Senate ethics body torn on how to handle complaint vs De Lima

MANILA, Philippines – Members of the Senate committee on ethics and privileges on Tuesday, September 13, disagreed on the technicalities involving the complaint filed against Senator Leila De Lima.

The committee was initially set to vote on whether the complaint about De Lima's alleged drug links is sufficient in form and substance, and whether it has jurisdiction over it.

Senate President Pro-Tempore Franklin Drilon, an ex-officio member of the body, said the panel should first decide on the jurisdiction aspect before it tackles the contents of the complaint.

"'Di ba dapat unahin 'yung jurisdiction because 'yung form, wala naman tayong prescribed form dito. (Shouldn't we tackle jurisdiction first? We don't have a prescribed form.) Form, not that difficult. To me, the more substantial issue is the jurisdiction of the committee," Drilon told the panel.

But Senator Panfilo Lacson, committee vice chairman, opposed the motion, saying they first have to decide if the complaint is sufficient in form and substance.

"We will have to decide first on the complaint's sufficiency in form and substance because that's the root of the complaint, before we even discuss jurisdiction simply because it is the primary consideration we have to look into," Lacson told Drilon.

But Drilon rebutted, arguing that before any investigation in any forum pushes through, the specific body should first decide on whether or not it has jurisdiction over the matter in question.

"In any forum, before you assert 'we can investigate you,' the prima facie determination is we have jurisdiction and therefore we will look into substance of allegations. If you look at substance before allegations, will we now require respondent (De Lima) to present evidence to dispute the substance?" Drilon said.

Drilon is De Lima's ally in the Liberal Party, while Lacson and De Lima had a bitter past after the former justice secretary launched a manhunt against him for being implicated in the murder of publicist Salvador "Bubby" Dacer and driver Emmanuel Corbito.

Rule 2, Section 15 of the committee rules covers jurisdiction, as it states that anyone may file a verified complaint against any senator, who has allegedly violated a law "at any time after he or she has taken his or her oath."

Section 17, meanwhile, mandates that the body determine if the complaint has complied both in form and substance.

De Lima faces perjury charges, after lawyer Abelardo de Jesus filed an ethics complaint against her based on President Rodrigo Duterte's accusations that she was involved in illegal drugs during her term as justice chief.

Previous Luisa Ejercito Estrada case

In insisting on his proposal, Drilon cited a 2002 ethics committee decision, recommending to dismiss the complaint against then senator Luisa Ejercito Estrada. The same recommendation, Drilon said, was even approved by the whole chamber.

Estrada was accused of demanding money from a Filipino inventor in exchange for her endorsement of the product during her stint as First Lady. The committee junked the complaint, saying it had no jurisdiction over acts committed by members before joining the Senate.

"It clearly shows by precedent in this committee report that jurisdiction must be determined first before we go into the form and substance. That's clear under this report," Drilon said.

Senator Risa Hontiveros, another ally of De Lima, echoed Drilon's position, saying the members of the committee then seemed to have acted faithfully according to the Senate rules.

"The case involving former Senator Loi Ejercito Estrada is possibly instructive for the committee in taking this complaint against Senator De Lima. It would seem that the committee acted in faithfulness to the reading of the rules of the Senate," Hontiveros added.

The committee's general counsel Karen Jimeno, for her part, recommended that they first determine if the rules governing the 2002 decision also have separate provisions on jurisdiction and form and substance.

"Perhaps the committee can look into the rules applicable at the time when the complaint of Senator Ejercito was decided, as to whether it was worded similarly in terms of having a section on exclusive jurisdiction or another section on form and substance," Jimeno said.

While acknowledging the importance of the Ejercito Estrada case, Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III, committee chairman, said the two technicalities should be decided simultaneously.

"Right now, kailangan i-assess. Ang decision ko, as far as I'm concerned, 'yung issue pinagtatalunan kanina, dapat pagsamahin natin, dapat isabay na... para wala nang nabibitin pa," Sotto told reporters after the hearing.

(Right now, we should make an assessment. My decision, as far as I'm concerned, regarding the issue they were arguing about earlier – we should decide on the two simultaneously, so no issue would be left hanging.)

Despite disagreements among the committee members, Sotto vowed to resolve the complaint fairly, with no delays.

"Kailangan we should act on it as soon as possible, para 'di tayo na-a-accuse na either dinidiinan na natin si Senator De Lima or inililigtas natin agad. Ayaw natin maisip sa 'tin 'yun," he said.

(We should act on it as soon as possible, so we won't be accused of either pinning down Senator De Lima or absolving her too quickly. We do not want others to speculate about the committee.) – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com

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