MANILA, Philippines – Why has the Senate not yet formed its ethics committee 8 months after the start of the 16th Congress?
Senator Francis Escudero again asked this question amid calls for the Senate to expel the 3 senators indicted over the pork barrel scam if they refuse to resign.
Escudero responded to a Change.org petition of the #ScrapPork Network urging Senators Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr, Jinggoy Estrada and Juan Ponce Enrile to step down or the Senate to remove them from the chamber.
The network consists of the organizers of the Million People March, a nationwide protest against the worst corruption scandal in recent history.
“To begin with, before any expulsion or suspension can be begun or initiated, the Senate should first form the ethics committee that until now is not yet formed. We already asked that the ethics committee be convened before so our fellow senators will be given the venue to air their side,” Escudero told reporters on Monday, April 7.
Escudero’s statement comes after the draft Senate blue ribbon committee report released last week recommended that the ethics committee investigate the plunder allegations against the 3 senators. The report said the scam affected the reputation of the Senate and the ethics committee is duty-bound to look into it.
Senate President Franklin Drilon and Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano have yet to reply to queries about updates on the formation of the ethics committee. Other Senate committees were formed at the opening of Congress in July 2013.
In past interviews, the two Senate leaders admitted that they were having a hard time forming the ethics committee because no senator wants to take on the chairmanship of the “sensitive” panel.
Senator Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV told Rappler that the formation of the ethics committee will likely be taken up when session resumes on May 5.
Asked if he was willing to head the committee, Aquino told Rappler, “We’ll see. I don’t know, maybe, but to be frank, we’ll probably have to talk about it as soon as we convene again.”
Minority senator Nancy Binay said, “It’s the call of the majority to organize the ethics committee. I don’t know why up to now there is still no chairman.”
Last week, the Ombudsman announced that it will file plunder charges against Revilla, Estrada and Enrile for allegedly funneling their pork barrel funds to bogus non-governmental organizations to get millions of pesos in kickbacks.
Estrada maintained that the ethics committee, not the blue ribbon panel, was the proper venue for the Senate probe.
Suspension is automatic
Whether the ethics committee is formed or not, Escudero and Aquino said the law mandates the automatic suspension of the 3 senators once charges are filed against them.
The Plunder Law or RA 7080 states that, “Any public officer against whom any criminal prosecution under a valid information under this Act in whatever stage of execution and mode of participation, is pending in court, shall be suspended from office.”
Aquino said, “Resignation is another matter but that’s really a personal choice. What we need to look at are what are the provisions of the plunder law and it’s unique in that it calls for a suspension.”
Last week, Drilon also said that the Sandiganbayan will order the 3 senators suspended once there is a warrant of arrest. Constitutional law expert Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago said their arrest and detention are only a matter of time.
Revilla and Estrada already said that they will not resign or go on leave, while Enrile has been silent since the announcement of the plunder charges.
‘Jail the popular with the unpopular’
With the senators’ detention now being discussed, Escudero again rejected calls for the accused to be allowed to stay in a special detention facility provided that they pay for the expenses and the crime committed is non-violent.
“Lalo nating ginawang hindi pantay ang mayaman at mahirap pagdating sa mga sinasampahan ng kaso, inaakusahan ng krimen. Kung ano ang pwede sa mahirap, ‘yun din dapat sa mayaman. Kung ano ang pwede sa hindi sikat, ‘yun din dapat sa sikat,” Escudero said in reference to his actors-turned-politicians colleagues.
(We are widening the disparity in the treatment of the rich and the poor accused of crimes. What should be allowed for poor suspects should also be allowed for the rich. What was allowed for those who are not popular should be the same as for those who are popular.)
This was the same opinion Santiago voiced last week. “That will answer the question on how we can avoid the perception justice is two-tiered in the country,” she said.
Some senators and netizens have complained about the special treatment the police is giving to alleged scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles. They expressed concern that this will also be the case with the 3 senators.
Escudero quipped that the 3 senators could have done something to make their future condition better.
“Kung gusto ng sikat maganda ang board and lodging niya, eh ‘di tumulong siyang mapaganda ang ordinaryong bilangguan para sa ordinaryong nakabilanggo.”
(If the one who’s popular wants his board and lodging to be ideal, then he should help improve the condition of our ordinary jails for the ordinary prisoners.)
In an interview with ANC’s Headstart, #ScrapPork Network spokesperson Betty Romero said the petition is a way of giving the senators “an opportunity to prove that they still have delicadeza (sense of propriety).”
“Anybody with a sense of honor would say…let me bow out of my position while there’s a question of trust coming from my constituents….We are calling on their delicadeza to come to the fore if they still have it. However, if they refuse to resign, we are challenging the Senate to expel them. That is the next step,” Romero said.
Peachy Tan, another #ScrapPork Network spokesperson, said the petition also exerts political pressure on other senators to expel their 3 colleagues.
“I think the remaining senators will see that if they want to continue to have a political carer in the Philippines, they will have to heed the public clamor for the resignation or the expulsion of these 3 senators in the Senate,” Tan said.
Fear the people
Romero clarified that the group is “100 percent believers in due process” but the ultimate goal of of the group is to strike fear in the hearts of lawmakers to make them more diligent in the use of public funds and in governance, as a whole.
“If it makes the different lawmakers think twice about discretionary funds, if it makes them a little more careful of the allocation of the pork barrel, if it makes them more careful in how they are governing – that will be a measure of success. We want to put a little bit of fear in them, and they have to be afraid of the Filipino people, the constituents who put them in office,” she said.
Romero also clarified that the group is not just after the 3 senators but all others named in the Commission on Audit (COA) report on Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) use from 2007 to 2009.
“We want to make it clear that we are calling for the investigation of all. Whatever party, whatever alliances – we are calling for an investigation,” Romero said. – Rappler.com