Letter on Antonio Sanchez’s impending release: Could Panelo avoid criticism?

September 4, 2019 - 6:13 PM
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Salvador Panelo
Salvador Panelo, President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesperson and legal counsel.
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There could be a way for presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo not to get entangled in the mess that was the botched release of rape and murder convict Antonio Sanchez, who was among his former clients.

At a legislative hearing yesterday, the Board of Pardons and Parole bared a letter from Panelo referring the request of the family of Sanchez for executive clemency for the former Calauan, Laguna mayor. Sanchez was convicted for the rape-slay of Eileen Sarmenta and murder of Allan Gomez in 1993.

When the matter reached the news, an irked Panelo announced he would libel complaints against two media outlets—Rappler and Inquirer.net—whom he accused of penning a malicious report to discredit and tarnish his name.

Given his history of being a legal counsel to Sanchez and his family, Panelo could have dismissed or ignored the request for clemency to avoid a potential perception of conflict of interest.

Some Filipinos expressed this view, arguing that the letterhead of the Chief Presidential Legal Counsel carried some weight.

“Delicadeza dictates that. And his letter of referral carries weight as it contains the letterhead of his office. He used to be the father’s lawyer while his case was under trial in the 1990s,” one user said on Twitter.

Panelo could also be liable of violating the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act and the Code of Professional Conduct for lawyers, according to political commentator Tonyo Cruz.

One of the acts considered as a corrupt practice on Section 3 of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act is

“…persuading/inducing/influencing another public officer to perform an act constituting a violation of rules and regulations duly promulgated by competent authority or an offense in connection with the official duties of the latter.”

Meanwhile, Rule 15.06 of the Code of Professional Responsibility states that:

“A lawyer shall not state or imply that he is able to influence any public official, tribunal or legislative body.”

Referral or recommendation?

What could be working on Panelo’s side is that the letter did not explicitly recommend that Sanchez be processed for executive clemency.

Panelo wrote to Reynaldo Bayang, executive director of the pardons board: “In line with the President’s commitment for good governance, transparency and immediate action on matters that affect the welfare of the people, we are referring this matter to your good office for your evaluation and whatever appropriate action you may want to undertake under the premises.”

There were suggestions, meanwhile, that the matter is acted on with promptness.

Salvador Panelo letter
Screenshot by Interaksyon

 

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, however, denounced Panelo’s threat of a libel suit against the two online news agencies.

“Panelo is showing the Filipino people that this country’s criminal libel and cyber libel laws are, more often than not, used as weapons wielded by the powerful to exact revenge and to punish than a legal remedy for justice,” the NUJP said.

[Statement] On Panelo’s ‘honor’4 September 2019Presidential legal counsel and spokesperson Salvador Panelo again…

Posted by National Union of Journalists of the Philippines on Tuesday, September 3, 2019

From letter to libel charges

Sanchez’ daughter Marie Antonelvie submitted the plea for pardon to three officials, namely, President Rodrigo Duterte, his former aide now Senator Christopher “Bong” Go and Panelo.

Panelo then referred this to the Board of Pardon and Parole through another letter to the agency’s executive director Bayang. This referral was dated Feb. 26, 2019.

Sanchez also personally sent a petition to the pardoning body but it was denied in December last year.

The president’s mouthpiece insisted that the referral process was part of his office’s standard operating procedure.

“The document speaks for itself. The application was referred to the Board of Pardons and Parole. We have nothing to do with it,” Panelo said.

Last August, Panelo denied twice that he had a hand in the decision to grant freedom to the suspect. Sanchez was almost released earlier this month in compliance to a document bearing the signature of Bureau of Corrections director Nicanor Faeldon.

What followed was public outrage over the impending release, prompting inquiries into the law allowing early release for heinous crime convicts over their supposed good conduct.