MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – "Stand down, back off, and allow us to do our job."
Senate Blue Ribbon Committee Chairman Teofisto “TG” Guingona III blasted what he called efforts to “gag and bar” witnesses from appearing before his committee’s probe into the multi-billion peso pork barrel scam.
Guingona openly disagreed with Senate President Franklin Drilon and Justice Secretary Leila de Lima for citing the confidentiality rule of the Office of the Ombudsman. He also took a swipe at the two for allegedly blocking the probe.
“The powers of the Senate are supreme. Nobody, nobody, not the Ombudsman nor the courts can interfere with the Senate. We are a separate branch of government and this power has been put in the Constitution and upheld in a long line of cases in the Supreme Court, and I will not allow anyone, anyone to diminish the power and stature of the Senate,” a visibly upset Guingona said in an interview after the hearing.
Drilon decided not to sign the subpoena issued by Guingona’s committee for alleged scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles to appear in the Senate on Thursday, September 26. The Senate President is deferring to the opinion of Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales on the issue because of the confidentiality rule.
Guingona said he disagreed and Drilon's move was wrong. "I was surprised and I did not see that coming."
Drilon and Guingona are both Aquino allies and partymates in the ruling Liberal Party (LP).
De Lima used Drilon's same argument in refusing to bring witnesses to the Senate hearing on Tuesday, September 24. The absence of the whistleblowers cut short the hearing, lasting only 30 minutes.
In a statement he issued after the hearing, Guingona said he is determined to pursue the investigation to fulfill his promise that “no stone shall be left unturned.”
“When witnesses are gagged and barred from appearing before the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee and a subpoena for a vital resource person remains unsigned, I, as chairperson of the Blue Ribbon Committee, am duty-bound to defend the rules of the Senate and most importantly, to defend the Senate’s power pursuant to the Constitution.”
He added, “With the Constitution and Supreme Court rulings on my side, I call on all forces who wish to weaken, diminish, and destroy the power of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee and the Senate itself to stand down, back off, and allow us to do our job.”
Drilon and De Lima cited the confidentiality rule of the Ombudsman after the justice department filed a plunder, malversation and corruption complaint against 38 individuals last week.
The Ombudsman’s Rules of Procedure state that, “The Ombudsman may publicize in a fair and balanced manner the filing of a complaint … provided however that prior to such final action, no publicity shall be made of matters which may adversely affect national security or public interest, prejudice the safety of witnesses or the deposition of the case, or unduly expose persons complained against to ridicule or public censure.”
In turn, Guingona cited the Constitution to argue his case.
“The Senate or the House of Representatives or any of its respective committees may conduct inquiries in aid of legislation in accordance with its duly published rules of procedure. The rights of persons appearing in, or affected by, such inquiries shall be respected.”
He also cited Supreme Court rulings in the cases of Romero et al vs Chavez et al and Standard Chartered Bank vs Senate Committee on Banks.
"Even the Supreme Court, in the case of Senate Blue Ribbon Committee v. Judge Majaducon (GR No. 136760, July 29, 2003), reminds us the even the court has no authority to prohibit the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee from requiring a respondent to appear and testify before it. This is clearly applicable to this Committee’s desire to compel Janet Lim-Napoles to be present in its hearings.”
He added, "For as long as no encroachment in jurisdiction occurs, each branch must be allowed to exercise its power independently, without being chained to dilatory and baseless tactics."
The senator said in the case of former military comptroller Carlos Garcia, the Senate continued its probe even if the case was already pending before the Sandiganbayan, the anti-graft court. "No one questioned it then. How come now, they are questioning it? I can't allow that. Not under my watch."
Guingona’s committee is holding a parallel investigation into the scam where lawmakers allegedly channeled their pork barrel funds to Napoles’ fake NGOs in exchange for commissions as big as 50% of the project.
‘You can’t invoke Ombudsman’
During the hearing, Guingona chastised De Lima for turning back on her commitment to bring the witnesses.
“What you’ve done is unprecedented and in my view you have attempted to undermine and diminish the power of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee. I’m very, very disappointed,” Guingona told De Lima.
The justice secretary said in response, “The Ombudsman has assumed jurisdiction over the case and she now has authority to determine whether it's proper for whistleblowers to testify on the affidavits they submitted to the Ombudsman.”
Guingona lamented the witnesses’ absence, saying he and De Lima met last week and the justice secretary then assured him that she will bring to the next hearing whistleblowers Benhur Luy, Gertrudes Luy, Marina Sula and Merlina Suña. They are all former aides of Napoles.
“You even appealed to move the hearing because last week was hectic because of the filing [of the complaint]. You said the whistleblowers were tired,” Guingona told De Lima.
Guingona said the commitment from De Lima prompted him to issue a mere invitation instead of a subpoena.
Yet Guingona said De Lima changed her tune when she sent him a letter on Monday saying that she will defer to the Ombudsman because of the confidentiality rule.
“This is unprecedented because we had an agreement that you will bring whistleblowers and I relied on that. You invoked Ombudsman rules and my opinion is you cannot do that because you are not the Ombudsman,” the senator said.
In response, De Lima confirmed meeting with Guingona.
“After our conversation, I had to take a closer look at Ombudsman law, rules of procedures. It confirmed the no publicity rule when a case is filed before it, and the case may be prejudiced,” she said.
This agitated Guingona. He said the Constitution and cases before the Supreme Court guarantee his committee’s power to conduct legislative investigations. He cited the case of former Sen Nene Pimentel, who held a Senate probe while a case was pending before the Ombudsman.
Guingona said the High Court upheld the Senate because “there was no case in court yet so there was no encroachment in a separate branch of government.”
The senator then asked why De Lima would not allow the witnesses to appear in the Senate.
“I really don’t understand pinayagan mo ang mga witnesses, mga whistleblowers na magpa-interview sa TV, sa newspaper, sa radyo. Tapos nung nag-file kayo ng kaso, nagdistribute ka pa ng executive summary. Nandiyan ang complaints, statements, fact. Binigay mo na ang sworn affidavits, it’s open to the public.
(You allowed the witnesses to be interviewed on TV, newspapers, radio. Then you filed a case and distributed an executive summary that had the complaints, statements, facts. You even gave us the sworn affidavits.)
In the end, Guingona no longer gave De Lima a chance to respond.
“I am therefore issuing a subpoena directed to you to have the whistleblowers appear in the Senate on Thursday, 10 am,” he said and quickly stood up to leave the room.
The next hearing is scheduled on Thursday, September 26.
Photo by Joseph Vidal/Senate PRIB
‘I’m not defying Senate’
In an interview after the hearing, De Lima said she did not mean to defy the Senate or undermine its power.
“Even if initially I said yes I can produce the witnesses, it was not a categorical commitment. I had to evaluate. I wanted to see if that is legally possible or feasible,” she said.
De Lima said she only deferred to the Ombudsman, especially after Drilon also did the same before signing the subpoena for Napoles to attend the Senate probe.
“I am not disobeying anything. I am sorry that was the reaction of Senator TG. He is entitled to his sentiments and to his feelings and I’m sorry that was his reaction, maybe he misunderstood.”
With Guingona bent on issuing a subpoena, De Lima said she will be compelled to bring the witnesses. Yet if the Ombudsman will not allow this, De Lima said she again will have to evaluate.
The justice secretary said if she brings the witnesses, she will again ask the committee to allow them not to name names because the department has yet to file the next batch of cases.
“This is such a big and sensitive case. We are just being careful that we do not compromise it,” she said.
As for Drilon, he said Monday he saw it fit to first consult the Ombudsman upon the advice of Senate Secretary Oscar Yabes about the confidentiality rule.
“Under [its] own rules, the Ombudsman [has] to determine the confidentiality of the proceedings whether or not it can adversely affect the case. So, that is for the Ombudsman to determine,” Drilon told reporters on Monday. – Rappler.com
Photo by Joseph Vidal/Senate PRIB