Estrada: Why was I convicted?

Joseph Ejercito Estrada is a phenomenon. A school dropout (with no college diploma to prop him up), celebrated actor and charismatic politician, he was elected and served as town mayor (1967-1986), senator (1987-1992), vice president (1992-1998), president (1998-2001), and now mayor of Manila (2013-2016).

Ousted and convicted. Though elected overwhelmingly, his presidency was abbreviated by an aborted Senate impeachment trial, which led to the Edsa II People Power Revolution and, eventually, to his controversial fall on Jan. 20, 2001. On March 2, 2001, the Supreme Court, voting 13-0, upheld his ouster from the top post. (Why? Well, that question deserves another full column.)

Thereafter, he was charged with and convicted of plunder on Sept. 12, 2007, but was pardoned on Oct. 25, 2007, by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The next day, Oct. 26, he walked free.

He ran for president in 2010, placed second to Benigno Aquino III, but bested early favorite Manuel Villar and six others. Undaunted by his only defeat in his long political career, he ran and won as Manila’s mayor last May 13.

I have had a nodding, so-so acquaintance with him since he was a senator. But I formally met and conversed with him only on Dec. 3, 2007, two months after he was released from detention and a year after I retired from the judiciary. This was during the 75th birthday party at Hotel InterContinental Manila of former Rep. Albertito Lopez, a valued client when I was still practicing law prior to my Supreme Court stint.

Affable encounter. I felt rather awkward encountering him at that point when he was just released from detention. As a retired chief justice, I had personified the judiciary that sentenced him to reclusion  perpetua. But he did not seem to mind our surprise encounter. In fact, he was cordial, polite and deferential.

Seated opposite me across the rectangular head table, he broke the ice by asking me how retired Chief Justice Andres R. Narvasa was. I replied that after his wife, Jany, passed away, Narvasa had been inaccessible and depressed. To which he quipped, “Yan  ang  mahirap  sa  iisa  ang  minamahal  at  iisa  ang  nagmamahal.  Di  tulad  ko,  marami  ang  minamahal  at  marami  rin  ang  nagmamahal,  kaya  hindi  ako  nalulungkot  kahit  ex-convict.”

Embarrassed at the quip made in the presence of his wife seated beside him, I apologized, “Pasensiya  na  po  kayo,  Doctora  Loi,  nagbibiro  lang  po  si  Presidente.” To which she gamely retorted, “Walang  problema,  sanay  na  ako  diyan.” That exchange set an affable tone for the rest of the evening.

At his request, we met a few times thereafter. He posited pointed questions from which I got an insight into his mindset and why he exemplifies and speaks for the  masa.

One of the most memorable questions he asked was, “Chief Justice, why was I convicted of plunder and sentenced to a life in jail when I was charged merely with receiving (1) the broker’s commissions in the sale of listed shares owned by the Social Security System, and (2)  jueteng  money? Assuming this is true, how can I be guilty of any crime when I did not steal public funds?  Wala  po  akong  ninakaw  na  pera  ng  bayan.”

I replied that the 262-page decision of the Sandiganbayan completely answered his question. It eloquently spoke for itself. I could not add or subtract anything more. In any event, if he disagreed with the verdict, he should have appealed to the Supreme Court. By accepting the pardon, he was deemed to have also accepted the judgment and the imposed penalty.

People’s verdict. He explained in his best Tagalog that his trial took more than six years while he was in detention. Had he appealed, he would have had to suffer many more years of detention without any assurance of victory. On the other hand, by accepting the pardon, he became free to seek the people’s verdict by running again for public office. He preferred a direct redemption by the people.

In his populist mind, all government officials are ultimately judged by the people, not by the courts. Once elected to public office, he would have been exonerated by the people, the real sovereigns of our democracy. This explains his eagerness to run for president in 2010 and for mayor in 2013. even if already, the poll victory of his wife Loi and their son Jinggoy as senators, and of JV, his son by Guia Gomez, as congressman and later also as senator, are proofs of his popular vindication.

Be that as it may, I think Estrada cannot completely ignore the judgments of our courts and of history. Had he won the presidency in 2010, the Supreme Court would have decided his disqualification case, instead of dismissing it for having become moot after his defeat. But now, with his victory as mayor, he can no longer avoid the scrutiny of the Supreme Court (see my column last Sunday). Indeed, the rule of law and democracy are intertwined and inseparable.

We discussed many other interesting topics, which provided me a window to see why, despite his ouster from the presidency, his plunder conviction, and his open marital peccadilloes, he continues to be the darling of the  masang  Pilipino.

I do not necessarily agree with his unorthodox views but I respect his folksy way of articulating them. Freedom is not only for the ideas we adore but also for those we may abhor.

At 76, he thinks his “last hurrah” as Manila mayor will vindicate him in history and will presage his passage from villain to hero in the eyes of both themasa  and the  intelligencia. This, I will await and see.

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