Ungab, Leachon stripped of key House posts amid coup rumors

MANILA, Philippines – Davao City 3rd District Representative Isidro Ungab and Oriental Mindoro 1st District Representative Salvador Leachon are the first casualties in the alleged power struggle in the House.

Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, reportedly the target of a coup plot, was supposedly pissed off by recent statements made by the two congressmen.

During the plenary session on Monday, March 2, Senior Deputy Majority Leader Jesus Crispin Remulla moved to replace Ungab as chair of the House committee on appropriations – tasked to scrutinize the national budget – with ACT-CIS Representative Eric Yap.

Remulla also moved to kick out Leachon as chair of the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal (HRET), which tackles election cases filed against incumbent legislators. Leachon will be replaced by Kabayan Representative Ron Salo.

Yap, House committee on games and amusements chair, will be replaced by Abra Representative Joseph Bernos for the post.

Because no lawmaker in the plenary hall objected to Remulla's motion, presiding Deputy Speaker Rose Marie Arenas accepted the changes in the House leadership. (READ: LIST: House committee chairmanships for 18th Congress)

This is the first House reorganization to happen under Cayetano, who has accused Marinduque Representative Lord Allan Velasco of staging a coup against him. The two are supposed to share the speakership under a 15 month-21 month agreement endorsed by no less than President Rodrigo Duterte.

Multiple House insiders told Rappler that Cayetano and his allies are now "maneuvering" to use Velasco's foiled coup attempt to scrap their term-sharing agreement. (READ: Is there a House coup or is Cayetano just out to scrap term-sharing with Velasco?)

In a chance interview in Makati City on Monday morning, Cayetano warned House leaders allegedly out to challenge his speakership to just leave their posts if they do not want to work with him anymore.

"If you're going to continue the intrigues, umalis na lang kayo sa posisyon 'nyo and then tsaka kayo bumalik pagka naging Speaker si Congressman Velasco, 'di ba, kung kailanman 'yun. Gano'n naman kasimple 'yun eh," he said.

(If you're going to continue intrigues, leave your posts and then just return when Congressman Velasco becomes Speaker, whenever that may be. It's that simple.)

Why was Ungab removed? The Davao City congressman angered the Speaker and his allies after he supposedly told Duterte and Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado about the alleged multibillion-peso illegal insertions in the P4.1-trillion national budget this year.

This allegedly prompted the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to say that it would withhold the release of P80 billion worth of funds realigned by lawmakers under the 2020 budget pending a review of the allocations. 

If the Cayetano bloc is to be believed, the uncertainty among lawmakers caused by this DBM memorandum is allegedly being used by Velasco to convince House members to oust the Speaker.

But the Velasco bloc has denied this. (READ: Velasco denies plotting oust-Cayetano coup amid ABS-CBN issue) 

Sought for comment on his removal, Ungab said the "truth will prevail" in the end.

"I believe that the only guide to a man is his conscience, and the truth will always prevail no matter what. I have served my country and people well to the utmost of my ability. I accept my fate and so be it," said the Davao City congressman.

In a brief press conference, Yap – Ungab's replacement – said he was not able to follow the alleged coup rumors as he had been in Benguet last week, where he had no proper mobile signal. He was then surprised when Cayetano approached him just before the session on Monday asking if he would be willing to become the new appropriations committee chairperson.

"Kanina, pagkapunta ko, kinausap na ko ni Speaker tungkol sa trabaho. Ang akin kasi, ako nagtatrabaho lang dito. Kung ano man iutos sa akin, gagawin ko lang po," the ACT-CIS lawmaker said.

(The Speaker approached me about the job earlier. For me, I just do my work here. Whatever the order is, I do it.)

Yap is close to the President's son, Davao City 1st District Representative Paolo Duterte. But he does not think Cayetano had picked him because of his closeness to the younger Duterte. Rather, he believes he was able to demonstrate his ability to lead the appropriations panel after participating in last year's bicameral conference committee meetings on the 2020 budget.

"Ako tingin ko hindi naman. Kumbaga pagdating naman sa experience, nakapagsubok naman tayo ng bicam. Nagawa naman natin 'yung participation natin sa bicam," Yap said.

(I don't think so. When it comes to my experience, I was able participate in the bicam. I was able to do my part in the bicam.)

Why was Leachon removed? The Oriental Mindoro congressman was embroiled in a heated word war against Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte, a loyal Cayetano ally, over the weekend.

Leachon is party mates with Velasco in the ruling Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), while Villafuerte and Cayetano are part of the Nacionalista Party.

It all began with Villafuerte telling Velasco in a statement on Friday, February 28, that the latter should "man up" by admitting to the alleged ouster plot against the Speaker.

"That he is not man enough to take responsibility for his pathetic action after its failure speaks volumes of the flawed character and lack of credibility of Rep. Velasco who, in the first place, is bereft of the gravitas, track record, and experience in public office to replace Speaker Alan at the helm of the bigger chamber," the Camarines Sur 2nd District representative said.

Leachon then retaliated on Sunday, March 1, to defend Velasco, telling Villafuerte to "shut up" as the latter seems to believe his own lies regarding the coup rumors.

"LRay, better for you to shut your mouth! This guy is unbelievably fantastic as he has that temerity to go public and say things which he knows for himself are all lies," Leachon said in a statement.

"Magaling...napaniwala niya pati sarili niya sa kanyang sariling kasinungalingan (He's so good...that he made even himself believe his own lies)," added the Oriental Mindoro congressman.

After his removal, Leachon said he is "perfectly okay."

"I will always be mighty proud of my actions as I was raised and taught that there is never a wrong time doing the right thing. They can rob and take away all of our positions especially from PDP-Laban, but we'll never bow down to this masked leadership of tyranny. As it will be always a nice feeling putting a hard fight for a friend and our cause," he said. – Rappler.com 

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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