MANILA, SEPTEMBER 27, 2011 (STAR) STARWEEK - By Edu Punay (Photo- Justice Secretary Leila De Lima conquers the challenges – and paperwork – that come with one of the most difficult and complicated government posts. Photos by Jonjon Vicencio)

Secretary Leila De Lima enters the conference room at the department of Justice (DOJ), and faces the media to announce her decision to place on the immigration watchlist former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her husband over a string of plunder charges.

With her chin up, she doesn’t mind facing legal and other challenges as she goes head-to-head with the former leader, who – perhaps ironically – had appointed her to head the Commission on Human Rights in 2008. De Lima is generally perceived as the tough and steely secretary, the member of the Cabinet with “balls,” feisty and independent, daring detractors and wrongdoers to bring it on.

But the secretary admits to STARweek that she isn’t really all that tough, and spends some nights crying over nasty rumors and what she calls “foul hits” against her. To say that she never gets hurt would be a dishonesty, she says.

“I’m a human being after all. I cry only in the privacy of my room. I hardly show it to people because as much as possible I want to keep a brave front. I really project a strong image. But as a private person I’m very much like any ordinary woman,” she confesses.

But even her critics will agree that De Lima is hardly ordinary. The Justice portfolio is one of the most difficult and complicated, what with the country’s notoriously slow and convoluted system of justice. If she didn’t know it then – which is unlikely – De Lima found out all too quickly how challenging the position would be.

[PHOTO - The Justice secretary has received numerous citations for her work.]

Her first year in office would be most identified with the investigation into the infamous hostage-taking incident on Aug. 23 last year in Luneta Park that ended with eight Hong Kong tourists and the hostage taker, a disgruntled dismissed policeman, dead.

She chaired the Incident Investigation and Review Committee (IIRC), which found 12 officials liable – including the mayor, the police chief and other members of the police hierarchy, as well as an assortment of government officials and even media personalities and organizations. But when the scathing report was submitted to Malacańang, the Palace did not adopt in full the 83-page report of the panel.

Upon review by the President’s legal team, the sanctions were significantly watered down. That drew strong public outcry, and almost led to her resignation. But she decided to stay on, realizing that “difference in opinion” with the President should not be too big a deal for Cabinet secretaries.

“As an alter-ego of the President, there are few issues where our opinions differ. Sometimes, I just find it hard to strike a balance because I’m not really used to being part of the executive department since I’m used to being part of an independent constitutional body where there’s independence and you’re free to express your own opinions and insights. Now that I’m with the executive department, I have to be conscious of implications of airing my views which may not jive with those of my boss,” she confesses.

She believes what’s important is that she still enjoys the trust and confidence of the President. Other major challenges in the short span of her being in office include tangling with Sen. Panfilo Lacson in connection with the double murder of publicist Salvador “Bubby” Dacer and driver Emmanuel Corbito.

[PHOTO - Senior Superintendent Rafael Santiago, Jr. shows a copy of The Philippine STAR with a photo taken during the Bicutan siege as De Lima listens.]

She had issued a hold departure order against the senator who went into hiding for over a year. She also stood by the indictment of the senator for the celebrated double murder case even after the Court of Appeals already cleared him of the charges. De Lima also considers as a big challenge the reinvestigation of the Vizconde massacre case after the Supreme Court last December acquitted the seven principals who were found guilty by the trial court.

She had implicated the principal anew, claiming there were new witnesses who could debunk his alibi, but it all seemed an exercise in futility as the double jeopardy rule precluded the filing of any charges.

More recently, the DOJ chief has faced criticisms raised by some quarters on lack of cases filed in court against Mrs. Arroyo and her spouse, former first gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, over a year after she stepped down.

Among her vocal critics who even called for her resignation was Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, who accused her of inaction on many allegations of corruption hurled against the former first couple and their men. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” she laments.

De Lima explains that critics should not expect immediate indictment of officials in the previous administration.

“We can’t just file cases without necessary evidence. The core mandate of the DOJ is prosecution of cases and it is important to first establish probable cause,” she stresses. The DOJ chief also points out that there are already charges against the former president pending in the department for preliminary investigation.

Last Aug.8, Mrs. Arroyo was even placed in the Bureau of Immigration watchlist to ensure she would face the charges filed against her by tax informant Danilo Lihay-lihay and former solicitor general Francisco Chavez in connection to fertilizer fund scam and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) fund controversy.

[PHOTO - The secretary hears the grievances of inmates at the national penitentiary.]

As for Mr. Arroyo, Sec. de Lima explains that the DOJ could not act yet on the corruption charges against him since they have not yet reached her office.

“There are other things that will be done by DOJ,” she reveals, citing the plan to investigate alleged anomalies in purchase of Philippine National Police (PNP) choppers and the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) in the previous administration that were exposed in separate Senate probes.

The DOJ chief assures that the charges against the previous administration would eventually be resolved, but at the same time stresses that due process should be observed. Despite all these challenges, the DOJ chief is unwavering.

“What keeps me going is that I know that many people respect me and my work. That’s in fact my gauge to determine whether it’s time for me to go. I know when to quit and I would not need the prodding of anyone when it happens,” she says in response to calls from some quarters for her resignation.

“Public approval is very important for me because the public is the ultimate boss. If majority of the people view you as a liability and no longer an asset then it’s your duty to quit,” she points out. The Justice secretary admits she feels rewarded and fulfilled by results of independent surveys, where she consistently topped the list of most trusted Cabinet officials of the Aquino administration.

She shares: “Some of my actions may fall within less than the expectation of some people, but for as long as I think that’s the right thing to do I would do it.”

The DOJ chief also draws attention for her unique sense of fashion, which she says was greatly influenced by her mother, Norma Mahistrado. “I have a banidoza mommy. She’s the daughter of a haciendero in our province in Bicol and she was kind of a spoiled socialite during her time,” she relates.

[PHOTO - Families of victims of the hostage-taking at the Quirino Grandstand meet with the secretary. Edd Gumban/STAR]

Known for her big pearl earrings, rings and necklaces, De Lima reveals that she got almost all of her jewelry from her mother. She also got many pairs of shoes from her since they have the same size.

The extravagance of her mother is the complete opposite of the prudence she inherited from her father, former Elections commissioner Vicente de Lima, the strongest influence on her career. She says it was her father who taught her the kind of discipline that she exemplifies today. He also imparted to her a heart for the oppressed and underprivileged.

“The bulk of my psyche comes from my father. He was my inspiration, that’s why I became a lawyer. He would always remind us that life is a wheel of fortune – that’s why you have to do justice to everyone and the best way to do so is to treat people equally,” she explains.

De Lima was still in high school when her father brought her to the courtroom to witness hearings. She was also trained at a very young age how to write court pleadings.

“At that time I would resent the strictness of my father, but looking back I realize that his training really helped a lot in molding me to what I am now,” she admits. She finished Bachelor of Laws in San Beda College in Manila and placed 8th in the 1985 Bar exams. She is one of the three female law graduates of San Beda who placed among the top ten of the Bar exams.

She took her oath as a lawyer in the historic year of the EDSA People Power revolution in 1986, when her inspiration for pursuing a career in government came to power – the late President Corazon Aquino.

De Lima recalls how the mother of President Noy epitomized a strong woman with grace under pressure and a very strong sense of religiosity. “Although our personalities are different in many ways, she’s really my idol. I draw strength from her record and reputation as the icon of democracy who’s revered not only in the Philippines but all over the world,” she shares. De Lima reveals that joining the government was far from her plans. She thought her legal practice would be her career forever. She entered government service in 1993 as secretary to the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal. After that, she returned to private practice for the next 13 years.

In 2008, former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo personally asked her to become Commission on Human Rights (CHR) chair. She admits the offer came as a surprise since most of her former clients in election cases were from the political opposition. After two years in the CHR and following the election of President Aquino, she found herself appointed to the powerful post of Secretary of Justice.

“I didn’t know why I was considered since I didn’t really apply for this position. They told me there were those who nominated me for consideration of the President. It was June 22, 2010 when I was suddenly called to the Palace. I thought it was just an interview but to my surprise he officially told me that I will be secretary of Justice,” De Lima recalls.

The Justice secretary opens up on how she draws her strength from her family, especially her two sons and two grandchildren. Her being a mother has led her to discover what unrequited love means. Her eldest son Israel, now 29, and eldest grandchild Brandon, 5, both have a special condition.

“They are the two special boys in my life and I consider them my blessings, my angels. They keep me going so I give them my unconditional love,” she shares.

Even with her overloaded schedule, she finds ways to spend quality time with them, and even takes on household chores like cooking meals and going to the market whenever she has time on weekends. She also copes with the stresses of her tough job by indulging in her passion for driving and shooting. There are times she would even join President Aquino and other officials like Bureau of Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares in practical shooting.

She also gets relief from stress with her eight dogs, all Labradors, particularly Kirby, a pass-on chocolate brown Labrador who used to be very wild but she was able to tame. “I love him so much. I can’t imagine what it would be like if he’s gone,” she says. She admits that losing her beloved dog is one of her greatest fears.

And for the nation, her biggest fear would have to be failure of the Aquino administration to bring the necessary change to Filipinos and attain economic progress. “I believe that this government has all the potentials to really make significant progress and reforms in the country. And this is our last chance as a people. We have a president who’s very trusted by the people and very sincere in his ways,” she points out.

For her part, she vows to make DOJ the most trusted and respected government institution: “I’m trying to work on it despite all the odds.” She, however, admits that she is open to seeking an elective position.

“It would be dishonest and hypocritical on my part if I would say that it’s an absolute no at this point — that I have no plans in politics.” But she says it’s “too early to make such a decision.”

“My attitude is whatever comes next, then let it be. If I will be in another branch of government, then I’ll still be in government. Que sera sera (What will be, will be),” she reveals. For now, she says her attention is fixed on her duties as Justice secretary. “What’s important for me now is my current job, and I want to fulfill my duties to the best of my abilities.” “We just follow one direction – what we think is the right thing is what we do and we just really prove our worth.”

She vows for the immediate resolution of cases filed in DOJ and being prosecuted by fiscals in court, including cheating allegations in the 2004 and 2007 elections that is now undergoing preliminary investigation and the multiple murder case stemming from the Maguindanao massacre in Nov. 23, 2009 that is now being tried by Quezon City regional trial court.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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