Is the social behavior of SC justices a matter of public importance?

By Buddy Gomez

Posted at May 28 2015 02:16 AM | Updated as of May 28 2015 10:16 AM

Why in heavens name would a commercial bank, at a time when it is hemorrhaging from depositors’ run and “suffering from clearing losses,” lend to a corporate borrower, represented and co-signed by an high government official, an amount that is 80 times larger than the borrower’s declared capitalization? And not just once but twice!

No prudent human being would not yell “Scam!” from the get go. And yet it happened. “Elementary!” Conclusions can easily run high. The scheme can only come to an egregious pass because the players involved planned it so. Plausibility bolstering conspiracy theory?

If the ultimate intent of that transaction was not to repay such loan, in the first place, was there a planned collusion? If so, does not this mutual premeditation on the part of the borrower and the lender partake of a highly suspicious under-the-table fee? An ‘acceptance fee,’ perhaps, for past and future accommodations? A smoked over bribe? An imaginative twist in the unceasing recycled schemes of endemic influence peddling-influence buying? Sherlock Holmes would go bonkers!

Over the last weekend, two separate items: Vic Agustin’s May 22 Cocktales’ “Unpaid P40M loan Haunts SC Justice Two Decades Later,” and last Sunday’s Inquirer Business Page item Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas “wants 2 SC justices off bank case,” yet again evoke a lingering nasty thought that more often than not the lure of pelf and lucre overwhelms the moral weaklings that infest the nation’s system of dispensing justice. The litany of alleged instances of graft, in this instance centering upon the judicial branch of government, just seem to be lengthening, an abatement devoutly hankered for not even a glimmer in the horizon. Here comes another.

Why news of this nature does not become a fully blown cause celebre for investigative media and congressional oversight in aid of legislation may be a reflection of a country mindset change that has stealthily crept into a sadly callous and insensitive Philippine society. When has it become a foolish notion to want our gentlemen and ladies who administer justice to be, like Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, ‘beyond reproach? (Beyond suspicion, that is) Who even gives a damn any more? Shouldn't we? Well, I do. Join me then and let us raise some hackles.

The aforementioned reports, rather unprominent and not attracting much attention, concern the Orient Commercial Banking Corporation (Orient Bank) which was ordered shut by the Bangko Sentral in October 1998 following findings that Orient Bank and its President, a Mr. Jose Go, (of Ever-Gotesco commercial fame) had “diverted to fictitious and questionable loans” the P3 billion emergency financial assistance extended by the Bangko Sentral to the already ailing bank.

Might it be possible that the “80 times larger”-than-capitalization loan (X2) was sourced also from the same emergency financial assistance package?

There is at the moment an on-going litigation whereby the Bangko Sentral has an Orient Bank-related P1 billion foreclosure case awaiting judgement in the Supreme Court. Orient Bank documents disclosed by the Bangko Sentral reveal that a future Supreme Court justice, then an undersecretary in the Department of Justice, “borrowed on top of an earlier P20 million another undercollateralized P20 million in November 1997.” And worse yet, the borrowing entity, RJL Resources, (capitalized at only P250,000.00 but able to borrow P 20 Million, 80 times over, twice) reneged on the loan and then sued the Bangko Sentral to stop it from collecting. It also appears that this undersecretary of Justice may have had a lawyer-client relationship with Mr. Go before his government service which began during the Ramos administration. Nonetheless this high government official, reportedly, continued to dispense legal advice to the Orient Bank’s owner. In fact, this was one of the issues raised against him when he was being vetted for a Supreme Court appointment. Obviously, here is a red flag ignored despite being a no-brainer insofar as very material conflict-of-interest examples go.

The associate justice sought by the Banko Sentral to be recused from participating in deliberations over a case he had a past participation in is Presbitero Velasco, Jr., appointed to the Bench by President Gloria M. Arroyo in March 2006. Velasco’s having been earlier shortlisted for a Supreme Court vacancy was mightily protested and questioned by the judiciary watchdog “Bantay Katarungan” (“Sentinels” of Justice, known for principled interventions in national affairs, founded by the illustrious Jovito Salonga and presently headed by legal scholar and Inquirer Publisher Raul C. Pangalangan) with complaints to the Judicial and Bar Council all involving “ethical misconduct.”

In 2012, Justice Velasco was also questioned in a letter of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, signed by its Executive Director Malou Mangahas, as to the veracity of his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth. Evidently, it is known to some responsible quarters that Velasco’s reputation is laden with unwholesome baggage that has been dogging him.

Justice Velasco is the only Supreme Court Justice to have ever filed a libel suit against a journalist. Same journalist, twice. In December 2009, the respected and award-winning investigative journalist Marites Danguilan-Vitug (author of the best-selling ‘Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court,” ) wrote an article featured in the Internet News portal. “SC Justice in Partisan Politics.” Essentially, Ms. Danguilan-Vitug’s story tells of SC Justice Velasco having “allegedly peddled his influence over local officials in Marinduque province to support a son’s bid for a Congressional seat.” Velasco filed suit in March 2010 claiming that he was “maligned.” He again filed a second suit in 2011 based on Ms. Danguilan-Vitug’s book claiming “unverified allegations.” In her book, she cited the previously publicized oppositions to Velasco’s appointment as Court Administrator in 2001, and as SC justice in 2002, 2003 and 2006. Justice Velasco has dropped both suits.

It is interesting to note that the incumbent Supreme Court spokesman, Prof. Theodore Te, when still a law professor at the UP, commented on Velasco’ action against Vitug: “….a sitting justice filing a case against a potential litigant raises a question of fairness….he has a right to seek redress….but…he could have waited or even left the court.” (emphasis mine)

The Revised Penal Code deems an article libelous when it contains “malicious imputations to discredit and dishonor a person.” What if by accepted social mores, such person through known deeds has in fact already discredited and dishonored himself? On the other hand, there is the serious matter of democracy’s inviolable freedom of speech and the public’s right to know matters of public importance. The behavior of an individual occupying an exalted position such as that of a justice of the Supreme Court is of definite public interest. Such behavior whether past or present is undeniably of public importance.

I do not know and have never met Justice Velasco personally. It is nothing personal at all but the controversial circumstances stick out as to invite critical commentary. Unfortunately, exemplifying deficiencies in what otherwise ought to be judicious selections and appointments to the country’s highest magistracy. Like any human being, Justice Velasco is most certainly in possession of socially redeeming good, even many likeable attributes as a father, as husband, as a friend and even as a lawyer. He is a graduate of the UP Law and a Bar exam top-ten placer. Nevertheless, knowing what is now known: his involvement in Orient Bank matters, were it known then to the Judicial and Bar Council as well as to the appointing powers, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her vetting staff, would Velasco be in the Supreme Court today? In the event that material information referencing character was already available and abundantly clear then but was still swept under the rug, our commentary thus becomes yet another indictment of the nation as a serially corrupt society.

Amidst all these, Justice Velasco protests and intones: “This is not merely an attack on me, but an attack on the Supreme Court as an institution.” Is he perhaps calling for succor and issuing a signal to his confreres to circle the wagon? One for all and all for one? Ms. Chief Justice Maria Lourdes P.A. Sereno and the rest of the Bench had better be wary. It appears to me that an associate of yours believes that you are all cut of the same bolt of cloth. That is not fair, to say the least.

As a law school dropout, it is my honor to proffer a concerned suggestion. The associate justice may perhaps consider with deep introspection and an ounce of ‘delicadeza’ that truly honoring the Supreme Court, shielding her from an attack as “an institution,” can be enhanced and achieved if he sought gainful enterprise elsewhere.

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