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Estelito Mendoza denies fighting on wrong side of RP history

October 11, 2010 5:33pm
He has gained the reputation of defending high-profile clients unpopular in Philippine society.

However, after more than 50 years in the Philippine bar, the 80-year-old Estelito Mendoza brushed aside perceptions he has been defending on the wrong side of Philippine history.

For him, everything is just an exercise of the practice of law and making sure that his clients are deemed innocent until proven guilty.

On Monday afternoon, Mendoza gamely answers questions about his clients, the most recent of whom is former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, accused of plundering government coffers during her nine-year regime.

Mendoza also recalls arguing for the government of former President Ferdinand Marcos as solicitor general and justice minister.

When the dictator fell from grace and went in exile in February 1986, the dictator's perceived cronies sought Mendoza's service.

These clients -- business tycoons Lucio Tan and Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco Jr. -- were never convicted in court and have not spent a single minute in jail.

"I'm a lawyer. I don't choose what cases I have. Those in the wrong side are most deserving of having lawyers," Mendoza says.

"I'm just doing my job and that's what I have been trained for I have been at this for many years. I find great satisfaction performing my duty because I contribute to the administration of justice. I can assure you that I win my cases because I work hard," says Mendoza.

Marcos years

A native of Pampanga, Estelito Mendoza was born in 1930. He earned his Bachelor of Laws degree at the University of the Philippines, where he also taught law when he was only 24. He also gained his Master of Laws degree at the Harvard University in the United States.

In his teaching career, two of his students, Hilario Davide Jr. and Reynato Puno, later became Supreme Court chief justices.

In 1972, the year Marcos declared martial law that choked the country's democracy by clamping down on political dissenters and muzzling the press, Mendoza served as solicitor general.

In 1980, he was governor of Pampanga. In 1984, he served as minister of justice and a member of the Batasang Pambansa.

Mendoza shared that in his 53 years as a lawyer, the hardest case he handled was the Javellana vs. Executive Secretary case that virtually paved the way for Marcos' one-man rule. The Supreme Court at that time held that the ratification of the 1973 Constitution was valid.

Even if he had won the case as the solicitor general, Mendoza admitted he had a hard time being up against the "most prestigious members of the Bar" -- Lorenzo Tañada, Jose W. Diokno, Joker Arroyo, and Jovito Salonga, who were then deemed as opposition stalwarts against the Marcos regime.

Mendoza held government posts until 1986, when Marcos was forced to step down as president at the height of a massive street protest which has gone down in Philippine history as the People Power Revolution.

Newly-installed President Corazon Aquino formed the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) to go after the alleged ill-gotten wealth of Marcos and his cronies.

Mendoza then represented Marcos, his wife Imelda Marcos, and their families' alleged close allies.

"After 1986, I became jobless, so I lost my job. I decided to practice law, the only occupation I knew. I practiced by myself because others were apprehensive that my practice will not endure because of the bias against all Marcoses. [I thought] I might probably win a case and will have no clients," said Mendoza.

"Fortunately, it turned otherwise. President Aquino, in creating a PCGG, provided ready clients for me. All those being sued by the government became my clients, like Lucio Tan and Danding Cojuangco, who even up to now are my clients in their businesses," the octogenarian lawyer added.

Marcos died while in exile in Hawaii in 1989, leaving Imelda to fend of the sword of justice by herself.

According to records of the Philippine anti-graft court Sandiganbayan as of 2005, Mrs. Marcos continues to face 11 criminal charges and 25 civil cases. Since the 1990s, she has faced more than 900 cases, most of which were dismissed for lack of evidence. The few convictions were overturned.

Tan, for his part, was acquitted of a P27-billion tax evasion case in 2006.

To date, neither the Marcoses nor any of their cronies accused of amassing ill-gotten wealth have spent a minute in jail.

The government has had little success in recovering the Marcos wealth, if only those that are ensconced in a range of corporations and properties.

Mendoza says that Marcos is the "smartest" Philippine president.

Erap trial

Mendoza later returned to prominence when he represented deposed President Joseph Estrada after he was forced to bow out of office in January 2001.

Anti-Estrada sentiments culminated in another People Power Revolution in EDSA, forcing Estrada to bow out of office on January 20 that year. His vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, succeeded him.

After falling from grace, Estrada faced a plunder trial at the Sandiganbayan, with Mendoza as the head of the defense panel.

The Sandiganbayan convicted Estrada of plunder in September 2007 but Arroyo pardoned the deposed leader a month later.

Mendoza now says he is helping Estrada by dispensing legal advice in a $120-million suit lodged against him in the United States.

The Dacers are seeking a $20 million compensatory damage and $100 million punitive damages for the death of their father in November 2000.

Estrada allegedly ordered Dacer's killing but the former president has since denied this.

Wielding influence

Mendoza's latest client is Arroyo, who is facing a plunder complaint at the Department of Justice (DOJ) over the sale of the old Iloilo airport in 2007.

The complainant, private citizen Danilo Lihaylihay accused Arroyo and other former government officials of anomaly because P72-million in taxes did not go to the government.

Last week, Arroyo appeared before the DOJ preliminary probe. It was her first-ever appearance at a government inquiry looking into alleged wrongdoings during her nine-year presidency. Mendoza said he wanted the complaint junked for lack of basis.

The lawyer is also handling a controversial case involving the cityhood of 16 towns. Mendoza represents the sixteen towns seeking to be declared as cities.

In November 2008, the court said the creation of the cities were unconstitutional. In December 2009, the court reversed itself and ruled in favor of the 16 towns.

It was revealed that in January that year, Mendoza wrote a letter to the court asking for the participation of justices who were absent when the high tribunal promulgated its November 2008 decision.

A legal luminary who declined to be named described Mendoza's act as a form of wielding influence over the court.

"In the League of Cities case, his letter to the justices proved to be decisive," he said.

Unfortunately for Mendoza, the court reversed itself once again, this time ruling that the creation of the 16 cities was unconstitutional.

At present, Mendoza is still asking the court to hold oral arguments for the case.

The legal luminary said that while Mendoza may have lost his case, his career in the legal profession will be marked by pulling strings through well-established connections.

"He is known to be well-connected, dating from way back when he was solicitor general and justice minister during Marcos' time. He has kept and maintained good connections with many lawyers who became Supreme Court justices. He has been known to be best at back-channel work i.e. behind the scenes, " said the legal expert.

However, Mendoza says there is nothing wrong with courts ruling in his clients' favor and with the way he bagged the acquittal of prominent personalities like Lucio Tan. Mendoza adds that only history can tell whether he indeed fought on the wrong side.

"Let history decide. History is not made in 10 years, it is made in generations," said the veteran lawyer. –VVP, GMANews.TV
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