MANILA, January 6, 2003 (STAR) By Marichu Villanueva and Marvin Sy  - President Arroyo has appointed Public Works and Highways Secretary Simeon Datumanong as the new justice secretary and Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) Chairman Bayani Fernando as Datumanong’s replacement.

Datumanong, 67, is the first Muslim to be appointed to the justice department. He replaces Hernando Perez who quit Jan. 2 amid corruption charges.

Datumanong’s appointment was announced only two days before the President’s widely awaited policy speech expected to be delivered during the traditional reception or vin d’honneur for the diplomatic corps.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye refused to speculate on why Mrs. Arroyo chose Datumanong, who was not among those mentioned earlier as possible replacements for Perez.

"We know that the DOJ is a very important and sensitive (portfolio) and it would be to the advantage of the administration to have this position filled up as soon as possible," Bunye said even as he extended Malacañang’s official thanks to Perez for his service.

Fernando issued conflicting statements on the presidential appointment.

"I’m still considering kasi hindi ko alam kung kakayanin ko (because I don’t know if I can handle it)," Fernando said. "Mahirap kung hindi mo kaya ang papasukin mo (It’s hard to go into something you can’t handle.)"

Fernando, 56, stressed he had not yet completed his "commitments" as MMDA chief, particularly his pledge to rid the metropolis of sidewalk vendors and solve its flood problems.

"Wala pa nga akong nagagawa dito sa MMDA (I haven’t even done anything here at the MMDA)," he said even as he expressed doubts he could "straighten out" the DPWH, perceived to be one of the most corrupt agencies in the government.

At the same time, Fernando said he would go where the President sends him and even suggested that Metro Manila’s problems could be easier solved if the DPWH secretary was concurrently the MMDA chairman.

Fernando had earlier asked that supervisory power over the government’s flood control projects in Metro Manila be devolved to the MMDA.

Fernando also said that clearing Metro Manila of street vendors would be among his top priorities at the DPWH and that he is considering whom he would recommend to replace him as MMDA chief.

Officially, however, Fernando said he would announce his acceptance of the position later this week.

Fernando, an engineer who served for three terms as Marikina City mayor, became popular after he turned Marikina City into a model local government unit by cracking down on street vendors and criminality.

He gained national prominence after he was named to the MMDA and immediately launched a campaign to clean up the metropolis and ease traffic by ridding it of sidewalk vendors.

For threatening to douse kerosene on sidewalk vendors’ goods, Fernando gained the monicker "Hitler" for his strictness but he also won wide respect for his insistence on enforcing discipline on Metro Manila’s streets.

For refusing to register tricycles which do not conform with the Clean Air Act, tricyle drivers and operators booed Fernando in a recent gathering at Pasay City but no less than Mrs. Arroyo defended Fernando’s official acts as MMDA chairman.

Shifting political winds?

Meanwhile, the choice of Datumanong as justice secretary came as a big surprise for Palace officials, especially since the screening committee, headed by Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Avelino Cruz, that was created to look for Perez’ replacement was still "vetting" their recomendees.

Among those who were mentioned as possible justice secretary were Vice President Teofisto Guingona, Philippine National Oil Corp. chairman Sergio Apostol, former Senator Wigberto Tañada, former Justice Secretary Silvestre Bello III and retired Supreme Court Justice Jose Melo.

Even Cruz himself was supposedly interested in becoming justice secretary.

Datumanong, who hails from Cotabato, graduated from the University of the Philippines and placed 12th in the 1959 Bar examinations.

He served as governor of Cotabato from 1968 to 1971 and was elected governor of Maguindanao when the province was carved out of Cotabato in 1973. From 1984 to 1986, he served as a member of the defunct Batasang Pambansa.

In 1992, he won the congressional seat of the second district of Maguindanao and served for three consecutive terms, eventually becoming one of the top Mindanao leaders of the ruling Lakas party.

As a congressman, he served as Deputy Speaker for Mindanao and was among the congressmen who voted to impeach disgraced former President Joseph Estrada for corruption.

He was among the first to be appointed to Mrs. Arroyo’s official family when she succeeded to the presidency in January 2001.

As public works secretary, Datumanong put in high gear a much-needed public works program for Mindanao.

He was also named presidential troubleshooter when a corruption scandal involving the construction of the Diosdado Macapagal Boulevard erupted in the Public Estates Authority (PEA).

Datumanong’s appointment was met with approval with no less than Senate President Franklin Drilon, chairman of the congressional Commission on Appointments, assuring him of speedy confirmation. Drilon and Datumanong are both members of the UP Sigma Rho fraternity.

Opposition Sen. Aquilino Pimentel, who also hails from Mindanao, also expressed satisfaction at the appointment of another Mindanao native to the Cabinet.

"I am particularly happy that someone from Mindanao is at the justice department. Let’s give him a chance to work at the justice department," Pimentel said during the Kapihan sa Sulo media forum.

DOJ officials have also expressed satisfaction at the Datumanong’s appointment.

"If he is the one appointed by the President, then he is most welcome in the department," Chief State Prosecutor Jovencito Zuño, one of the top DOJ officials.

Zuño said Justice Undersecretaries Merceditas Gutierrez, Ramon Liwag and Assistant Ricardo Paras III are already expecting to meet the new DOJ chief tomorrow. – With reports from Delon Porcalla, Romel Bagares

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