Saturday, August 25, 2012

An Interview with Leni Robredo (Wife of Sec. Jess Robredo):"That first night, I knew he was gone"

Moments before his plane plunged into the sea off Masbate island on Saturday, Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo was telling his wife, Leni, on his cell phone: “Ma, just a moment, I am just attending to something. I will call you back.”

Robredo’s voice was calm.

Leni, in Naga City, was on her way to the airport to fetch him. She had no idea that the plane, a four-seater Piper Seneca, was about to crash.

He never called again.

When told by a Robredo aide that a plane had nosedived into the water, she thought: “Could it be their plane? Could it be him?”

That was how Robredo’s wife, Maria Leonor Sto. Tomas Gerona Robredo, 47, recounted in a press interview in Naga on Thursday her last conversation with her husband. Before then, Robredo had talked about his wish to see his family one more time.

Here’s that interview translated to English:

Question: What’s the decision of the family about the offer to bury Jesse Robredo at the Libingan ng mga Bayani?

Leni: We feel very honored with the offer but we are very sure that Jesse would prefer to be buried here. Naga has always been his home. He always tells me this is a happy place. That’s why I think we will be doing him a great disservice if he is not buried here.

So painful

Q: How does his family feel now, the brothers and sisters of Robredo, his parents?

Leni: We are coping but it’s very difficult. It’s so painful to lose a husband, lose a father, lose a brother. But now we know that this is what God wants. There’s nothing we can do but accept. All through his life Jess would always say, ‘What is fated is what will happen.’ I think the most that we can do to help him find rest is to show him that we are strong and we can take this.

Q: What were you and the Secretary talking about while he was on the flight?

Leni: Actually, we had quite a long talk. On a regular basis, we would talk 10, 20 times a day, but on that particular Saturday, our text exchanges and our conversation must have doubled. He was flying to Cebu while we had an occasion here. I would update him.

He would call and was so happy. He wanted to talk to our daughter, to congratulate her. All throughout the day that was the tenor of our talk.  He wanted to be home. He had expected that the affair involving our daughter would be over by 5 p.m.  But at 2 p.m. I texted him that it had ended. So he knew he would not make it.

Bent on going home

I thought he was not coming home anymore but a staff member of his told me he was bent on going home. It was not unusual for him and he was always very happy to surprise us. So I texted him at about 3:15 and said, “Pa, are you coming home?” He said, “Yes, we have boarded the plane.”

I am the one who drives the car and fetches him at the aiport. He said, “Take your time because our ETA is still at 4:15.”

I left the house about 3:40. I drove to the Naga airport in Pili. Just before I reached the airport, he texted me, “Our plane is going back to Cebu.” I asked him, “Why?” He did not answer me. Then he replied again, “The plane is going to Cebu.”

I was waiting for his instructions, if I would wait for him at the airport or if I would go home. But I could not contact him. So I decided to go home. I texted him, “I kept calling you but you do not answer.” And he answered, “The signals are bad.”

Calm voice
When I reached home I checked the log of my cell phone. It was 4:40. That’s why I thought it was impossible that the accident happened at 4:30 unless the time on my phone was advanced … Finally I was able to contact him on his Smart number. He told me, “Ma, just a moment, I am just attending to something. I will call you back.” He spoke in a very calm voice. It was as if I was calling him while he was in the middle of a meeting.

So I told him, “OK.” I didn’t call him again. I thought that they had landed safely in Cebu and the reason he was busy was because he was trying to find tickets in a commercial flight.

But about 15 minutes later, around 5, his security in Manila, Paul, called me up. He said, “Ma’am, were you able to talk with Sir?” I was a bit confused because I told him, “Yes, five minutes ago.” I asked why. He said that “a few minutes ago he called me up asking for help to clear the Masbate Airport because they were going to make an emergency landing.”

In fact, I think the airport was already cleared for landing, several officials were there but they reported sightings of a plane that had supposedly crashed into the sea.

It hadn’t sunk in yet so I said, “Could it be Jess and his companions?”  Paul said, “Maybe not, Ma’am. Hopefully Ma’am, it’s not them.”

But when I put my phone down, that’s it, I began to think it might be him.

‘My legs like jelly’

I told my youngest daughter first because she was the one with me. I told her, let us pray because something might have happened to Papa’s plane. She was already crying. I decided to call up Aika. She was in Araneta Coliseum watching the UAAP, Ateneo vs FEU. I told her what happened, she left the game, picked up her sister and they went to church.

I also informed my brother-in-law and my sisters-in-law. My youngest daughter Jillian was already crying and she was asking me if we can go to church. I told her, in my condition I don’t think I can drive because I felt like my legs were turning into jelly.

In a few minutes Mayor Bongat and the city council arrived until there were already many people in the house. Everyone was hoping that he would be okay. But after the first night, I knew that he was gone.

Q: Have you talked with the aide (Senior Inspector June Paolo Abrazado) of Secretary Robredo?

Leni: I wasn’t able to talk with him but I texted his father. I said, “Sir, this is Leni Robredo. Please tell June we are very thankful to him, we are thankful that he survived, we knew he took care of my husband … June served my husband very well. He is a good man, he was kind to all of us. That’s why whatever I feel now toward him is the gratitude that everybody feels.”

No longer important

Q: Many people say that he deserves a posthumous confirmation. Do you think this is necessary? What do you think is the best way to remember your husband?

Leni: When the confirmation was scheduled, I think it was last Wednesday or the Wednesday before that, I texted him. We are devotees of the Virgin of Peñafrancia and I was telling him, “Pa, I started the novena today for your confirmation hearing.” I said, “It’s just right because the confirmation hearing would be on the ninth day, a Wednesday.” He said, “Ay, don’t pray for that anymore.” He said, “It’s okay if I am no longer confirmed. Just pray for the midterms of your daughter.”

I’m just speculating but maybe that is no longer that important for him. I think what is more important to him is that he was able to do his job well. For me, it is as if it’s just a formality … I would like to think that not being confirmed was no longer a big thing with him.”

Q: Your husband has been a bastion of good governance and he has been awarded several times. What would the family want to continue the legacy of Secretary Robredo?

Leni: As of now, maybe because we are numb with grief, I can’t think of concrete steps. I would want to continue, not his legacy because I could not do what he had done, but maybe keep his memory alive. Whatever it is, maybe whoever will take his place would continue what he has begun. And hopefully the seeds he had planted in local government units would grow. Because if that does not happen, it’s as if the labors that my husband had done have gone to nothing.

He wants cremation

Q: Have you decided to cremate or bury him in Naga?

Leni: When Jess was alive, that was what he kept saying, that when dies, he wants to be cremated. So most probably, we would be following his wishes. He will be cremated but the people of Naga will be able to visit him. So we are preparing for that.

Q: What do you miss most about Secretary Jess?

Leni: I can’t say because of what we are feeling now. But while we are sad now it’s as if we are still kidding him at home … I am sure that what people have now shown him was beyond his imagination. He was always assured of the love of the people of Naga but it turns out it is not just the people of Naga who love him … He was very hardworking, very passionate about his work.

‘Are my efforts appreciated?’

When he comes home, sometimes he would say, “Will anything that I have been doing amount to anything?” It’s as if he is wondering if his efforts are appreciated because it’s different with the national and the local. Locally, the results are instant and he was used to that. But nationally, the results are not instant and he gets impatient. He would keep on asking: “Are my efforts appreciated?”

I keep talking to him until now, telling him, “See, the people have answered.” I am sure the point will come that we will miss him but right now we are steeling ourselves and we’d rather think that he is very, very happy now.”

Q: What do you think is the greatest thing Secretary Robredo did for the city and the entire country?

Leni: I cannot answer that. What I can say is what he did for our family. Jess was a regular husband, a regular father. He was not a Secretary, not a mayor if he was home. What I mean is he wanted to feel important to us.

He would come home only on weekends and the things that needed fixing were waiting for him—the busted light, the plumbing, the out-of-order telephone, these were waiting for him.

Cup is overflowing

He said one of the reasons why he wanted to come home every weekend was he felt grounded here … Power has its way of getting into you but it’s as if he is saying that every time he comes home, he wants to feel like a regular dad, a regular husband. That whatever it was that needed to be done had to wait for him.

What I want to say is while it might have been unnecessary that we should bother him about trivial things, it made him feel important. He was always doing something for the family. When I say “thank you” to him, he would say, “Least I can do, Ma.”

He would tell me, “It’s difficult to get used to certain things.” He was referring to perks in the office. He would tell me, “It’s difficult to get used to those things because you might get used to them.”

I think that’s why he always came home every weekend. Because that’s the way he was. So when people asked him, “Why do you keep coming back home?” he would tell them, “If I don’t come home, I would lose my head in Manila.”

Q: Do you have any regrets that he went to DILG?

Leni: None. I know he lived a full life. He fulfilled all his dreams. Just last Sunday, the one before this Sunday, we were having a talk. He said, “Quotang-quota na ako!” He said he no longer had any dreams for himself—just for his children. It was as if he was saying that his cup is already overflowing.

It’s as if he was saying, “I never dreamed that these things would happen to me. Sobra-sobra na ito (This is too much already).” And I think he was prepared to face the Lord.

I may have told you that he often went to Confession, maybe two or three times in a month. That’s why he is very ready. For me, I didn’t even question why he was taken so early. That’s how I explain to my children. While what happened was tragic to us because we were not prepared, his kind of death was perhaps a reward for the good things he had done.

Q: The feast of the Peñafrancia is coming. Will Secretary Jess be part of the traslacion and the fluvial parade?

Leni: I think he will be there in spirit.

Inquirer Research

(Editors Note: Leni Robredo was a graduate of the Universidad de Sta. Isabel in Naga City from elementary [1978] to high school [1982].

She graduated at the University of the Philippines Diliman in 1986 with a degree in Economics and took up law at the University of Nueva Caceres in Naga City, passing the bar in 1990.

She is the eldest of the three children of retired Naga City Regional Trial Court Judge Antonio Gerona and Salvacion Sto. Tomas. She is at present connected with the Naga chapter of Saligan, a national alternative lawyers’ group helping farmers.)

Captain Bahinting not found in pilot seat on the crashed plane

 CEBU CITY—Margarita Bahinting, the wife of Captain Jessup Bahinting, chairman and executive officer of Aviatour Air, expressed dismay at the reports that her husband was found on the right side of the cockpit, saying this was erroneous.

She said that her husband was on the left side of the plane, on the seat of the main pilot. She said the media reports could be misconstrued that Bahinting had allowed the student pilot, Kshitiz Chand, 21, to handle the plane.

Chand’s body was found floating near the crash site Thursday morning.

The bodies of the two pilots of the light plane that crashed off Masbate with Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo were flown to Cebu on Thursday.

The body of Bahinting, 61, was accompanied by his daughter Sarah Lynn on board a Beechcraft RPC 9980 plane, which landed at the Mactan Cebu International Airport at 8:01 a.m.

At 3:03 p.m., Cessna 182 RPC 2214 arrived with the body of Bahinting’s Nepali co-pilot, Chand.

Bahinting and Chand piloted the Piper Seneca plane that was supposed to bring Robredo from Cebu to Naga City in Camarines Sur. But the plane reportedly experienced engine trouble and was trying to make an emergency landing at the Masbate Airport when it crashed into the sea.

Bahinting’s body was retrieved from the right side of the cockpit on Wednesday, according to media reports. Sarah identified her father through his Fossil watch and ring.


Bahinting’s friends and the students of Bahinting’s Aviatour Flight School formed a line when the small plane arrived. They were all emotional as Bahinting’s wife cried when the body bag containing the remains of her husband was pulled out of the plane, said former Cebu City Councilor Sylvan Jakosalem.

Bahinting’s body was taken to St. Peter Funeral Homes on New Imus street where the wake would be held until Sunday noon. It will be transferred to Ginatilan town, about 135 km southwest of Cebu City, for burial on Monday, said Sarah Lynn.

Chand’s father, Tek Bahadur Chand, and uncle Damand Chand arrived in Cebu at 3:17 p.m. on board another plane. Chand’s body was expected to be flown to Nepal.

Sereno takes oath as the first woman Chief Justice

MANILA, Philippines—Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno took her oath before President Benigno Aquino in Malacañang Saturday morning, without the senior justices of the Supreme Court.

Apart from Sereno’s family, academicians and Cabinet officials, only Supreme Court Justices Martin Villarama Jr., Estela Perlas-Bernabe, Mariano del Castillo and Bienvenido Reyes turned up at her oath-taking in the Palace.

Besides appointing Sereno as the Philippine’s first woman chief justice, Aquino also broke tradition by not picking the head of the judiciary from among the five most senior justices of the Supreme Court. In seniority, Sereno ranks 13th among the 14 justices on the court. Aquino still has to appoint a 15th member.

The five top senior justices are Antonio Carpio, who acted as chief justice after Renato Corona was removed by impeachment last May 29, Presbitero Velasco Jr., Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Arturo Brion and Diosdado Peralta (who declined his nomination for chief justice).

Other candidates on the short list submitted by the Judicial and Bar Council to the President were Carpio, De Castro, Brion and Associate Justice Roberto Abad, along with Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza, former representative Ronaldo Zamora and former Ateneo College of Law dean Cesar Villanueva.

Carpio, De Castro, Brion, Abad, Velasco and Peralta were absent from Sereno’s oath-taking, and so were Associate Justices Lucas Bersamin, Jose Perez and Jose Mendoza.

Strategic Communication Secretary Ricky Carandang refused to read any meaning in their absence.

“I don’t think it’s fair to speculate in that way,” Carandang said when reporters asked him if he thought the absence of the senior justices meant they were not taking Sereno’s appointment well.  “As far as I know Sereno’s appointment was very widely viewed as a positive development.”

He added that Sereno was a “person of competence and integrity who, we all hope, will reform the judiciary and make it more responsive to the needs of ordinary people.”

Aquino administered the oath to Sereno, who entered Rizal Hall beaming, in simple, brief rites at around 10 a.m. Saturday. Her husband Mario Jose Sereno, daughter Sophia and son Jose Lorenzo stood behind her.

Also on hand to witness the oath-taking were former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban, Court of Appeals Presiding Justice Andres Reyes, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Carandang, and Sereno’s former colleagues at the University of the Philippines’ College of Law, among others.

Sereno, who at 52 has 18  years to serve as chief magistrate, declined media interviews.

She later stopped by the wake for the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, who perished in a plane crash in Masbate last Saturday afternoon, at the Kalayaan Hall.

Hours after Aquino received Robredo’s remains for a two-day wake on Friday, Malacañang afternoon announced Sereno’s appointment, three days ahead of the 90-day deadline that ends Monday.

De Lima, supposedly Malacañang’s “bet’’ for the top Supreme Court post until she was disqualified by the JBC because of a pending administrative case, praised Sereno’s appointment.

“She’s an excellent choice. She’ll be a very good CJ. Her youth, her dynamism and her brilliance would go a long way in ensuring that we can look forward to a judiciary that would be worthy of  the people’s trust,” she told reporters on her way out of the Kalayaan Hall.

After Sereno had her picture taken with the Cabinet officials, De Lima bussed and hugged the new chief justice.

“I congratulated her and then I said that [the] Supreme Court will now be in good hands,” De Lima recalled telling Sereno. “I have no rancor, whatsoever. I just said my piece when the JBC decided to disqualify me… After saying my piece, there was no rancor.”

When told that she could have been in Sereno’s shoes, De Lima let out a laugh and said: “That’s how it is. I guess I did my best in convincing my colleagues in the JBC. It’s just that there were obstacles. That disqualification was one obstacle I did not anticipate.”

Justice Villarama welcomed Sereno’s appointment. “I think she would be a good chief justice, given her talent and integrity. “I wish her luck,” he said in an interview.

He said the other justices failed to make it to the oath-taking because they were in out-of-town “lecture engagements.”  He was confident all the justices would throw their support behind her.

“The court would welcome the new chief justice. We’ll try to cooperate,” he said. “We are all mature; we know what we’re doing. I guess if there is some dissatisfaction, I guess we can solve that; we can support the chief justice.”

If there’s any reform that Sereno should concentrate on, it should be “speeding up the resolution of cases” because of the growing backlog, Villarama said. “Reform should be geared toward that,” he added.

“Let’s give her time and prove her worth.”

Maria Lourdes Sereno is the first woman Chief Justice

 As the nation mourned, President Benigno Aquino III made a historic appointment.

Mr. Aquino on Friday appointed the Philippines’ first female Chief Justice, Supreme Court Associate Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.

Sereno becomes the country’s 24th Chief Justice. At 52, she is the second youngest to be appointed Chief Justice (the first was Chief Justice Manuel Moran, who was 51 when he was appointed in 1945).

With 18 years to go before she retires, her service will span the terms of three more presidents after President Aquino.

Supreme Court justices serve until they turn 70.

Sereno spoke to reporters on Friday afternoon after leaving her office in the company of her staff. She said she was “overwhelmed” when she learned that she was the President’s choice for the new Chief Justice.

“I would like to thank the President for the trust he has reposed in me, but most of all I give all the glory to God from whom all this goodness has happened,” Sereno said.

Asked about her independence, she replied, “Everyone can be assured that will be something that they will see.”

She added: “I would like to assure our countrymen I will keep my oath of office faithfully to the end of my term. We will deliver to the people our priorities and schedules in due time.”

Sereno said she would emulate the good governance started by Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, whose death in a plane crash on Aug. 18 the nation is mourning.

Like Robredo’s governance

The nation, she said, “can be assured that the good governance initiatives started from the life of a very good man will find resonance here in our court.”

Sereno said: “We will deliver to the people our priorities and schedules in due time. You will know about it soon.”

Sereno was President Aquino’s first appointee to the Supreme Court. He appointed her to serve on the court as associate justice on Aug. 16, 2010.

Sereno replaces former Chief Justice Renato Corona, whom the House of Representatives impeached last December for violation of the Constitution and the Senate fired after finding him guilty on May 29 at the end of a four-month trial.

Despite mourning

Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda announced Sereno’s appointment on Friday, saying President Aquino was confident Sereno would lead judicial reforms.

Lacierda issued a terse statement announcing Sereno’s appointment while President Aquino and his Cabinet were attending a necrological service in Malacañang for Robredo.

Even amid national mourning for the passing of Robredo, Lacierda said Mr. Aquino was “cognizant of his constitutional duty to appoint the next Chief Justice of the Philippines.”

The Constitution requires the President to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court within 90 days of its occurrence.

Mr. Aquino beat his Aug. 27 deadline by three days.

Sereno beat seven other nominees for Chief Justice recommended by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC): Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, Supreme Court Associate Justices Roberto Abad, Arturo Brion and Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza, former Rep. Ronaldo Zamora and former Ateneo College of Law dean Cesar Villanueva.

Judicial reforms

“The President is confident that Chief Justice Sereno will lead the judiciary in undertaking much-needed reforms,” Lacierda said. “We believe the judicial branch of government has a historic opportunity to restore our people’s confidence in the judicial system.”

Sereno’s elevation to Chief Justice leaves another vacancy in the Supreme Court, which the President must fill within the next 90 days.

At first, Lacierda and his deputy, Abigail Valte, refused to brief reporters on Sereno’s appointment, saying they were in mourning.

Lacierda, however, grudgingly made himself available after being criticized for favoring television stations.

No Luisita connection

He defended the President’s choice, quickly parrying suggestions of connection with the Hacienda Luisita case in the Supreme Court, where Sereno voted in favor of the compensation package Mr. Aquino’s relatives, who controlled the sugar estate, was asking.

Lacierda stressed that the case was closed and that the Supreme Court had already said it would not entertain any further motions to save the hacienda from coverage of the agrarian reform law.

He said that in spite of the mourning for Robredo’s death, Mr. Aquino managed to sit down with the nominees for Chief Justice.

“He interviewed the nominees for the position of Chief Justice,” Lacierda said. He added that the President interviewed the nominees “in a span of two days,” but that he didn’t know exactly when.

Lacierda sought to justify Sereno’s potentially long tenure on the Supreme Court.

“Obviously, this is the first time that someone as young as Justice Sereno, who’s only 52, has been appointed [as Chief Justice],” he said. “So the President believes that Justice Sereno would be the most able to institute reforms in the judiciary. That is the consideration of the President in appointing the next Chief Justice.”

Welcome to lawyers

The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), the association of all lawyers in the country, welcomed Sereno’s appointment, but the most outspoken legal expert in the Senate, Miriam Defensor Santiago, said she must “come down from her ivory tower” of outstanding academic background to face the real problems of a Third World judicial system.

Sereno is a former professor at the University of the Philippines College of Law.

“We would like to congratulate the President for choosing Justice Sereno as the new Chief Justice,” said Roan Libarios, president of the IBP. “In our mock elections [in the IBP], she was our Number 2 choice because we believe she has the capability to undertake the required reforms in the judiciary. She has the idealism and required capacity to implement reforms.”

Santiago, too, said she believed Mr. Aquino made the right choice, as the country’s first female Chief Justice is not identified with big business and does not owe her appointment to any lobby group.

“I understand that she has not been appointed to any judicial post,” Santiago said. “She will therefore have to take into consideration the viewpoint of trial judges as distinguished from her own outstanding academic background.”

Biggest challenge

That will be Sereno’s biggest challenge, Santiago said. “She is fully acquainted with the law as it ought to be. She has to raise the level of her awareness of the law as it is. In other words, she will have to come down from her ivory tower and prepare herself to confront the problems of a Third World country.”

Santiago said she did not see any problem with Sereno’s age. “She is certain to ensure continuity in Supreme Court policy because she is very young,” she said.

Santiago defended Sereno from critics who saw her appointment as President Aquino’s ensuring a Supreme Court friendly to his administration.

“That is too facile a conclusion,” Santiago said. “The Chief Justice can very well stand on her own merits. That she’s also acquainted with the thinking of the President on certain legal issues is a big plus.’

New face but insider

“It’s a well-deserved appointment,” said Sen. Franklin Drilon, chair of the Senate committee on finance and a former secretary of justice.

“This is an opportunity for her to institute real reforms in the judiciary,” he said.

Sen. Francis Pangilinan, a former chair of the Senate committee on justice, said, “Nothing less than sweeping reforms will do to ensure that the crisis facing the judiciary will be overcome. We will need the energy, creativity and stamina of a new generation of jurists to do that.”

“The President made it his personal mission to reform the judiciary … I hope she’ll build on the gains of the impeachment [of Corona],” Senate Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano said.

“Associate Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno is a good choice,” House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte said. “A new face yet an insider with a reputation for competence and independence. She will prove to be an effective leader of the judiciary


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