MANILA, Philippines – Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo admitted that yet another former client of his reached out to him for help with a legal matter – the Ampatuan family.
He revealed this on Thursday, September 5, when asked by a reporter in a press conference if another former client had asked for his assistance or intervention in a government process.
"Mayroon, Ampatuan. Ang kaso naman ng Ampatuan, I think one of the Ampatuans is at large.... 'Yung mga kapatid niya on trial eh. They're claiming inosente sila," said Panelo.
(There is, Ampatuan. Their case has to do with one of them who is at large.... The siblings are on trial. They're claiming they're innocent.)
He did not mention any names, but said one of the Ampatuans who approached him was a lawyer and "assistant secretary" who is married to an Ampatuan.
The Ampatuan family members supposedly wanted him and President Rodrigo Duterte to intercede on their behalf. They wrote a letter to the Office of the President (OP) requesting an audience with Duterte.
At an event in Davao City held in honor of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, one of the family members supposedly just happened to be present. They approached Panelo and Panelo introduced them to Duterte. The President supposedly already knew them.
"They're asking [for] the intercession of the President. I introduced them to the President. It turns out they knew each other from before. The President said, 'Just wait for the judgment of the court. It's with the court already,'" said Panelo.
Panelo, who is also chief presidential legal counsel, received a note from the OP referring the Ampatuans to him.
"I think they went [to the office] two weeks ago," said Panelo.
He supposedly told them that since the OP referred the matter to his office, it will be futile for the family to insist on a meeting with Duterte because they will just be referred to him again.
"I said, just have her surrender and face trial," said Panelo.
He has not responded to Rappler's query if the case for which the Ampatuans had been seeking his help was for the 2009 Maguindanao massacre.
Panelo was lawyer to the Ampatuans during the trial over the incident, considered the deadliest single attack on journalists in the world and the worst election-related case of violence in Philippine history.
He was hired as defense counsel by Andal Ampatuan Jr, son of alleged massacre mastermind Andal Ampatuan Sr, in 2014. A Philippine Star article quoted him as saying that the Ampatuans were just "framed to seize political power."
Another Malacañang office, the Presidential Task Force on Media Security, is part of efforts to ensure a conviction. The Department of Justice expects a verdict before November 23 this year, the 10th anniversary of the massacre.
Panelo made the admission about the Ampatuans amid allegations of conflict of interest when he sent a letter on his ex-client Antonio Sanchez's executive clemency bid to the Bureau of Pardons and Parole in February.
Lawmakers questioned the propriety of this given Panelo's key post in the Palace and his background as Sanchez's former lawyer.
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.