MANILA, January 3, 2003 (STAR)  By Marichu Villanueva and Delon Porcalla  - President Arroyo accepted yesterday the irrevocable resignation of embattled Justice Secretary-on leave Hernando Perez, ending weeks of speculation about his fate as a Cabinet member.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye told The STAR that Perez himself submitted his three-page undated resignation letter to the President at MalacaŮang, which took effect immediately.

"Recent turn of events has unfairly subjected this administration and myself to undue stress which may put in danger all the gains this government has achieved. And this I will not allow," Perez wrote. "For this reason, I am hereby tendering my resignation effective immediately despite the fact that the charges hurled against me are false and baseless."

Bunye said Mrs. Arroyo, who flew back to Manila after spending the New Year holiday at the presidential mansion in Baguio City, received Perezís letter of resignation at about 5:30 p.m. She gave Bunye a copy of the letter for distribution to reporters.

There was still no word on who would replace Perez.

Bunye said the Department of Justice (DOJ) would be run by Undersecretary Merceditas Gutierrez as acting secretary until a replacement for Perez has been found.

Mrs. Arroyo had earlier met with Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr., triggering speculation that the justice portfolio was being offered to him. Both the President and Guingona refused to comment on the issue.

Sources said among the others being considered as replacements for Perez are former Quezon City judge Sergio Apostol who now chairs the Energy Development Corp. of the Philippine National Oil Co., former justice secretary Silvestre Bello III, former Supreme Court Justice Jose Melo and former senator Wigberto TaŮada.

A Palace official said the new DOJ chief would be announced within the next few days by a search committee headed by Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Avelino Cruz.

Rumors are rife that Cruz also has his eyes on the DOJ portfolio, but he has repeatedly denied this.

Manila Rep. Mark Jimenezís lawyer Ed Escueta said the resignation of Perez did not exculpate him from the plunder charges filed by the congressman.

Escueta also said the resignation was a victory for Jimenez, who is in jail in Miami, Florida, and "is but a first step toward justice for the Jimenez family."

Jimenez had accused Perez of extorting $2 million from him in exchange for the justice department to go slow on his extradition to the United States.

"A battle has been won, but the war is far from over," Escueta added.

Mrs. Arroyo granted last Dec. 28 a request by Perez to extend his month-long leave of absence for 30 days to prepare his defense against corruption charges lodged against him by Jimenez.

Perez hit back at Jimenez by filing multimillion-peso civil cases against the lawmaker, and criminal cases against Bulacan Rep. Wilfrido Villarama who delivered a privileged speech assailing Perez on the alleged $2-million extortion mess.

Perez initially asked to go on leave to seek medical attention for his bleeding ulcers, but a subsequent check- up at the hospital showed he was also suffering from gallstones.

In his letter, Perez said, "Time and again, I have said I would not stay a day longer than necessary in this office. Gladly, I will leave if it means easing the mind of the President and serving our country better. Gladly, I will leave if it means showing an example of how a true professional and honest public servant remains loyal to his principal, the Filipino nation, till the very end."

Perez recalled that when he took over as justice secretary in January 2001, he envisioned a DOJ that is "trustworthy, professional, reliable and respected by the Filipino people."

He narrated DOJ accomplishments under his watch, including the filing of corruption charges against deposed President Joseph Estrada, former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao governor Nur Misuari, certain senators, some drug dealers, kidnappers and other suspected criminals.

He also cited the extradition of Jimenez, his principal accuser. "In the process, I was threatened with assassination, sued and maligned," Perez said.

"But no matter what the consequences may be, I was not cowed and neither did I waver. I did my job and upheld the rule of law," he stressed.

Perez also expressed satisfaction that the criminal prosecution of Estrada before the Sandiganbayan being spearheaded by the DOJ has been 90 percent complete.

"I would have been happier if prosecutors, state counsels and DOJ staff employees presently enjoy the benefits that should rightly be theirs, thus raise their morale to an all-time high," he said, but regretted that the pertinent bill was still pending in Congress. GMA vows to resist pressure groups

Earlier in the day, the President flatly rejected a demand by Pastor "Boy" Saycon, leader of the Council on Philippine Affairs (COPA) for the ouster of Perez, saying no pressure groups could coax her to make rash decisions.

Mrs. Arroyo gave assurances, however, that she would not be indifferent to the popular sentiment, and would base her decisions on the common good of the greater number of people.

"Iím listening, but Iím not going to cede to their (COPAís) demand," Mrs. Arroyo said.

Saycon has dared the President to show her sincerity in attaining good governance by booting out Perez who was charged with extortion by Jimenez shortly before the lawmaker was extradited to stand trial in the United States.

Saycon raised the point after Mrs. Arroyo formally announced her decision to abandon plans to seek a second term in next yearís elections and focus on turning around the economy and create of more jobs.

The leader of COPA asked Mrs. Arroyo to fire Perez to convince the people about her sincerity in weeding out graft and corruption in her administration.

COPA was one of the so-called "civil society" groups that figured prominently in the January 2001 popular revolt at EDSA which toppled the Estrada administration, and installed then Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as his successor.

The President said earlier that she would allow the graft cases lodged by Jimenez against Perez before the Office of the Ombudsman to take their due course.

In a 30-minute interview in the television show "On-line" last Wednesday, Mrs. Arroyo scoffed at the reported clamor by COPA for the head of Perez, saying she has to make the "hard decision" to show her determination to make good as President for the remaining 18 months of her administration since she has dropped her plans to run in 2004.

"Even if I am in the running, I wonít pay attention to them (COPA). Would I pay attention to any single vested (interest) group now that I am not running (in next yearís polls)?" she said.

"I am accountable to the Filipino people as a whole. I am accountable to God and (to) my conscience. I would do the right thing by my conscience and not by anybodyís demand," the President stressed.

Pressed for her final decision about the fate of Perez who was her chief political mentor and ally, she replied; "Just watch me ... just watch."

"I donít know if you will call it hard decision or not. The hardness is in the mind of the one who is judging them. I donít have the compulsion to be dramatic because Iím not a candidate," Mrs. Arroyo said.

She was visibly irked when asked if a Cabinet revamp would be part of the hard decisions she has to make.

"I have always said that Iím not going to do anything for drama, and I have always been saying that. Changes in the Cabinet happen. You analyze what work needs to be done and you look for the best person to do it," she explained.

She cited as example the case of former National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) director-general Dante Canlas "who did a great job for macro-economic growth" during her 23-month-old administration.

"But the need of the time is the micro-economic structure of that growth to translate to more jobs," she pointed out.

It was the reason why Canlas has to be replaced by Romulo Neri, erstwhile head of the Congressional Budget Planning Office, who was designated as NEDA chief last Dec. 13.

"Thatís why I have to go micro and therefore, Romy Neri is the man to do that job."

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