With 1,700 convicts reportedly prematurely released in the last few years, using the Good Conduct Time Allowance Law, Senate President Tito Sotto III has every reason to believe the “right” of convicts to walk free before they had fully served their time has become a brisk commodity; it has triggered what Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman has called the most “massive jailbreak” in our prison history.

So no one was surprised when President Rodrigo Duterte sacked Nicanor Faeldon as director of the Bureau of Corrections for the number of convicts that were able by this means to free themselves prematurely. He has ordered that they be hunted down, rearrested and brought back to the custody of the law. But a great many jaws fell when DU30 absolved Salvador Panelo from any culpability.

Panelo is the presidential spokesman and Malacañang’s chief legal adviser who is threatening to sue Rappler and Inquirer.net for their reporting on his alleged role in the attempt to free former Calauan, Laguna mayor Antonio Sanchez who is serving seven life terms for the 1993 rape and murder of university student Mary Eileen Sarmenta and the murder of her fellow student and friend Allan Gomez.

Hostile public reaction, especially from the relatives of the victims, barred Sanchez’s proposed release based on his having allegedly earned it, according to the good conduct allowance law. Murderers and rapists are not covered by this law, but according to Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, a former secretary of justice, Sanchez earned 80 days credit for alleged “good behavior” while still on trial, and 276 days each year on the first two years after his conviction in 1995. His reported “good conduct” apparently also included refusing to pay over P12 million in damages to the victims’ families.

Before Panelo was named to the Cabinet, he served as Sanchez’s defense lawyer. He has since admitted “referring” to the Board of Pardons and Parole a Feb. 8, 2019 appeal for clemency from Sanchez’s daughter Marie Antonelvie on behalf of her father. But Panelo insists this was a completely innocent, harmless and disinterested act, without any attempt on his part to exert any personal or official effort to influence the Board. And DU30 has found nothing reprehensible in Panelo’s act and rationalization.

Writing on Feb. 26, 2019 to BPP Director Reynaldo G. Bayang, under the letterhead of Office of the President of the Philippines, Malacañang, Office of the Chief Presidential Legal Counsel, Panelo attached Antonelvie’s letter, and said:

“In line with the President’s commitment for (sic) 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.

“We request that your good office update us for record purposes and for whatever action this office may want to undertake consistent with law and the policy of the President for good government.”

This does not at all smell or look right. Since the letter was addressed to the Board, it could have been sent, and should have been sent directly to the Board, without making any postal stop at the Office of the President of the Philippines, Office of the Chief Presidential Counsel, which is not a postal stop and had absolutely nothing to do with it. If Panelo had no official or personal interest in the case, as he says he doesn’t, he should not have asked Bayang, as he did, to “update (him) for record purposes and for whatever action this office may want to undertake under the premises”—-verbiage which I am unable to  translate into understandable English.

But he asked to be “updated.” It seems another way of saying, “please do something about this request.” No one has to prove that Panelo had an “ulterior motive” in transmitting the Sanchez letter to the Board. No further “smoking gun” is needed. It is enough that he transmitted the letter when he had no business doing it; the Sanchez girl could have done it all by herself. 

I am not here to accuse Panelo or pronounce him guilty of any criminal offense. There is no need for it. Having been a presidential spokesman myself for at least 10 years, Panelo has my sympathies; but I cannot let this pass without saying he has no right to do this. The job of speaking for the president demands that one be above suspicion at all times “like Caesar’s wife,” properly understood. This is not the case here.

Given the various scandals swirling around the Presidency, Panelo simply cannot afford to become an additional burden to DU30. But that’s exactly what he has become—-an additional burden on the presidency. There is very little honor left in the world, and in the name of the very little that is left, Panelo should simply go, and not wait to be given the boot by DU30.