2017: A year of rejection for Duterte's appointees

MANILA, Philippines – The year 2017 was a whirlwind for President Rodrigo Duterte's appointees.

The year saw the powerful Commission on Appointments (CA) rejecting 5 Cabinet secretaries, and Duterte firing some of his appointees or asking them to resign.

This year, too, the Dangerous Drugs Board – one of the government agencies at the forefront of the controversial war on drugs – was led by two different chairpersons, both fired by the President for their public comments about the drug war.

As 2017 ends, Rappler takes a look at the sacked and rejected members of the Duterte administration.

It used to be rare for the CA to reject a presidential appointee – until 2017 happened.

In a span of 7 months, the CA rejected 5 Cabinet secretaries, who then had to step down. While the reasons for their rejections vary, not even the President's confidence could save them.

The first to go was former foreign secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr, who was rejected by the CA in March for lying about his US citizenship. His rejection followed months of him denying that he was ever a US citizen, or that he owned a US passport.

A day after his rejection, Yasay said there is a "better life" for him beyond his rejection, and that leaving the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) means being able to do his "favorite things," like spending time with his family, more freely.

Yasay has remained active on Facebook since his rejection, sharing personal posts about his family and his travels, as well as his photos playing golf. Occasionally, he also shares Bible verses, online quizzes, funny internet memes, and random videos.

Aside from his usual posts on politics, Yasay also continues to support Duterte – from the impeachment case filed against him, to his decision to declare martial law in Mindanao. Yasay slams the President's critics, and supports his picks for other government posts – including former senator Alan Peter Cayetano, who replaced Yasay at the DFA.

Two months after Yasay's exit, the CA also rejected the ad interim appointment of Regina Lopez – the anti-mining advocate-turned-environment secretary. As soon as she assumed office, Lopez launched a mining audit that resulted in the suspension and closure of mining operations.

But during her confirmation hearings, members of the CA grilled her about her standards as environment secretary, and the legal basis of her decisions at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). In the end, none of her explanations convinced the CA that she deserved to stay.

Seven months after she left the public eye, Lopez told Rappler she's happy now, moving on from her rejection at the CA.

She's back in the private sector as an advocate and has since focused on I LOVE or Investments in Loving Organizations for Village Economies, an organization involved in setting up green models, "which reflects on the economy, health, happiness, [and] peace and order."

"I'm doing what I've always wanted to do with the DENR, [but] I'm doing it another way... I'm working with the private sector and since I don't have the [administration] load I had when I was [at] DENR, I get more immersed [in the communities], and that makes me really happy," she said in a phone interview.

What she learned during her short stint in government is that "it's not the money that makes the difference, what makes the difference is the heart" and that "commitment to values is paramount" both in public service and private endeavors.

The next Cabinet member to be rejected by the CA was former social welfare secretary Judy Taguiwalo. During her final confirmation hearing in August, Taguiwalo was grilled on the Conditional Cash Transfer program, her views on the proposed national identification system and tax reform program, and her links with the National Democratic Front, which had nominated her for the post.

In her last address to Department of Social Welfare and Development employees, Taguiwalo said she will leave the department with her heart "full of love."

When Rappler spoke to Taguiwalo this month, she admitted she is still transitioning, and that she has received speaking invitations on women and human rights' issues. She has also been attending family and other personal events, and has even taken time to watch plays like Hair and Bagong Cristo.

The former secretary said she has also been attending rallies, the most recent of which was the anti-dictatorship rally at Liwasang Bonifacio in Manila last November 30.

"[I'm] disappointed with the unilateral call to end the peace negotiations when advances have been made by working group on [social] and economic reforms. [I'm] concerned about crackdown on activists and series of killings," she said days before the commemoration of International Human Rights Day.

Another nominee of the Left, Rafael Mariano, also vacated his post at the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) just a month after Taguiwalo's exit. In announcing his rejection last September, CA panel chair and Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto said "the weight of the scales ultimately tipped the balance against the confirmation" of Mariano.

Before his rejection, Mariano had to defend himself from accusations that as agrarian reform secretary, he favored certain farmers' groups and supported their illegal acts. But the CA's final decision on his confirmation, Mariano said, showed that it was the interest of landlords and oligarchs that prevailed.

"The interest of the big landlords, oligarchs, businessmen, and big corporations may have prevailed, but the day will come when the interest of our farmers and the marginalized sectors of our society will also prevail," he said in a short press conference after his rejection.

Two weeks after that fateful day in September, Mariano joined militant groups in a rally in Mendiola during the 45th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law. He did not hesitate then to call Duterte a "fascist" and a "tuta (lapdog)" of the US government.

He later urged Duterte not to appoint a former military officer to DAR because he was concerned about the possible reversal of important orders he issued at the department. Duterte went on to appoint Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Undersecretary John Castriciones as DAR's acting secretary.

The last of the 5 secretaries to leave the Duterte Cabinet because of a CA rejection was former health secretary Paulyn Ubial. Ubial faced at least 4 oppositors at the CA and denied all their allegations, but she was nonetheless rejected by the powerful body.

Ubial left the Department of Health (DOH) "grateful" that Duterte gave her the opportunity to serve as health secretary. Almost two months after she left government service, Rappler asked Ubial about the lessons she learned as part of the Duterte administration.

"[The] CA process is not good; it's a political tool and will only benefit oligarchs wanting to stay in power," said Ubial, who is now with the University of the Philippines College of Public Health as adjunct professor.

In addition, Ubial said that patronage politics in the country still exists – with "some legislators still [hanging] on to their [Priority Development Assistance Fund]" – and that "doing things right is not always rewarded for now."

Ubial returned to the public spotlight this month when she defended before senators her decision to continue the now-controversial dengue vaccination program of the DOH, implemented first by the Aquino administration. 

Aside from rejections at the CA, there were at least 4 heads of agencies – all Duterte appointees – that were either fired or asked to resign in 2017. Duterte also replaced his own spokesperson, although he has remained tight-lipped as to why. 

Duterte's campaign spokesperson Peter Laviña barely served as chief of the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) for 3 months before the President sacked him.

NIA personnel from Mindanao alleged that Laviña wanted kickbacks from irrigation projects, but the NIA chief denied these "rumors." On March 1 – the same day his sacking was announced – Laviña said he has "never betrayed" the President's trust, and that he has neither "personal vested interest" nor "ill intent" towards NIA and the government.

He called his first day back in the private sector as "fruitful" after he attended meetings left and right. He also urged the public to "move on" since "nation-building is a tall task in which each one should share for the common good."

Laviña, like Yasay, has remained active on Facebook since March.

Aside from personal posts about his family and friends, the former secretary often shares Bible verses, quotable quotes, and his own reflections in life. He also posts regularly about his travels abroad, his meetings and events, and the television shows he watches.

Laviña also remains supportive of Duterte. Many of his posts are about the activities of the Hugpong Federal Movement of the Philippines, dubbed as "the country's most active grassroots movement supporting President Duterte's advocacy." From time to time, he would also comment on current affairs – from the government's infrastructure program "Build, Build, Build," to discussions about martial law and a revolutionary government.

Unlike many of his colleagues in the Duterte Cabinet, Ismael Sueno got a CA nod just 6 months after the President appointed him as DILG secretary.

Less than 4 months later, however, it was the President himself who let go of his interior secretary due to "loss of trust and confidence." This made him the first Cabinet secretary to be sacked by Duterte.

Rappler learned that during a Cabinet meeting, Duterte even listed down allegations made by 3 DILG undersecretaries against Sueno before dismissing him as secretary.

Sueno "wholeheartedly" accepted the decision of the President but denied the allegations of corruption made by undersecretaries John Castriciones, Jesus Hinlo, and Emily Padilla. He said he was "deeply hurt" by the allegations, and that he "tried to explain to the President but he wouldn't listen."

Rappler recently reached out to Sueno but he has yet to reply as of this posting. Meanwhile, each of his detractors has since found a new place in the Duterte administration: Castriciones and Padilla at DAR, and Hinlo at the Land Bank of the Philippines.

This year, Duterte also asked at least two of his appointees to resign, one of whom was information and communications technology secretary Rodolfo Salalima.

It was first reported that Salalima offered to resign, citing "personal and work-related reasons." According to an Inquirer report, he told Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) employees that he wanted to step down because he cannot deal with corruption and interference.

But later on, the President himself said he asked Salalima to resign because he was allegedly "favoring" Globe Telecom. Salalima served as Globe's chief counsel before joining the Duterte Cabinet. He was also senior vice president for corporate and regulatory affairs of the telecommunications giant.

Duterte has since appointed DICT Undersecretary Eliseo Mijares Rio Jr as officer-in-charge of the department.

There were also reports about Senator Gregorio Honasan's supposed impending appointment as DICT secretary. While he dismissed the issue as a "rumor," he also said he "cannot confirm or deny" if there are offers for him to take the post after serving his term as senator.

Not all who left the Duterte administration this year left for good. Take the case of former presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella, who, after serving as spokesperson since 2016, was replaced in October by Kabayan Representative Harry Roque.

Duterte said it was his "personal decision" to replace Abella with Roque, Questions, however, surrounded this decision as the President was allegedly dissatisfied with how Abella handled several issues facing the Duterte administration.

A few days after Roque began presiding Malacañang press conferences, Abella even dropped by the Malacañang press working area and told members of the Malacañang Press Corps that he misses them and the regular Palace briefings.

Former presidential spox Ernie Abella drops by Malacañang press working area, says he misses MPC members, Palace briefings. @rapplerdotcom pic.twitter.com/zTxaVb2v5y — Pia Ranada (@piaranada) November 6, 2017

 

But not long after his exit as presidential spokesperson, Abella was eventually named as DFA undersecretary. During his oathtaking in December, Abella appeared less stressed than when he spoke for the President.

Former presidential spox Ernesto Abella, new DFA undersecretary, also here for oathtaking. Beside him is acting DAR chief John Castriciones pic.twitter.com/u8frbyYCFh — Pia Ranada (@piaranada) December 6, 2017

 

Cayetano, now the DFA secretary, welcomed Abella's appointment and said that as head of strategic communications, Abella can be expected to help "more effectively articulate" the President's foreign policy and the directive to serve millions of Filipinos abroad.

This year, two different chairpersons led the DDB: Benjamin Reyes and Dionisio Santiago. Both had very short stints as head of the board – 9 months for Reyes, 4 months for Santiago – and were let go because of their remarks about the Duterte administration's campaign against illegal drugs.

There was a time between Reyes' exit and Santiago's appointment when the DDB had no chief, with a source saying "nobody wants to take over the job." During that time, though, things continued to run smoothly, since programs and policies were already in place.

With Santiago now out of the board as well, the officer-in-charge – according to the DDB website – is Undersecretary Jose Marlowe Pedregosa. In a phone interview with Rappler, Santiago said he went back to his retirement after his resignation, and that he does not worry much about anything anymore since he is living "day-to-day."

"No regrets, I love government. I served for 44 years, different departments... I think I'm fulfilled as a public servant, I have served all of them. I think even President Duterte was satisfied," he said in a mix of English and Filipino.

But Santiago – who was also fired for supposedly going on "extravagant" trips abroad and for allegedly accepting favors from drug lords – said it's not in his character to explain himself and that his tendency is to leave if he is asked to leave.

"When you're given a chance to serve, iwan mo doon sa nag-appoint kung ang pakiramdam na tama ang tao (leave it to the appointing authority whether he feels you are the right person for the job)," he added. – with reports from Patty Pasion, Pia Ranada, and Rambo Talabong/Rappler.com

Jee Y. Geronimo

Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.

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