In going to the Supreme Court to petition for his release from Senate detention, embattled Pharmally executive Linconn Ong went as far as asking to declare unconstitutional the power of the Senate to hold in contempt and detain witnesses who evade questions.
Ong filed his petition for certiorari and prohibition before the Supreme Court on Thursday, October 7, through his lawyer Ferdinand Topacio.
The petition asks for a release order but it also asked to “declare as unconstitutional Section 18 of the Senate Rules of Procedure insofar as it punishes as contempt the act of testifying falsely or evasively.”
Section 18 of the rules give the Senate the power to hold in contempt its resource speakers who snub subpoenas and testify falsely or evasively. It also gives senators the power to have them detained.
It is a unique legislative power which the House of Representatives also has. It is outside the usual judicial power to arrest and detain.
The Supreme Court has recognized this legislative power time and again, but in 2018, in the case Balag vs Senate, the High Court said the detention power will be valid only within the period of hearings. After the inquiry is terminated, the witness shall be released.
Ong has been detained at the Senate since September 21 when the Senate blue ribbon committee found his answers inconsistent and evasive.
Ong is the director of Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corporation, the government’s most favored pandemic supplier, which has bagged at least P10 billion worth of contracts so far, despite being severely undercapitalized.
The hearings seek to find a connection to government officials, as they uncover irregularities like expired test kits, tampered face shields, and major lapses in processes like signing an inspection report without a delivery to inspect.
In filing this petition, Ong does not only seek his release, but also to void the long-standing power of the upper chamber – only insofar as punishing evasiveness or false testimonies.
The petition argued: How could senators be able to judge that a testimony is evasive or false?
“The question of the falsity of a particular utterance is a highly evidentiary matter the determination of which requires stringent application of the rules on evidence and which falls exclusively within the ambit of judicial power,” said the petition.
Ong was held in contempt after he gave inconsistent answers to questions about Michael Yang, President Rodrigo Duterte’s former economic adviser. Ong and Pharmally chairman Huang Tzu Yen would later be made to admit that Yang financed and served as guarantor for their company to undertake government projects.
As he continues to defend Pharmally and the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM), Duterte is also courting a constitutional crisis by issuing a memorandum that bars his Cabinet members from attending the hearings.
The Cabinet members, particularly former PS-DBM chief Lloyd Christopher Lao and Health Secretary Francisco Duque, followed this memo and snubbed the last hearing.
Refusing to comment on the legality of such memo – slammed widely by lawyers as unconstitutional – Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra instead appealed to the Senate for a compromise, like limiting the time that Cabinet members have to stay in the hearings.