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Senate still undecided on JV Ejercito's suspension

MANILA, Philippines – More than a week since the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan ordered the suspension of Senator Joseph Victor Ejercito, the Senate is still undecided on whether or not to implement it.

Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III on Wednesday, August 31, said he has referred the court order to the committee on rules to determine whether or not the chamber is authorized to suspend a member, as Senate rules state no clear policy.

"The letter of the Sandiganbayan instructs the Senate President to implement the suspension order. If you look at the rules of the Senate, in the enumeration of the powers of the Senate President, it is not there to suspend a member of the Senate," Pimentel told reporters.

"So I'm letting the Senate committee on rules find out where the power belongs. Or if the exercise of the power can be justified," he added.

Asked about the possibility that the order may not be implemented, Pimentel only said: "Basta nasa committee on rules, 'wag natin pangunahan (It's now with the committee on rules, let's not get ahead of it)."

Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III, chairman of the committee on rules, said the panel may or may not follow the court order. After all, he said, the Constitution allows Congress to "punish those within its ranks," said Sotto.

"This has happened before in the House (of Representatives) ilang beses (several times). 'Di tinatanggap sa House ang suspension order (The House does not accept the suspension order). Because supposed to be that's another thing."

Sotto said the committee is still studying the matter, adding he would submit a committee report "as soon as possible."

"Give me a few days. Option number one is to enforce, option number two is to study further. Option number 3 is not to enforce," the senator said.

Referring to the order, Sotto said: "Preventive, hindi naman punitive eh. Ano ipeprevent mo eh hindi na siya mayor? Senador siya. Ang ipeprevent mo 'yung trabaho niya dito sa Senado na magpasa ng mga batas or magpropose ng mga batas."

(It's preventive, not punitive. What will you prevent? He's no longer mayor. He's a senator. You would be preventing him from doing his job here at the Senate to pass laws or propose bills.)

The Sandiganbayan's 5th Division earlier ordered the 90-day suspension of Ejercito and 3 San Juan City officials over graft charges stemming from the alleged misuse of San Juan city funds in 2008.

How different from PDAF suspension?

The suspension of Ejercito may bring back recent memories of the chamber. In 2014, the anti-graft court also ordered the suspension of former senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, and Ramon Revilla Jr – rivals of the Aquino administration – over plunder charges.

Asked for the difference between Ejercito's case and that of the 3 former senators, Sotto said Ejercito's case happened when he was still a mayor and not during his term as senator.

But unlike then, he added, the present leadership has decided to study the issue first through the committee on rules. Ejercito is a known ally of President Rodrigo Duterte.

"Pinagbotohan (noon) sa floor. If you will recall, Drilon brought it to the floor instead na ipadala sa committee on rules, inapprove," Sotto said.

(It was voted on the floor. If you will recall, Drilon brought it to the floor instead of submitting it to the committee on rules. It was approved.) 

"Philosophy eh. Kaya nga tama na ginawa ni Senator Pimentel na irefer sa committee on rules (It's the philosophy. That's why what Senator Pimentel did is right, that he referred it to the committee on rules), he added.

Asked the same question, Pimentel said the Senate has a new leader.

"The senators before, kahit 100 senators before, eh bago na po ang Senate President ngayon (even if there were 100 senators before, there is a new Senate President now). I mean, that's how I read the rules, iba ang aking interpretation (I have a different interpretation), that's why in my opinion, it's better passed to the committee on rules so they can study in depth the situation," he said. – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, 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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