stint in Malacañang, Estavillo worked at the Department of Agriculture with then agriculture secretary Edgardo Angara who, according to several reports, regarded her as his protégé.

According to her profile online, the UP Law alumna also served as assistant vice president of ABS-CBN’s Global Business Development from 2002 to 2005.

Aside from heading the bank’s legal department, Estavillo also currently sits on the RCBC Board of Directors as corporate secretary.

BEHIND. Kristoffer James Purisima (center back) and Victor C. Fernandez (top right) lawyer for casino junket operator Kim Wong (front center). Photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

Kristoffer James Purisima
Lawyer of Kim Wong

Admitted to the bar in 2006, Kristoffer James Purisima is young compared to the other lawyers. But his youth does not equate to inexperience as he’s already handled controversial cases in the past.

Purisima serves as legal counsel to former Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Alan Purisima – his distant relative – for administrative and criminal complaints in relation to an alleged anomalous delivery service contract with a private company in 2011.

He also lawyered for citizens’ group Bloggers and Netizens for Democracy (BAND), one of the petitioners behind the 120-day temporary restraining order from the Supreme Court against the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

He is part of the same law office as Ferrer and heads the firm’s litigation and dispute resolution department. 

Victor C. Fernandez
Lawyer of Kim Wong

Another lawyer of Wong is no stranger to the government.

Victor C. Fernandez served as Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon from 2003 to 2010.

Prior to his stint as deputy ombudsman, he also worked under the Commission on Bar Discipline of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) as director and commissioner from 1999 to 2003.

Fernandez was also a legal consultant in the World Bank-Supreme Court Project on reviewing the criminal justice system in the country.

TURNOVER. (L-R)  Lawyers Victor Fernandez (second from right), and Inocencio Ferrer Jr (rightmost) turn over P38.28 million of stolen funds to AMLC. Photo from BSP

Inocencio Ferrer Jr
Lawyer of Kim Wong

Just like Topacio, Inocencio P. Ferrrer Jr was also a legal counsel of former First Gentleman Arroyo in a plunder case where he was alleged to be involved in the anomalous procurement of two helicopters in 2009.

The seasoned lawyer, who was part of Carpio Villaraza & Cruz law office before resigning in early 2000s, also served as finance undersecretary handling the domestic finance group during the Arroyo administration. 

His term, however, was marred with allegations of corruption. In 2004, he was linked to a P2.5-billion tax credit scam involving 17 former employees and officials of the Department of Finance where it was alleged that he tried to extort money. Ferrer, however, denied the accusations but later quit from his post.

He is now part of Soriano, Ferrer, Purisima & Partners Law Offices (SFPLAW) and is one of the legal counsels of casino junket operator Kam Sin “Kim” Wong.

SUPPORT. Lawyer Ramon Esguerra (in the back, wearing a suit) sits behind businessman William So Go during a Senate hearing on the Bangladesh bank heist. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

Ramon S. Esguerra
Lawyer of William Go

William Go’s lawyer, Ramon Esguerra of the Esguerra & Blanco Law Office, has many years of government service under his belt.

He held positions in several government bodies such as the Board of Pardons and Parole, Presidential Human Rights Committee, Dangerous Drugs Board, and Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board.

From 1992 to 1995, he served as undersecretary in the Department of Justice (DOJ). He was in charge of the National Prosecution Service, National Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of Immigration, and Witness Protection, and Security and Benefit Program, among others.

Esguerra’s roster of clients include former Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor) chief Efraim Genuino who was charged with plunder and graft.

In 2012, he was one of the defense lawyers of dismissed Supreme Court (SC) Chief Justice Renato Corona. (READ: Corona’s defenders: Life goes on)

He is currently part of Esguerra & Blanco Law Office, is a law professor, and national director for Integrity & Bar Discipline of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP). 

READY. PhilRem president Salud Bautista sits with her lawyer, Howard Calleja. Photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

Howard Calleja
Lawyer of PhilRem Service Corporation

Howard Calleja, a litigation and law professor, is the lawyer of Philrem Service Corporation (PhilRem).

His most notable client is Zaldy Ampatuan, one of the primary suspects behind the Maguindanao massacre in 2009. In a 2011 interview with ANC, he said he believes the former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is “innocent”.

The Ateneo Law professor also represented a group of doctors who filed a petition before the SC against the controversial Reproductive Health (RH) Law in 2013.

In 2012, he accused a member of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) of threatening to arrest him and his driver in a restaurant parking lot. Malacañang, however, said it was just a misunderstanding.

Calleja, whose expertise includes international and election laws, also serves as the national legal counsel for the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV). –

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.