Unknown lawyer’s date with destiny: Enough to have truth on our sideBy Michael Lim Ubac
Philippine Daily Inquirer
There’s no stopping the people’s battle against corruption in the highest echelons of power, said Levito Baligod, private counsel for principal witness Benhur Luy and five other whistle-blowers in the P10-billion pork barrel scam.
“We are in the same boat, and everybody is concerned about plugging whatever hole there is in that boat. To redress our grievances, it’s enough to have the truth by our side, enough love of country and the courage to [see it through],” said the 43-year-old Baligod, who was a virtual unknown until he took up the fight to uncover the truth.
A widower and a father of four boys aged 8 to 16, he found his date with destiny early this year while he was in the middle of a grave family crisis: His spouse, Marilyn Anne Navarro, was battling breast cancer. She died on Feb. 11.
While shuffling to and from the hospital, Baligod was multitasking: He was attending to the family of Luy whose mother, Gertrudes, and sister Annabelle had sought his help in December 2012.
Asked who the link between him and the Luys was, Baligod identified a military officer who had served in Mindanao. The Luys are from Zamboanga.
When Benhur went missing, the Luys sought out this military officer who, in turn, referred them to Baligod.
Baligod and this officer were former members of the University of the Philippines Diliman (UP) Vanguard, the officer corps of the university’s Reserved Officers Training Course.
This Vanguard officer did not finish his UP degree but opted to transfer to the Philippine Military Academy. He is now assigned to Camp Aguinaldo.
As earlier reported, Luy and Merlina P. Suñas claimed that businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, who is believed to have masterminded the pork barrel scam, allegedly kidnapped Luy to prevent him from spilling the beans on the bogus Napoles-controlled nongovernment organizations (NGOs) that allegedly served as conduits to channel Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) to ghost livelihood projects over a period of 10 years.
The serious illegal detention case is now being heard by the Makati Regional Trial Court, which had issued the warrant of arrest on Napoles.
She is now detained at Fort Santo Domingo in Santa Rosa, Laguna province, after she and her brother, fugitive Reynald Lim, were charged with serious illegal detention for the alleged abduction of Luy from Dec. 19, 2012, to March 22, when he was rescued by the National Bureau of Investigation.
Napoles retaliated by filing a perjury case against Luy, his parents Arturo and Gertrudes, siblings Arthur and Anabelle, and Suñas, whom Napoles allegedly designated as one of the presidents of her many fake NGOs.
Asking detailed questions
In February, Baligod started to “ask more detailed questions” from the Luys on Napoles’ motives for detaining Benhur.
“It was at this point that they began to narrate to me the businesses of Napoles,” said the lawyer, who then went out of his way to “validate” the authenticity of this web of corruption involving baffling amounts of state funds that allegedly lined the pockets of lawmakers and made Napoles rich overnight.
With the claim of the involvement of lawmakers, their staff and their conduits in the implementing agencies and the budget department, Baligod said he began to suspect that the case could be bigger and more complex than what he had initially expected.
“I was alarmed because prior to that, the newspapers had already come out with stories about abuses related to PDAF. Through my questioning (of the whistle-blowers), I learned about these dummy foundations,” he said.
Baligod then advised the Luys and Suñas to “take legal action not only on illegal detention but on anomaly (related to PDAF).”
“If we don’t care about what’s happening (with public funds), … let’s stop calling ourselves Filipinos,” he told the Luys, exhorting them to help initiate the legal case to “reform the system.”
It took them two weeks to weigh all options before making any move.
After the two-week introspection for Baligod, the Luys and Suñas, they finally started the ball rolling when the lawyer wrote a letter to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima in March informing the latter of Benhur’s detention.
Explaining why he did not go to police authorities but to the justice secretary, he said she has supervision over the NBI, which wields both police power and investigative power to look into anomalies involving lawmakers and state funds.
Baligod is an experienced criminal lawyer, with 13 solid years as a courtroom litigator.
After finishing economics and political science degrees at the UP, he took up law in San Beda College and later at the University of the East, where he graduated in 1999.
He passed the bar the following year.
In 2005, he formed the Villanueva and Baligod Law Offices with lawyer Raul Villanueva, his upperclassman at the UP Vanguard.
Baligod handles mostly criminal cases, while Villanueva takes care of civil and corporate matters.
For the relatively brief span of time in the legal profession, Baligod has a high batting average, losing only once in a criminal case due to a mere procedural oversight.
Besides litigating criminal cases, he found his footing in election-related disputes.
Among his clients was former Cagayan Gov. Edgar Lara.
Baligod and the whistle-blowers do not seem to think that they are fighting an uphill battle despite the obvious clout and connections of senators and other lawmakers who will be charged on Monday.
With the boxes of evidence plus corroborating testimonies from Benhur Luy and company, the cases will prosper, he said.
Baligod is also counting on the people to be “vigilant,” stressing that this was a “golden chance to contribute to reforming the system.”
“Most of the Filipino people are still decent and they have patriotism,” he observed, pointing to the public furor generated by the Inquirer’s exposé of the PDAF’s misuse.
He said the root of this indignation was the “betrayal of public trust, a breached covenant with the Filipino people.”
“Public vigilance will ensure that the justice system works according to the purpose it was designed,” he said.
Baligod and his wards’ short-term goal is to stop the pork barrel racket, which mercilessly steals from the poor, especially the farmers, much-needed subsidies from government, he said.
The long-term impact of going after crooks in government is the return of faith and trust of the people in the rule of law and public office, according to the lawyer.
“It’s still possible for ordinary people to initiate reforms, and anyone of us can contribute to improving our country,” Baligod said.
Lack sense of nationhood
Baligod said corruption is a “problem of character and lack of love of country.”
“We lack a sense of nationhood; we have an unfinished business at nationhood,” Baligod said.
Asked how this generation would judge him and the witnesses, he said it was better to “judge us as selfless, patriotic Filipinos.”
“I expected nothing (in return), except for the altruistic feeling that I was able to contribute to bringing back decency in government,” Baligod said.
He then quoted Leo Rosten, the Polish-born American novelist and scholar:
“I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate. It is, above all to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all.”