MANILA, January 6, 2003 (STAR) By Jose Aravilla and Efren Danao  - Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) Secretary Simeon Datumanong found a new twist in his career as a government official when, in a surprise move, he was appointed by President Arroyo to head the Department of Justice (DOJ), replacing Hernando Perez.

"I hope I can do my best and give justice to the justice department," Datumanong said in a radio interview yesterday.

Datumanong, 67, who accepted the appointment despite initial hesitation, received full support from Senate President Franklin Drilon, who told the media he is expecting a trouble-free confirmation for Datumanong in the bicameral Commission on Appointments (CA).

"I will personally support his confirmation. I don’t see any serious impediment to his confirmation," said Drilon, the ex-officio chairman of the CA.

Drilon also reminded everyone that Datumanong was the first member of the Arroyo Cabinet to be confirmed by the CA.

"I feel most honored. I really wanted to stay (as DPWH secretary) to finish implementing what she wants. Since the President is no longer running, the reforms she wants must be in place," Datumanong told The STAR.

But the new DOJ chief is not expected to stay long in the justice department as he has reportedly set his mind on relinquishing his Cabinet post in November, some six months before the May 2004 elections.

"That is why he was initially very reluctant to accept the new appointment. Actually he was just planning to finish his work as DPWH secretary and then prepare to run again for Congress," a DPWH source said.

But sources said another reason Datumanong hesitated in accepting the DOJ leadership was his relatively short stint as a lawyer.

Four years after finishing law and landing 12th in the 1959 Bar exam with an average of 84.4, Datumanong became a provincial board member for the undivided Maguindanao province, where he later served as governor for two consecutive terms.

Before becoming Maguindanao’s second district congressman in 1992, Datumanong was a member of the defunct Interim Batasang Pambansa. In Congress, he became deputy speaker of the House and was re-elected twice. But he was unable to finish the third term with his appointment as DPWH secretary in January 2001 when Mrs. Arroyo came into power.

The Cabinet position was not the first for Datumanong, though. During the Marcos regime, he served as Muslim Affairs regional committee head with a Cabinet rank.

"I was the first Muslim Cabinet secretary, the first DPWH secretary, and the first Muslim DOJ secretary," said Datumanong, now relishing the distinction.

But when news of his new appointment spread yesterday, some DPWH officials thought it was a joke.

"He did not accomplish much as DPWH secretary, " said an unnamed official when asked to explain about his reaction.

Officials at the DPWH were particularly sore at Datumanong for his alleged nepotism in the department with the appointment of many people close or related to him in key positions.

"These are the things you do not see from the outside. He really caused a lot of demoralization in many of us," said one.

But other DPWH insiders think otherwise.

"During his time there were timely completion of roads and he emphasized on the maintenance of roads especially in the Mindanao area," said DPWH assistant secretary Salvador Pleyto.

"He is upright and has an unblemished reputation, he deserves to be DOJ secretary," added his public information chief Beth Pillorin.

But it was during Datumanong’s time that anomalies such as the P182-million vehicle repair scam and the P7 billion road-right-of-way scandal was brought to the public’s attention.

The cash-strapped department was also cut off from its oil supply for non-payment as well as its Philippine Airlines credit line after exhausting its travel budget allotment in just a few months.

"To his credit," defended Pleyto, "it was Secretary Datumanong who ordered the investigation of the vehicle repair scam. He also formed a panel to investigate the alleged P7-billion expropriated lands scam."

"Secretary Datumanong is a good choice. He is more fit for the DOJ than the DPWH," Drilon stressed.

Cebu City Rep. Raul del Mar, a member of the House panel to the CA said that the congressmen in the bicameral body are certain to endorse Datumanong’s confirmation.

The new DOJ chief is of royal Muslim blood born on June 17, 1935 in Sarif Aguak. He has served as the country’s head of delegation to the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and was adviser of the National Secretary Council. He was also reportedly the first Muslim recipient of the Jaycee’s Ten Outstanding Young Men and got the Kagitingan Award for his contributions in the government’s peace and order campaign in Mindanao.

Datumanong is married Sigrid De Guzman, with whom he has four children.

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