IF President Rodrigo Duterte is contemplating reorganizing his Cabinet as a fresh start for the new year, the first on the chopping block should be Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre.
I have nothing personal against Aguirre, nor am I disturbed over how his hair looks on television. I have never seen him in person so I cannot say; it might be that he is just not telegenic.
But when we have a justice secretary who covers his nose when he smells bribery, yet believes that a bank deposit slip dated on a Good Friday is credible evidence, then we have a serious problem.
A few days ago, Aguirre disclosed to the media that retired Chief Superintendent Wally Sombero and Macau-based gaming tycoon Jack Lam attempted to bribe him by offering him to be Lam’s “godfather” for his casino operations in the country.
But while he smelled bribery on the incident, he refused to pursue any legal action against Sombero and Lam, saying there was no overt act of bribery.
Impliedly, he was saying that a bribery case against Sombero and Lam would not stand legal scrutiny.
But has Aguirre forgotten that Article 212 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC) penalizes corruption of public officials? Well, technically he is right. Sombero and Lam may not be sued for bribery per se, but what about corruption of public officials?
According to retired Supreme Court Justice Florenz Regalado in his book Criminal Law Conspectus, corruption of public officials “is in effect the obverse side of a bribery transaction” that is “actually a crime different from bribery.”
Bribery exists when a public officer accepts the bribe. There may be attempted or frustrated bribery if the bribe offer is rejected. But still the crime is punishable as corruption of a public official.
Aguirre said Sombero and Lam did not mention any amount of money or gift in exchange for the offer to make him “godfather” of Lam’s casino business.
In my limited knowledge of the law, a bribe offer does not have to be in pesos or dollars. It may involve seeking undue influence or personal favors from a public official which may be paid back later with anything of value.
Besides, why did Aguirre have to cry bribery offer when he did not think it was bribery?
The problem with Aguirre is that he opens his mouth too much and too often but covers his nose when it is needed to be wide open.
Sombero, who served as a resource person at the Department of Justice (DOJ) on small town lottery (STL) issues, supposedly brokered the meeting to discuss custodial arrangements for at least 1,200 Chinese workers arrested on Nov. 24 for illegally working at Lam’s Fontana Leisure Parks and Casino in Clark, Pampanga.
From the same meeting on Nov. 26 at a posh hotel at the Bonifacio Global City, Aguirre clarified that Lam was not the employer of the arrested Chinese workers because online gaming operators who supposedly brought them in only lease a portion of the hotel.
Even then, he said Fontana should be investigated for possible violations of its franchise to operate, for allowing illegal online gambling operations in its property. Lam seemingly knows too well that he is in trouble. That is why he needs a padrino.
The justice secretary, who has had long experience in legal practice, should be reminded about the definition of bribery and corruption, which is a centerpiece of the Duterte administration’s reform policy.
The dictionary defines bribery as “the offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting of something of value for the purpose of influencing the action of an official in the discharge of his or her public or legal duties.” It is clear: a mere offer already constitutes a criminal offense.
The offer to be a “godfather” of Lam in his casino business was intended to influence his behavior in office, and to incline him to act contrary to his duty and the known rules of honesty and integrity.
Wasn’t it disturbing also that Sombero, who made the offer, is an asset of the DOJ in its probe on illegal online gambling operations in the country? Doesn’t he smell a “bantay-salakay” kind of “consultancy” there?
No written agreement or amount of money is necessary to prove the crime of bribery. As Aguirre said there was an attempt to bribe. The intention alone to bribe is already a crime.
Bribery attempts are often very subtle and are preceded by attempts to do small favors for, or give gifts to, an official or employee. Bribery, consummated or not, is a violation of the law. It becomes worse when there is solicitation or acceptance of a bribe, which is a more serious breach of the public trust.
But then, as I said earlier, the justice secretary would rather cover his nose to avoid smelling it. It is not enough that he turned his back on the bribe. My naughty friends might even think that he could be expecting that an amount would be mentioned.
He noted that Andrea Domingo, chairman of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor), was offered a one-percent commission from the income of online gaming operations which could run to about P100 million.
Aguirre said he ignored the offer because he could not be bribed. Okay then, but he is the secretary of justice and a bribery attempt was made right under his nose!
Aguirre bolsters the perception of eroding public trust and belief in the judiciary. He is not at all lending credibility to the Duterte administration’s avowed policy against corruption. President Duterte should let him go if he is serious about his anti-corruption campaign.