Gordon grills SC applicant over 'Davao connection', takes jab at Duterte

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 13 2021 09:48 PM | Updated as of Aug 13 2021 11:04 PM

Sen. Richard Gordon during a special Senate session on March 23, 2020. Henzberg Austria, Senate PRIB/File
Sen. Richard Gordon during a special Senate session on March 23, 2020. Henzberg Austria, Senate PRIB/File

Gordon chides SC: Have a ‘strong spine’ to stand up against ‘capricious, arbitrary’ govt

MANILA (UPDATED) — It was supposed to be an interview of an applicant seeking to join the Supreme Court. 

But instead of defending her position on legal issues, Finance undersecretary Antonette Tionko found herself explaining her "Davao connection" and her thoughts about some statements made by President Rodrigo Duterte, as Sen. Richard Gordon took his time taking jabs at Duterte while discussing the independence of the judiciary.

Tionko was interviewed on Wednesday by the Judicial and Bar Council, the body tasked under the Constitution to screen applicants to the Judiciary. The video recording of the interview was only uploaded by the Supreme Court late Thursday.

Gordon sits in the JBC as the representative of the Senate.

Throughout the 45-minute exchange between Gordon and Tionko, the senator repeatedly pressed her about her connection to Duterte and if she can exhibit independence should she become part of the high court.

Tionko was born and raised in Davao where she studied in grade school and high school before completing her college and law degrees at the Ateneo de Manila University.

She admitted during the interview that her parents know the President.

Gordon pointed out Tionko is part of the President’s finance team, serving as the Department of Finance’s revenue operations and corporate affairs groups since September 2016. 

“No, I don’t think that will be a problem with me. I am beholden to no one such that my integrity will be affected. That is like going to the future, I don’t see it happening,” said the former partner at the tax firm SGV & Co - Ernst & Young.

“First of all, never have I experienced, my family, my colleagues, former colleagues and friends asking me favors such that it will affect…that it will go against my morals or impugn on my integrity. It never happened. I think they know better than that...I don’t think I’m gonna change. I’m going to decide based on what I think is right and based on my conscience and knowledge,” she added.

Noting her lack of judicial experience, Gordon asked Tionko point blank: “Are you being appointed because you are close to the President?”

“No,” she promptly responded. “The ones who recommended me basically are Justice Jardeleza and former Chief Justice Art Panganiban.”

Gordon was keen on asking about the Davao connection. He asked another applicant, CA Associate Justice Apolinario Bruselas, Jr., about meritocracy. 

Bruselas, whom the senator said has a satisfactory record, had been nominated 13 times to the high court.

“Do you think there’s something wrong with the system when the Judicial and Bar Council nominates people of known probity and known competence and yet they are bypassed. And suddenly people are being nominated when they are short of wisdom, short of experience, and basically more out of geographical considerations or even fraternal ties, sometimes?” he said, pointing out this was also true in previous administrations.

One of the 11 candidates, Comelec commissioner Antonio Kho, Jr., withdrew his application without citing any reason. He is a fraternity brother of the President at the Lex Talionis fraternity.

GORDON: SC MUST HAVE ‘STRONG SPINE’

Gordon raised the question of the judiciary’s independence in the context of a possible probe by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on the killings in the country in connection with Duterte’s drug war.

“The Supreme Court, I’d like to see and with all due respect to members here, have to provide a strong spine especially to stand up against government that has become very, very capricious, arbitrary,” he said in front of JBC members which included no less than Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo.

“I’m not against the President. I just want to make sure that our country is respected by the whole world. Now the Supreme Court will be caught in a position at some point in time and we want to make sure that they have independent justices of the Supreme Court who will have to stand up and say, ‘Hey, that is an unacceptable mode of conduct and behavior. Even the whole world is now telling us,’” he said.

Gordon said he previously advised Duterte to stop saying the “P” word (a cuss word in Filipino) or talking about the killings, reminding him of what happened to former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, whose regime was marked by human rights abuses like forced disappearances, murder and torture of political opponents that reportedly led to more than 3,000 people killed.

Pinochet was arrested in London, Gordon recalled telling Duterte, whom he considers his “friend.”

GORDON: SOMEBODY TELL THE PRESIDENT HE HAS NO CLOTHES

“Somebody has got to tell the President or the emperor, he is wearing no clothes,” he said, referring to the hesitation of his men to criticize him.

In June this year, Gordon said that the next president should not kill people but in 2016, he was accused of covering up the truth when he took over the Senate probe on extrajudicial killings in the drug war following Senator Leila de Lima’s removal as committee chair.

The Senate justice panel concluded then that Duterte and his men were not behind the alleged extrajudicial killings.

Gordon rejected calls for a second probe in 2017 after the release of an Amnesty International report, calling it “hearsay.”

Gordon’s willingness to openly criticize Duterte came as he admitted mulling a possible run for the presidency next year.

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“This country has been on a march of folly and has gotten worst,” he said during the JBC interview.

“And today, I am quite disappointed with the President and I risk the ire of the President. Certainly I think that it’s important that the people around the President caution him,” he added.

Gordon cited as an example Duterte’s speech criticizing an unnamed Metro Manila mayor for having been photographed in his underwear.

“Last night I was watching it and I was shocked. The other night I was watching it and the President himself says, uses words such as ‘callboy’ and he was looking at, this guy, this mayor was looking at his jockey shorts and he’s looking at his ‘ari’ (genitals). I find that distasteful,” Gordon said.

Gordon also chided Duterte’s possible run for the vice presidency. He previously called it in “poor taste” and “unethical.”

Tionko said there appears to be no prohibition on the President running for VP since what is not allowed is “reelection” to the same post.

Tionko’s entire interview, including with other JBC members, lasted more than 3 hours.

Aside from Tionko, Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang and Court of Appeals associate justices Apolinario Bruselas, Jr. and Ramon Cruz were interviewed.

The other applicants who were no longer requested to appear for an interview are Court of Appeals justices Japar Dimaampao, Ronaldo Martin and Maria Filomena Singh, 

Sandiganbayan Justice Geraldine Faith Econg, and Court Administrator Jose Midas Marquez and his deputy Raul Villanueva.

Kho, who withdrew his application, was no longer interviewed.

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