Sotto set to replace Enrile as minority head

Ayee Macaraig
Senate Deputy Minority Leader Tito Sotto will likely take over as the minority leader if Senator Juan Ponce Enrile is arrested over the pork barrel scam

ENRILE'S DEPUTY. Senate Deputy Minority Leader Vicente Sotto III says the minority's work will continue despite the possible detention of its two members: Estrada and Enrile. File photo

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Who will lead the Senate minority bloc if Senator Juan Ponce Enrile is detained like his two colleagues?

Senate President Franklin Drilon said Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III will likely take over as acting minority leader if the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan orders Enrile’s arrest over the pork barrel scam.

“That will be the scenario as Senator Sotto is the Deputy Minority Leader,” Drilon told Rappler on Tuesday, June 24, a day after minority bloc member Senator Jinggoy Estrada was ordered arrested and surrendered to authorities.

Drilon though said that the arrangement is not yet final.

“I have not talked to Senator Sotto on this issue, as who the minority leader [will be] is the call of the minority group,” the Senate President said.

Of the 3 senators charged with plunder, only Enrile remains out of jail. Opposition senators Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr and Estrada are detained at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center in Camp Crame, Quezon City after the court ordered their arrest. 

Revilla surrendered to the court on Friday, while Estrada did the same with his father, former president and now Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, on Monday.

The Sandiganbayan 3rd Division has yet to rule on Enrile’s motion for judicial determination of probable cause.

Sotto said he too has not yet discussed the minority leadership with Enrile.

“[We] will cross the bridge when we get there,” Sotto told Rappler.  

He said that the minority will continue to carry out its task even if two of its members are detained. “Of course, nothing is changed as far as Senate work is concerned.”

A close ally of the minority leader, Sotto was the majority leader in the 15th Congress when Enrile was Senate President. Estrada was then Senate President Pro-Tempore.

The minority leader is one of the officers of the Senate, and is an ex-officio member of all committees. Traditionally, he or she leads the minority bloc in holding the majority accountable, and questioning administration measures, a role that members often refer to as “fiscalizing.”

Enrile though kept a low profile since the corruption scandal broke out in July 2013, coinciding with the opening of the 16th Congress.

Enrile, Estrada and Revilla are accused of conniving with alleged scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles to funnel their discretionary funds known as pork barrel to her bogus non-governmental organizations in a sophisticated scheme.

In exchange, Revilla allegedly got P224 million ($5.11 million) in kickbacks, followed by Estrada with P183 million ($4.17 million) and Enrile with P172 million ($3.92 million).

The members of the minority are Enrile, Estrada, Sotto, Senator Gregorio Honasan II, and neophyte senators Nancy Binay and JV Ejercito. Honasan was also implicated in the scam and will reportedly be part of the third batch of officials to face a complaint before the Ombudsman. 

Senator Binay said she has no objections to having Sotto as minority leader. 

“We have not yet talked about it but Senator Sotto is our deputy minority floor leader anyway,” she said in Filipino in a text message to Rappler. 

Automatic suspension?

Drilon announced in early June that the arrest of the senators will not trigger a Senate reorganization. While Estrada is chairman of the labor committee and Revilla is head of the public services committee, the vice chairmen of their committees will take over their work.

Senator Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara is labor committee vice chairman while Senator Sergio Osmeña III is the vice chairman of the public services committee.

Besides the physical absence due to their arrest, the charged senators will be unable to carry out their functions because the plunder law provides for their automatic suspension.

Section 5 of the law 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.”

Drilon though said in a previous interview that the Senate will wait for the Sandiganbayan to make an order to suspend the senators. Citing jurisprudence, he said the suspension lasts for 90 days.

“The Ombudsman through the Special Prosecutor must file the appropriate motion in the Sandigan but the Sandigan has no option to deny. [If there is an order,] we will comply,” Drilon said.

The Ombudsman has yet to file the motion to suspend the senators before the court. – Rappler.com