Aquino alliance rocked by factions, interests (Last of three parts)

(Series by VERA Files; first published in The Manila Times)

Another source also said that President Aquino was reluctant to sign the appointment papers of Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo that was causing complications in foreign relations. Although Romulo took his oath of office first week of July, his appointment was signed only on August 10. As a result, Romulo missed the 43rd meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Hanoi on July 20, since his lack of an official appointment prevented him from signing official international agreements for the Philippines.

Sources also cited the appointment of Education Secretary Armin Luistro, former president of De La Salle University, as another case of utang na loob [debt of gratitude]. The La Salle brothers had offered their Greenhills campus as the venue for the wake former President Corazon Aquino, who died August last year, when the Ateneo de Manila University and Santo Domingo Church were unavailable.

Luistro was appointed despite his lack of expertise in basic education, according to Aquino supporters, in the process shutting out former Education Undersecretary Juan Miguel Luz who had helped craft President Aquino’s education agenda during the campaign.

In many cases, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. admits, the last word on appointments rests with him and the President. The two enjoy a friendship that dates back to when their fathers were Liberal Party members in the 1960s. Ochoa’s father was former mayor of Pulilan, Bulacan.

Classmates Inc.

In 1998, Ochoa became President Aquino’s legal counsel when the latter was elected to the House of Representatives. President Aquino’s first choice was Eulalio “Galland” Diaz 3rd, his classmate at Ateneo, but Diaz was not available.

Ochoa took pre-law studies at the University of Santo Tomas but enrolled at the Ateneo Law School where he had for classmates those who attended Ateneo undergrad with President Aquino, including Diaz and now Sen. Teofisto “TG” Guingona Jr.

Many of President Aquino’s classmates who went to the Ateneo Law School belong to Class of 1985 whose class valedictorian was Edward Serapio, who was once former President Joseph Estrada’s lawyer and was jailed along with him on charges of plunder. Serapio was subsequently acquitted.

In fact, President Aquino has fallen back on his classmates at the Ateneo in his search for appointees, leading critics to dub them as “Kaklase [Classmates] Incorporated.”

Among those who have been named to the Aquino government are Kim Jacinto-Henares, Diaz as administrator of the Land Registration Authority, Rene Almendras as Energy Secretary, Cristino Naguiat as chairman of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp., and Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Jose Amor Amorado.

Other Atenean lawyers in Aquino’s government are Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda, Juan Andres Bautista as chairman of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, Pio Lorenzo Batino as defense undersecretary, Michael Frederick Musngi as deputy executive secretary, and Francis Tolentino as chairman of the Metro Manila Development Authority. A number of them were part of the group called Pinoy Lawyers that served as the legal arm of the Aquino campaign in the elections on May.

Ochoa said he and President Aquino act like they are still members of a barkada and are often the only two officials at Malacañang’s Premier Guesthouse. “Ang lungkot sa Premier Guesthouse. Kami lang dalawa ni Noynoy [It’s lonely at the Premier Guesthouse; it’s just the two of us],” he said.

Barkada-style relationship

The barkada-style relationship prevails to this day and Ochoa said he often forgets he is dealing with the President. During a meeting with World Bank, Ochoa said, he answered Aquino with a “Sige, pare [Okay, dude].”

“Then I corrected myself. ‘Mr. Pre-sident,’” he said.

This relationship and his position as executive secretary, often considered the “little president,” have practically given him a monopoly on the President’s attention. When President Aquino didn’t like the names recommended by the search committee to head the Department of Science and Technology, he turned to Ochoa for help.

“He [Aquino] said he didn’t know anyone on the list. So I offered to consult my brother-in-law,” Ochoa recalled, referring to Mario Montejo, a mechanical engineer.

But Ochoa said that the President instead replied, “Bakit hindi siya [Why not him]?”

Ochoa also said he recommended Enrique Ona as Health secretary after hearing about his work at the National Kidney and Transplant Institute. “I know him only by reputation,” he added.

Critics have slammed Ona’s appointment, especially his promotion of the sale of organs for transplant. “He is for Filipinos to sell their organs. That’s against medical ethics. It’s exploitation of the poor. One donates organ to save another life, not for pay,” said a leading doctor.

Ona and Romulo are said to be among five individuals recommended by the Iglesia Ni Cristo (INC), a two-million-strong church group whose support the LP reportedly courted during the campaign. The INC also recommended the appointments of Environment Secretary Ramon Paje and National Bureau of Investigation chief Magtanggol Gatdula.

Paje, however, was named in an acting capacity to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources portfolio that would reportedly be given to former Rep. Nereus Acosta of Bukidnon, the President’s fellow Liberal Party member, who lost in the senatorial race. Acosta is covered by the one-year appointment ban on losing candidates.

Ochoa acknowledges that “everyone tries to influence” the President in the appointments. In cases when his advisers clash, the executive secretary said he and Aquino end up having the last say.

But he also said, “At the end of the day, it’s P-Noy [President Aquino] who decides. It’s the personal choice of the President. It’s his personal judgment.”

(Read the first part here and the second part here.)

The ProPinoy Project