Of Jojo Binay’s friendships and dreams gone bad

MANILA, Philippines – When the law partners of Jejomar Binay, then Makati mayor, joined him in setting up Agrifortuna in 1992, the company revolved around a 5-hectare piggery in Rosario, Batangas. Ruben Balane and Nestor Alampay Jr, who were among the incorporators, dreamed of it as a retirement cushion. Binay was then partner-on-leave of the Balane Tamase Alampay law office.

“It was a personal investment,” said Alampay, looking back, “and the expectation was that we would eventually be co-owners of Agrifortuna. Then we would not rely on the law office for income. It was something to look forward to.” (We requested an interview with Balane but he declined.)

They were young, some years out of the University of the Philippines law school, and the prospect of a safety net in their retirement years drew them to this business venture in Barrio Maligaya. Alampay remembered occasional visits to the piggery, a simple farm with basic amenities.

About 20 years later, this retirement dream would disappear. The firm split, with Balane joining as of-counsel Abigail Binay’s law firm – Subido Pagente Certeza Mendoza and Binay – and Alampay and Tamase staying put.

Alampay, focused on growing the firm, did not see the farm expand to its present size. All he has are memories of the early days of the promising piggery.

Balane and Binay: Friends forever

It all began in the late 1980s when the firm was founded, anchored on friendships. Balane, a leading expert on civil law and “revered” professor – as some of his students would describe him – and Binay were (and remain to be) close friends. They were classmates at UP and had forged a bond which lasted through the years. To some, this seems baffling considering the spotless reputation of Balane, his simple lifestyle and aversion to off-kilter deals.

Alampay and Emmanuel Tamase were students of Balane. Among the UP law professors, Balane was among the more approachable ones. He joined his students after class hours in drinking sessions, building friendships.

Balane attracted the like-minded, infusing the firm with a sense of merit. Alampay carried the sterling reputation of his father, former Supreme Court Justice Nestor Alampay, one of those re-appointed by President Corazon Aquino after the first People Power revolution in 1986.  He was known as an upright jurist.

Tamase, who specializes in litigation, is one of those lawyers who refuses to grease the system. If clients insisted on doing shortcuts, he did not want to be part of it and know about it.

It was a small and quiet law office (a maximum of 16 lawyers at its peak), with Balane bringing in bright, young graduates to the firm, Alampay serving as rainmaker, and Tamase acting as the deft litigator. Binay held fort in Makati City Hall and visited the law office in Salcedo Village at least once a week.

At times, he joined the executive committee meetings but he had no say on how the firm was run or on the strategic direction it was going to take. Among the associates, he appeared to have no impact.

The arrangement between the partners was very informal, something borne out of years of friendship. Alampay and Tamase were hard pressed to answer our question on Binay’s investments in the firm.

What happened was: they handled Binay’s cases and those of others in Makati City Hall, and the mayor would pay friendly rates. There was no retainer, no major capital infusion. No one complained. It seemed that, among friends, money was of no moment.

They were unlike other law firms wherein politician-partners were expected to bring in clients, such as ACCRA (with Senators Edgardo Angara and Franklin Drilon). Binay did not add new names to their list of clients.

Still, the law office bought an entire floor (12th) in the PDCP Center on Alfaro street. It was a bold move at the time, made possible by loans. To this day, the firm still holds office there, with 5 lawyers. But half of the floor is now leased out.

What is striking as one enters is the shiny narra floor, giving the office an old-home and elegant feel. The atmosphere, however, is austere. In its early years, Pacita Abad paintings, apparently chosen by the interior designer, hung on the walls, those who visited the office said.  

The firm remained unaffected despite its prize connection to City Hall. While the mayor was a partner, the law office did not capitalize on this. Tamase pointed out that they did not facilitate setting up of businesses in Makati. Balane “may have shielded us from hanky-panky,” Alampay and Tamase said, as they did not have major financial transactions with City Hall.

The firm did not give policy advice to Binay or whisper appointments to him. A line marked the boundaries of the firm from City Hall, save for referrals of cases that involved City Hall employees.

Falling out

Throughout the 20 years of their partnership with Binay, the firm handled around 200 cases of Makati City Hall, including election cases. In terms of time, the firm spent less than 50% on these cases – but they were given priority. During elections, associates were mobilized as poll-watchers. These were the only times the entire firm was involved with Binay.

In the Sandiganbayan, Tamase argued Binay’s graft cases and kept the mayor out of prison – with help from Binay’s aides who lobbied for their boss. (READ: Payoffs, weak prosecution got Binay off the hook)

Things started to go awry in the years leading to the 2010 elections when Binay was preparing for his vice-presidential bid. He endorsed Ernesto Mercado to Alampay and Tamase, telling them to engage his vice-mayor as client. After all, Mercado was going to take over as mayor, they were told.

When Binay dropped Mercado after an internal wrangling, the lawyers were “caught in the crossfire.” At the time, the firm was already appearing for Mercado.

On another level, relations started to sour when Gerry Limlingan, Binay’s trusted financial manager, entered the picture. Tamase bristled when he recalled how Limlingan asked for monthly financial statements “to protect Binay’s investments.” The firm said no.

In the end, the partners were left with no choice but to break up. It was a painful decision.

The years, however, have diminished the rancor. Recently, at a reunion of the UP College of Law, Balane and Tamase caught up with each other, the mood warm and convivial. With Binay, Alampay and Tamase maintain civil relations.

The dreams may have gone bad but the partners continue their practice. Balane still teaches, the academe being his big passion. This is what appears to occupy most of his time, as the Subido law office provides him space and time. As for Alampay and Tamase, they carry on, with Binay hovering in their firm’s history. – Rappler.com