An ill-fated meeting with a presidential sister

MANILA, Philippines – Mark Tolentino never expected his meeting in Taguig with the President's younger sister to put him under the national spotlight and at the mercy of the President's ire.

This was apparent as he publicly apologized to President Rodrigo Duterte after getting sacked for supposedly "dealing" with one of the chief executive's sisters in relation to the big-ticket Mindanao Railway Project.

Malacañang never bared the identity of the sister. But Tolentino admitted on Friday, May 25, that it was Jocellyn Duterte. The President has one other sister, the eldest of their brood, Eleanore.

Tolentino said he met Jocellyn in Bonifacio Global City around a month ago. He claimed it was a "courtesy call" by the presidential sister, which he accommodated because "how can you say 'no'?"

But most of the meeting, he insisted, was a lively exchange of notes on how their families were connected.

Tolentino hails from Cabadbaran, Agusan del Norte, the hometown of the President's mother, Soledad Roa Duterte. Nanay Soleng, as she was fondly called by Davaoeños, had sold copra to Tolentino's grandfather.

But Jocellyn also wanted to know how the Mindanao Railway Project was progressing. Tolentino said it was their shared dream for their home region to have its first modern railway.

But the transportation official had advised Jocellyn to write to Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade who called the shots on the project.

Jocellyn did end up writing to Tugade, mentioning Tolentino in her letter.

Tolentino said she even endorsed him as "Undersecretary for Mindanao Affairs," which would be a promotion for him.

Fast forward to the press conference he gave on May 18. Unwisely, Tolentino thought it would help his case to mention a member of the First Family's wish for the Mindanao Railway's speedy implementation.

This would impress upon "higher ups" causing the delay of the project that such foot-dragging would not be tolerated. 

But the move backfired.

Last January, Malacañang announced a directive from President Duterte to government officials and employees not to accommodate requests from any family member or relative of his in connection with any government deal or transaction.

'In good faith'

Even before their meeting, Tolentino and Jocellyn had already been communicating. Every now and then, the President's sister would call Tolentino, a lawyer, for help in understanding some legal matters. 

Tolentino said he's also had the chance to meet Bong Duterte, a brother of the President's.

However, all these interactions were personal in nature and had nothing to do with his government work, he said.

While the warning against accomodating Duterte's relatives is branded as part of the administration's efforts against corruption, Tolentino stressed that he is not corrupt.

Calling himself an "idealist", he said that everything he has done is out of concern for the timely completion of the Mindanao Railway.

"In good faith, gusto ko lang talaga matapos on time ang Mindanao Railway. Kasi 'yun lang ang ambisyon ng mga ordinaryong taga-Mindanao, lalo na sa Davao area, Davao region," he said.

(I just really want the Mindanao Railway to be finished on time. Because that is the ambition of ordinary Mindanaoans, especially in the Davao region.)

Tolentino resigned from his regional post with PDP-Laban, Duterte's political party, 4 months ago.

With his government post gone too, he said he will return to private law practice. He's done with public service for now. –

Pia Ranada

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