On July 25, a Philippines court ordered the suspension of Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, who is facing graft and plunder charges, for 90 days. Enrile, who is fighting the charges, has turned to litigator Estelito Mendoza—who at 84 remains the defense lawyer of choice for members of the Filipino elite facing corruption charges.
Like many of his clients, Mendoza has roots that stretch back to the administration of late President Ferdinand Marcos. As solicitor general, he won a 1972 Supreme Court case that gave legal standing to martial law in the Philippines for 10 years. For many observers, that legacy has made Mendoza about as popular as his clients.
“The ones who were against martial law are not admirers of Mendoza,” says Jose Laureta, a former partner at Filipino firm SyCip Salazar Hernandez & Gatmaitan who represented clients who had been detained by the Marcos regime.
Mendoza, who earned an LL.M. from Harvard Law School in 1954, stayed in the Marcos administration and served as solicitor general until its ouster in 1986, as well as minister of justice for the last two years. He then launched a private law practice. That he continues to be a go-to lawyer for big cases such as these, some lawyers say, is a testament to his continued ability to win. Alfredo Molo, a senior associate at Manila-based Puno & Puno who has worked with Mendoza in the past, calls Mendoza a “known top-tier brand,” adding that in high-profile cases that require a certain finesse, “you need a personality, and he’s a personality.”
Certainly the charges against the 90-year-old Enrile qualify as such a case. Enrile and Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla Jr., along with businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles and about a half dozen associates, have been accused of plundering government infrastructure funds for $230 million over the course of 10 years. The money allegedly was funneled out to shell companies controlled by Napoles, who redistributed it to Enrile and the others.
Enrile was arrested on July 4 but has been housed in the Philippine National Police General Hospital because of his frail health. He refused to enter a plea at a July 11 hearing after the court rejected his motion to be shown evidence of his guilt; however, the court then entered a not guilty plea on his behalf. He is alleged to have misappropriated as much as $8 million, keeping about $4 million for himself. If convicted of plunder, he could receive a 30-year prison sentence and the forfeiture of any gains as a result of the alleged scam; a conviction on the 15 counts of graft he faces could mean between six and 15 years in prison, as well as disqualification from public office and the disgorgement of gains. He is currently awaiting trial, and all three senators have since been suspended by the court for 90 days.
Mendoza is no stranger to trials such as these. In 2000 he acted for former President Joseph Estrada in Estrada’s impeachment for plundering up to $93.5 million and on parts of the court case that followed between 2001 and 2007, including the closing arguments. Estrada was ultimately found guilty of plunder but was pardoned by his successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. In 2010, in another plunder case, Mendoza represented Macapagal-Arroyo, who was alleged to have failed to remit $1.7 million in capital gains from the sale of Iloilo airport. The case was dismissed two years later.
In 1998, Mendoza acted for Marcos’ wife, Imelda, of a thousand-pairs-of-shoes fame, overturning a corruption conviction and nullifying a 16-year prison sentence against her. He also helped former Marcos crony Lucio Tan—a billionaire who controls major liquor, tobacco, airlines and banking interests in the Philippines—escape a charge of evading $621 million in taxes in a case that played out between 1993 and 2006, part of a general campaign by the administration that followed Marcos to reclaim wealth that was allegedly plundered while he controlled the Philippines. Mendoza won a similar case for San Miguel Corp. chairman Eduardo Cojuangco Jr., another Marcos associate, which was finally decided in his client’s favor in 2011.
The loyalty these clients have shown to Mendoza is due to the fact that “this guy is just smarter than anyone else they could have working for them,” says Covington & Burling Washington, D.C., senior counsel Peter Trooboff. Trooboff and Covington worked with Mendoza on a number of matters, including arbitrations and litigations, starting in the 1970s. (He declined to name them because there were not open to the public.)
Other observers point to Mendoza’s network of connections in the Philippines’ business and legal community to explain his success.
Two former chief justices, Reynato Puno and Hilario Davide Jr., were once his students at the University of the Philippines law school. (Asked for references who could speak to his character, Mendoza named Puno and another current Supreme Court justice, Roberto Abad.) He holds seats on the boards of San Miguel Corp. and Philippine National Bank (controlled by Lucio Tan Group) and a nonexecutive director position at oil and gas company Petron Corp., which is 51 percent owned by San Miguel. In the past, he has also been a director at Lucio Tan Group and Philippine Airlines Inc., a joint venture between San Miguel and Lucio Tan Group.
However, Mendoza dismisses the idea that he ever curried favor in the Supreme Court through his former students or colleagues in the Marcos administration. If critics want to question his track record, he says, they need only consult the courts’ decisions. “The problem is that those who complain are the losing parties,” he says.
There are obvious questions about how much longer Mendoza can continue to practice, given his age.
Even before a recent hospital stay for pneumonia, Mendoza rarely took meetings before 10 a.m., he says, because he simply can’t get moving fast enough in the morning to take them earlier. Hearing loss has forced him to rely on technology to question witnesses in court. An assistant types their answers into a mobile application called AirDisplay, which sends the text to his iPad and allows him to keep pace with the examination.
Still, Mendoza insists he’ll keep working. “I’ve seen him in court, just a few months ago,” says Molo of Puno & Puno, “and he’s still able to conduct himself as a trial lawyer should. He has a commanding presence in the courtroom, and he’s well respected by judges and other lawyers.”
“I am afraid if I retire, the one above who governs may retire me permanently,” Mendoza says.