MANILA - A 2012 recommendation letter from pork barrel scam accused Senator Juan Ponce Enrile forced the President not to fill up a vacancy in the Sandiganbayan within the 90-day time period required by the 1987 Constitution.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte on Friday justified why President Benigno Aquino III did not pick from the shortlist submitted by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) and instead asked the JBC to vet all the nominees for the court that will handle Enrile's case.
She said it has come to their attention that one of the nominees was endorsed by Enrile, one of the three senators charged before the Sandiganbayan.
"Sa parte naman ng Pangulo, nag-doble ingat lang din considering na iyong posisyon na ito, isa siya doon sa mga posibleng humawak doon sa mga PDAF cases. Because having that information come to light, kumbaga kung ito pala merong ganito, what about the others? So gusto lang siguraduhin na the same would be applied to the others. Kasi ilan iyong akusado doon sa mga kaso natin? So gustong makita kung meron pang mga ganyan na lalabas," she said.
"That someone is applying for a position in the very court that will try the person who made the recommendation in his favor... The discovery of that particular endorsement only triggered further questions such that how many accused stand to be tried for the PDAF-related cases, who the respondents are, as well as were there any other endorsements made in favor of all the others that are part of the shortlist," she added.
Valte showed a letter from Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa to Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who also leads the JBC, dated June 19.
In his letter, Ochoa explained why the shortlist has been returned to the JBC. "This office believes it appropriate that the JBC be afforded the opportunity to revisit its shortlist, given the current circumstances."
"The President needs to know if the JBC is still nominating the particular nominee in question. As well this office also asks the JBC to supply more information as regards the other nominees, on their past and present affiliations and relations if any with the senators and legislators that have been charged before the Sandiganbayan and the Office of the Ombudsman."
"As with every prospective appointment by the president, this office conducts its own review and evaluation of the qualifications and fitness of each nominee contained in the shortlist, taking into account a number of matters including, but not limited to, the ranking and supporting documents provided by the JBC."
Enrile's recommendation letter was attached to Ochoa's letter which was then released to media.
"The vetting process has become more rigorous to ensure that the nominee to be appointed by the president will not only be of impeccable probity and competence, but also free of conflict of interest. The nominee to be appointed has to be like Caesar's wife, completely above suspicion," Ochoa said.
Enrile recommended Judge Rernelito R. Fernandez in June 5, 2012 for an earlier vacancy in the anti-graft court.
In that recommendation, Enrile pointed out Fernandez's track record.
"From my understanding, that was for a previous vacancy... Kasi po iyong mga ganyan, hindi naman sinu-submit sa amin. It's really just the list plus the PDS, iyong mga personal data sheet," Valte said.
In a statement on Thursday, Jose Emmanuel David M. Eva III, Assistant Secretary of the Office of the Executive Secretary, explained why Aquino returned the JBC shortlist.
"Our objective is to find the right people for the most vital and sensitive positions in the Judiciary. In light of information we received during our vetting process, we have requested the JBC to further review and evaluate the candidates for the vacancy in the Sandiganbayan."
The vacant post is due to the appointment of Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang as the Presiding Justice of the anti-graft court on Oct. 1, 2013.
The shortlist for the Sandiganbayan vacant post is composed of the following:
Department of Justice (DOJ) Chief State Counsel Ricardo Paras III,
Justice Undersecretary Leah Armamento,
Makati Regional Trial Court (RTC) Judge Maryann Corpus-Manalac,
Quezon City RTC Judge Bernelito Fernandez,
Antipolo RTC Judge Ronaldo Martin,
Makati RTC Judge Andres Soriano,
Manila RTC Judge Ma. Theresa Dolores Gomez-Estoesta, and
Assistant Solicitor General Marissa Macaraig Guillen.
Earlier today, the JBC insisted on the shortlist. The JBC, through Sereno, told Palace nowhere in its mandate does it state that JBC is authorized to revisit its list once completed.
Though the SC did not authorize the release of Malacañang's letter to the JBC, it is clear that Palace returned the list to the JBC and Aquino did not choose anyone from the list to appoint to the vacant Sandiganbayan post.
It is also clear, based on the JBC's response to the Palace's letter, that it (JBC) is insisting on its constitutional mandate and authority as the appropriate body to screen candidates to posts in the judiciary.
The Palace wrote the JBC and returned the shortlist to the JBC a day after news broke that Aquino failed to make the Sandiganbayan appointment within 90 days from the submission of the list which is mandated by the 1987 Constitution.
The list was transmitted by the JBC to Malacañang last February 28.
"You know we feel that because of the extraordinary circumstances that are attendant in this particular case, we recognize the urgency. And that's why we wanted also further assistance from the JBC. You know again given the extraordinary circumstances at hand, the President recognizes the urgency to fill the position," Valte said.
"We did not return the list so they could give us new nominees or to add or to take away anyone. In fact, if I may be allowed to read part of it, 'While this office continues its own vetting process, it requests the JBC for its further assistance.' So that shows you that the President had some concerns about a particular piece of information that was made known to us in the form of an endorsement letter. It's an endorsement letter that is dated June 5, 2012."
Valte indicated this is not the first time the Aquino administration asked for more information on names in the shortlist.
She said Aquino intends to make an appointment soon.
"It's not for a review with the end of taking out or adding to the list. It's really merely to vet that particular piece of information and its relation and the possible existence of other connections to other people that are on that shortlist."
For now, Valte said Fernandez remains in the shortlist.