The making of a scandal: Comelec chair Andy vs Patricia Bautista
MANILA, Philippines – Commission on Elections (Comelec) chief Andres "Andy" Bautista was smiling when he emerged from a private meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte and his estranged wife Patricia in Malacañang the night of August 1.
Martin Loon, one of his wife’s lawyers waiting outside the room, raised his hand to him in greeting. “He smiled at me when he walked out. With teeth,” Loon told Rappler in an interview on August 11.
Weeks earlier, in July, negotiations for the Bautista couple to have an amicable separation and division of properties collapsed. Patricia made true her long-running threat to bring evidence of her husband's supposed unexplained wealth to Duterte after he failed to give her a satisfactory settlement.
There was a first meeting between Duterte and Patricia on July 26, when she told the President about a Balikbayan box full of bank books, investments, and other financial documents that she said her husband did not declare and are thus presumed suspicious, if not ill-gotten.
How did Duterte react? He arranged the next meeting on August 1 between Patricia and the Comelec chief – an appointee of his predecessor President Benigno Aquino III – to fix his quarrel with his wife.
"The President was very kind. He was not only a mediator, but a marriage counselor. He recounted his own experiences with his family and that he was providing us good advice," said the Comelec chief in a press conference on August 7.
What happened next? The camp of the Comelec chair reached out to resume negotiations and had been in touch “until the last minute” on August 4, when Patricia gave an explosive media interview to confirm what had already been tabloid gossip about her husband’s alleged wealth.
But Patricia had apparently already filed an affidavit against her husband before the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), even before they all went to Malacañang on August 1. And Andy Bautista had no idea.
"May specific recommendation si Pangulo. Sana matapos na ito. Kawawa ang mga bata. At ako, okay na ako eh. Kaya nga ako medyo nabigla kasi biglaan na lang lumabas na naman itong affidavit," said Bautista. (The President had a specific recommendation. He hoped we could end the quarrel. The children will suffer. I was okay with it. That's why I was surprised when the affidavit suddenly came out.)
The marital dispute that the Comelec chief tried to keep under wraps for months turned into a political circus. He maintained there's nothing illegal about his wealth and accused his wife of extortion and having an affair.
What ultimately prompted Patricia to go public on August 4 is not clear. She gets advice from a lot of people, said Loon, who claimed his job was to serve as "messenger" between the couple. (READ: Who's who in Andy vs Tish saga?)
The stakes are high when one party to a marital dispute is the Comelec chief, more so because he's not an ally of the incumbent president.
Patricia's affidavit lays down the ground work for an impeachment complaint. "He is liable to be impeached should there exist valid and sufficient grounds to hold him in trial for an impeachable offense under Section 2, Article XI of the 1987 Philippine Constitution," says the document.
The legal strategy is eerily reminiscent of the 2012 trial of the late Renato Corona, former chief justice who was targeted for ousting by Aquino allies in Congress.
Corona was convicted for failing to declare his dollar deposits in his Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN), a document filed annually by government officials to declare their wealth. Corona said then that the dollar deposits were commingled funds of his family – the same defense the poll chief is now citing. The senator-judges found the excuse unacceptable.
Patricia Bautista going to Malacañang also brings to mind Janet Napoles, the alleged pork barrel scam mastermind who was brought to the Palace in 2013 because she supposedly feared for her life. Investigation into Napoles led to the downfall of members of the political opposition back then, and Patricia could do the same to her husband. (READ: How Napoles ended up in Malacañang)
The objective to oust the Comelec chief is clear. But like Corona and the senators, the poll chief may have given his enemies the ammunition to remove him. (LIST: Bank accounts, properties the Comelec chief must explain)
The political firestorm is also fueled by the links of Patricia's lawyer Loon to defeated vice presidential candidate and former Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. His election protest seeking to oust Vice President Leni Robredo could benefit from the controversy casting doubts on the results of the 2016 elections.
Loon was once a youth organizer for the Nacionalista Party (NP), the political party of Marcos. They all worked closely when Marcos and Loon's stepfather, retired Marine Colonel Ariel Querubin, both ran in the 2010 senatorial elections.
Loon vehemently denied Marcos' hand in the exposé, noting he also has good relations with Robredo. He said it's the poll chief’s ploy to get allies from the vice president's camp to support him.
"No politician can control us (family) and tell us what to do. Principles and friendships are separate matters and our friends respect that," said Loon.
Angry Bird, a tabloid gossip
Patricia found her husband’s bank books and financial documents in November 2016 while her husband was in the US to observe the elections. She collected and stored them in a Balikbayan box.
As the couple negotiated an amicable separation, Patricia asked for P620 million as share in the properties. It's half of the supposed more than P1-billion wealth under the name of the Comelec chief, based on their computation.
Her legal counsel then was Lorna Kapunan of the Kapunan Garcia & Castillo Law Offices, coincidentally the lawyer of Napoles in the alleged pork barrel scam. In the course of negotiations, the amount was brought down to P260 million.
In May 2017, Patricia terminated the services of Kapunan’s law firm apparently because she and the Comelec chief couldn't see eye to eye. (READ: Lawyer Lorna Kapunan says Chairman Bautista 'scared' of her)
Around this time, a salacious tabloid column about an anonymous government official whose estranged wife found evidence of ill-gotten wealth had been circulating in legal and political circles. It was an open secret that the official, dubbed "Angry Bird," was the Comelec chief.
‘Exploited by uncharitable people’
A month later, in June, the young lawyers of Aquende Yebra Aniag Loon & Associates took over as Patricia’s legal counsel. It was the job of Loon to talk to the Comelec chief while his partners worked on the other matters.
Loon read the “Angry Bird” column. Patricia herself told him about the box that contained documents pertaining to properties that her husband did not report in his SALN. But he said he didn't look at the box, refusing to have the “moral burden to report it” if the rumors turned out to be true.
Loon tried to put up a Chinese wall between the marital dispute and a potential criminal case against the Comelec chief. "As far as I was concerned, when she engaged us it was just the marriage settlement and marriage dispute. The box was there but I didn’t want to go there,” Loon said.
But the Balikbayan box loomed over the marital dispute. Loon immediately set a meeting with the Comelec chief, telling him it’s urgent because it may be “exploited by uncharitable people.”
The poll chief replied: “It’s already being exploited, Martin."
Loon and the Comelec chief are not strangers. Loon said the poll chief and his father are friends.
They met on June 13 at Santiago’s restaurat in Quezon City. Loon said he talked to Andy Bautista about "quietly fixing [his] property settlement dispute with [his] wife."
P620-million ‘speeding ticket’?
Amid Patricia's threats that she would set a meeting with Duterte, Loon set a second meeting. He warned the Comelec chief that she might already "involve other people" if he fails to agree to her terms.
While arranging the meeting, Loon sent a text message saying: "You and your children still have a bright future ahead Sir. That proposed settlement is just a speeding ticket, and everyone will get a second chance to drive on the freeway again."
The poll chief replied: "Correct me if I'm wrong Martin but the speeding ticket you have been referring to is at least P620 million – a world record for a ticket. I don't have that money."
When they met on June 19, Loon said they discussed a P260-million settlement, where he said P90 million would go to Patricia and the rest would go to their children's trust fund.
Loon said it was also during this meeting that the Comelec chief brought out a "term sheet," that required Patricia and her lawyers to return or permanently destroy copies of the documents.
The Comelec chief also wanted Patricia to execute an agreement that would require her counsel to:
Represent and warrant that the counsel has read and conducted an extensive due diligence on the above documents and the emails and have found nothing suspicious, illegal, contrary to law in respect of the transactions contained therein or anything else that may give rise to a cause of action, claim for damages or any form of criminal, civil, or administrative liability.
Loon said he couldn't advise his client to accept the terms.
"My client does not have to agree to those conditions to get what was rightfully hers. Because under the law it is hers,” said Loon.
The 3rd meeting on June 30 was tense. The camp of the Comelec chief had received a draft copy of an impeachment complaint – containing the bank account numbers.
Loon said he knew nothing about the draft impeachment complaint.
'Senior lawyers' involved
Talks collapsed after the 4th meeting on July 12. The two camps couldn't agree on a settlement.
Loon said it was only after the 4th meeting that he tore down the Chinese wall and finally examined the contents of Patricia's box. He saw that it contained matters of national interest that should be reported.
The Comelec chief has a lot to explain to clear his name from allegations of ill-gotten wealth. But the saga of the Bautista couple is not just about the Comelec chief and Patricia.
In high-stakes politics, the pesonalities behind the scenes and their motivations are just as important. And there are a lot of missing pieces.
After he saw the contents of the box, Loon said he consulted "senior lawyers" about what to do. He refused to name who they are. He also refused to name who arranged the subsequent meeting between the President and Patricia.
At the second meeting in Malacañang, Duterte proposed how the Bautista couple could come to a settlement. After the Comelec chief left, Duterte and a crying Patricia spoke alone for a few minutes. Duterte gave her a handkerchief and then spoke to her lawyers.
Three days later, Patricia spoke to the media. – Rappler.com