Senators: Panelo’s letter to BPP not simple referral

Alexis Romero - The Philippine Star
Senators: Panelo�s letter to BPP not simple referral
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo’s letter to BPP executive director Reynaldo Bayang dated Feb. 26 formally asking him to look into the request of Sanchez’s family for executive clemency for the rape-murder convict surfaced on Tuesday at the hearing of the Senate Blue Ribbon committee on the implementation of Republic Act 10592 or the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) law.

MANILA, Philippines — Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo’s argument that he simply referred a letter-request to grant executive clemency to rape and murder convict Antonio Sanchez to the Board of Pardons and Parole (BPP) won’t hold water, senators said yesterday.

Panelo’s letter to BPP executive director Reynaldo Bayang dated Feb. 26 formally asking him to look into the request of Sanchez’s family for executive clemency for the rape-murder convict surfaced on Tuesday at the hearing of the Senate Blue Ribbon committee on the implementation of Republic Act 10592 or the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) law.

“It isn’t a simple referral when you were the lawyer for the convicted felon,” Sen. Francis Pangilinan said, referring to the Palace spokesman’s past role as lawyer for Sanchez in the 1993 Sarmenta-Gomez rape-slay case.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the letter appears to be an innocent referral but contextually, it has the effect of an endorsement as the communication bore the letterhead of Panelo’s office.

“Based on the wording of the letter, it appears as a referral except that number one, it’s in the letterhead of Malacañang, and number two, the circumstance of Secretary Panelo is different – he was former counsel so people will start to think why is he doing that,” Drilon told reporters.

“It’s not an endorsement on the surface but given those factors… prudence should have dictated that he should have refrained from making that letter because it might be misinterpreted,” he said.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson noted that referral letters are not uncommon but Panelo’s admission that he indeed met twice with Sanchez’s wife and daughter at Malacañang early this year could be telling.

“When there’s a letter, normally what is done is it’s referred but subject to existing regulations. That’s pro forma. But to meet with them, means you value the relationship,” Lacson said.

He suggested that reporters just ask Panelo why he was not forthright when he was first asked if he had indeed met members of Sanchez’s family in the past.

Sanchez’s daughter, Maria Antonelvie, wrote Panelo last Feb. 8 regarding the application for clemency that was rejected by the BPP in December 2018.

The BPP, however, in a letter dated March 19, informed Panelo that the rejection of the application was upheld by the board.

Sen. Richard Gordon, chairman of the committee, said he does not see the need to summon Panelo to explain himself before the inquiry.

Gordon said it was clear to him that Panelo “could not say no” to Sanchez’s family, and it appeared there was no attempt to influence the BPP to recommend to President Duterte the granting of executive clemency to Sanchez.

The panel is expected to hold its last hearing today on the controversy.

Meeting twice

In an interview with CNN Philippines, Panelo confirmed he met with the Sanchez family twice but denied any wrongdoing.

Panelo said the meetings took place in his office in the New Executive Building and it zeroed in on Sanchez’s request for executive clemency.

“I referred their letter and that’s the law so we should follow it. We cannot do anything about it,” he said when asked what he told the family of the former mayor.

At a briefing last Tuesday, Panelo said he only met with the Sanchez family once.

“Well, they came to the office and – was it personally received? Ah it was an email and then they came and I told them exactly we will refer the same, as we refer all. We can’t do anything about it,” he said when pressed for more details.

Panelo reiterated yesterday that he did not recommend the grant of clemency to his former client, who was sentenced to seven life terms for rape and murder.

“Otherwise, I would have written a letter (of) recommendation... You look at the dictionary, there is a whale of a difference between ‘referral’ and ‘recommendation,’” he said.

“My conscience is clear,” the presidential spokesman said. “It was 27 years ago, my goodness... I don’t even remember what happened. I have to remember what happened,” he said, referring to his once being a lawyer of Sanchez.

Panelo reiterated that Sanchez’s request for clemency had nothing to do with the GCTA. He also demanded apology from news sites for “unwittingly or erroneously, even maliciously” reporting his referral letter as an endorsement letter.

“These reports are far from the truth and we find the same defamatory in nature,” Panelo said.

“It is for this reason that I will be filing libel cases against the reporters of Inquirer.net and Rappler Inc. should they fail to comply with my demand for a public apology and rectification,” he added.

Panelo reiterated that it has been the standard operating procedure of the Office of the Chief Presidential Legal Counsel (OCPLC) to respond to all letters and refer – not recommend or endorse – them to the appropriate agency.

His gesture of referring the letter was “purely mechanical or routinary,” he stressed.

“The OCPLC has no resources to verify all the factual allegations in each letter request or complaint. There are just three lawyers and six executive and technical assistants in the OCPLC,” the presidential spokesman said. 

“It cannot therefore ascertain if the allegations in each letter request is true. Accordingly, the OCPLC only refers matters to appropriate agencies which have the resources to verify the relevant facts contained in the letters and the mandate to act on them,” he added.

“I did not make any favorable recommendation, I merely referred the letter to the BPP. I did not ask nor wrote Senator (Bong) Go for any recommendation in favor of Mr. Sanchez. Neither did I ask nor wrote the President for a favorable recommendation,” Panelo said.

Panelo claimed he was the one who informed Duterte of the legal basis for the exclusion of Sanchez from being granted the benefits of the GCTA because of his conviction for heinous crimes.

“I have been upfront to our people ever since the Sanchez case has been in the news. I have no reason to fear or fret. Truth is my compass and I know that it will serve me well,” he added.

Panelo noted that Memorandum Circular No. 44 issued by the President mandated all government agencies performing frontline services to respond to all public requests and concerns within 15 days to eliminate red tape.

“The OCPLC thus considers not only as nonfeasance, but also a corrupt practice, the failure to act on a single matter or the inaction on a complaint or request it received. Hence so we respond to all, regardless of who we received the letter from,” he said. 

“Singling out one connotes partiality in public service, a practice frowned upon by the President and ultimately, punishable by the law.”  – With Paolo Romero

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