Calling a spade
Business World, 19 December 2012


Finally, after more than four and one-half years of legal battle, and the expenditure of every penny of her life’s savings, Mila Espinosa has emerged victorious, her honor vindicated. Truth and justice have triumphed. The case of a poor widow winning over the combined power of a conjugal dictatorship. Such triumphs must be celebrated, not just because these types of occurrences seem to come so few and far between, but because it gives renewed hope to those victims who have begun to think that they can’t win, especially against the strong and the powerful.

Mila’s story is worth retelling. At the time I met her, she was an assistant professor at the Technological University of the Philippines (TUP) and had been with that institution for 10 years. She had been widowed, was the sole breadwinner of her family, and was determinedly working on her Ph.D, courtesy of the Ford Foundation. And she was battling the president of TUP, and the academic vice-president as well.

The way I met her is illustrative of her courage and determination. I did not know her from Adam. She had been trying to make an appointment with me for maybe a period of two months, and couldn’t get to first base, because our schedules didn’t seem to fit. But she was a very persistent lady, and I finally told my assistant Eden to tell her that her best shot was to come to the Club Filipino where I had a scheduled activity, and wait for me there, so that we could talk on my way to another appointment.

I was surprised, and very impressed, that she called my bluff, so to speak. When I came out of the function room where I had given a speech, she was waiting, and introduced herself to me. She joined me in my car, and told me her story: she had been the victim of sexual harassment by the president of the TUP; after much soul searching and consultation with experts at the UP, she had filed charges against him; that he and the vice-president of academic affairs (who later turned out to be the president’s wife — they had been secretly married, but chose not to announce it, even as she was appointed dean and later VP upon his strong recommendation) had first tried to bribe her with offers of additional perks in exchange for her not filing charges; and when that failed, resorted to threats and other forms of harassment, which they were in a position to implement.

She provided me with the documents that I asked of her (if memory serves, she had them already with her — I don’t know if it was because Eden had told her to have them at the ready, or she was keeping all her bases covered), and after reading them (both affidavits and counter-affidavits), I wrote about it in this column.

The incidents of sexual harassment occurred in the second half of 2007. The time element is quite significant, because in June of 2007, the President of Israel (Moshe Katsay) had signed a plea bargain with the Israeli Attorney General wherein he (Katsay) would resign from his position, would plead guilty to the charges of sexual harassment, indecent acts and harassing a witness, and would pay damages to the claimants — in exchange for no rape charges and no jail time. One would have thought that the widely reported news story would have given the president of TUP (Godofredo Gallega) pause. But one would have thought wrong. The culture of impunity.

Mila filed charges against TUP president Godofredo Gallega with the Civil Service Commission (and the Office of the Ombudsman) at the end of 2007. I met her towards the second half of 2008. And wrote my first column on the matter in July of 2008, followed by other columns over the next couple of years.

The Civil Service case took more than two years to resolve — and in the meantime, Mila was the subject of non-sexual harassment on the part of her academic superiors (Gallega and his wife). She was treated like a pariah, all kinds of rumors were spread about her (including sexual predilections).

One would have thought that while the case was pending, Gallega would have been placed under preventive suspension. And one would have thought right. The Civil Service Commission (Chair Ricardo Saludo) ordered Gallega placed under a three-month preventive suspension. But the TUP’s Board of Regents (chaired by CHEd member Nona Ricafort) ignored the order — until Saludo sent them a letter asking them to explain forthwith why they should not be held in contempt. It was only then that Gallega was preventively suspended — but the harassment of Espinosa did not seem to abate because of course Gallega’s wife was not included in the suspension. Because of the delay in implementing the preventive suspension, Gallega was able to preside over the TUP 2009 commencement exercises, with no less than the CHED Chair, Emmanuel Angeles as guest speaker.

The CSC handed down its decision in mid-2010, finding Gallega guilty of “less grave” sexual harassment, and since Gallega had retired in October of 2009, the punishment of six month suspension was converted into a six month salary deduction.

But the story did not end there, unfortunately. The legal battle continued, with Gallega filing for reconsideration. And the wheels of justice ground some more, with the CSC, in 2011, sticking to its guns. Not content with that, Gallega went up to the Court of Appeals. And the wheels of justice ground for another year before the Court of Appeals found against Gallega in July of this year. Gallega finally got the message, it seems. He no longer appealed.

Of course, all these legal wranglings cost Mila Espinosa, even if her lawyers served pro-bono and were just charging costs. She had to fork out ₱300,000 — her life savings — not to mention that she went on leave without pay for six months because of the pressures against her. But for her, it was money well spent.

I am not so happy though. My question as a non-lawyer is: shouldn’t the losing party have been made to pay for the costs? If so, why wasn’t Mila reimbursed? And if not, doesn’t that give the rich and moneyed an advantage over the poor? Is that why it is said that justice is only for the rich? I hope my lawyer-readers can answer/advise.