EJKs, corruption, China: How the Senate backs Duterte and allies

Camille Elemia
EJKs, corruption, China: How the Senate backs Duterte and allies
(UPDATED) From delaying investigations, ousting chairpersons, and clearing administration officials, the Senate has supported President Rodrigo Duterte in his two years in office

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Two years into his term, President Rodrigo Duterte has enjoyed the backing of an overwhelming majority of senators, even in controversial issues involving him, his family, and his allies.

From extrajudicial killings – the first major issue that rocked his administration – to corruption allegations, martial law, and now the policy toward China, the Senate either cleared the President and some of his allies from liability or has taken a soft stance on the issues.

University of the Philippines political science assistant professor Gene Pilapil told Rappler that the Senate failed to exercise its check-and-balance role and to “defend its institutional prerogatives.”

The two Senate presidents during the Duterte administration refuted this, however.

“These were honest-to-goodness investigations through the best of our efforts na walang kaming sinanto (where we didn’t have sacred cows),” former Senate president Aquilino Pimentel III told Rappler.

“No. I wonder if they are even familiar with our reports. I doubt it. They must be referring to mere reports of media and not contents of committee reports discussed on the floor,” Senate President Vicente Sotto III said.

Traditionally, the Senate is considered the more independent chamber of Congress, owing to its national mandate and constituency. But its relationship with Malacañang is more than meets the eye. Pilapil said that while senators share the same electorate as the president, making them usually less susceptible to influence, Malacañang has “vast resources” that they need.

Like the President, senators are also sensitive to national sentiment. With Duterte so far enjoying wide public support, it is not difficult to see why most senators either continue to back him or keep their cards close to their chest for now.

And then there are the 6 opposition senators who constantly criticize the President on varying degrees. There’s Minority Leader Franklin Drilon for legislation and legal matters; Francis Pangilinan, Risa Hontiveros, and Paolo Benigno Aquino IV for social issues, politics, and legislation; and Antonio Trillanes IV and Leila de Lima, the two fiercest critics of Duterte.

“The Senate should continue to act as an independent body looking at what is good for the people, and that is why the Senate should be composed of not only allies, even those who disagree with the President. In a democracy, you need the opposition to protect the rights and liberties of our people,” former Senate president Aquilino Pimentel Jr, father of the other ex-Senate president, told Rappler in an interview.

But with the current landscape, it is hard to be an opposition or to even air dissent.

“Most senators are automatically supportive. Properly genuflectory. Then, Tito [Sotto] replaced Koko [Pimentel], aggravating the perception problem of the body being an echo chamber. Whatever Lolo wants, Lolo gets,” former senator Rene Saguisag said.

Killings

Just a few months into the Duterte presidency, the Senate conducted a highly-charged probe into his flagship campaign promise, the bloody drug war, and the resulting deaths. (READ: Senators face off at probe into killings: ‘Trash talk, out of order’)

It was De Lima, former justice committee chair, who initially headed the probe, but she was eventually ousted by Duterte’s allies a few days after she presented Edgar Matobato, a self-confessed hitman for the Davao Death Squad, which Duterte allegedly formed when he was city mayor. At the time, senators questioned the credibility of Matobato for his “inconsistencies.” 

Another “problematic” witness for senators was retired cop Arthur Lascañas, who earlier denied before the Senate panel that he was a member of the Davao Death Squad. Months later, he resurfaced to contradict his own statements. Senators took this chance to dismiss his claims. (READ: Which information from Matobato does Lascañas corroborate?)

Senator Richard Gordon replaced De Lima, eventually ending the investigations. He concluded that neither the state nor the President sponsored the killings amid Duterte’s public pronouncements.

They instead cautioned Duterte, being the primary “role model” in the country, to implement his campaign against illegal drugs within the bounds of the law. Gordon’s committee report urged Duterte, who has vowed to protect the police, to make authorities accountable for their actions.

This, however, has not happened to date, as Duterte just reassigned erring cops to other posts. (READ: Where Philippine cops go unpunished, just recycled)

At the time of investigation, there were a thousand deaths recorded. Pilapil said the Senate could have done something then to stop the spate of killings, but instead they opted to “whitewash” it.

“There was a chance to immediately slow down the killings by signaling to Duterte that the Senate will have none of the EJKs, will condemn them, and that mass murder will be the red line between the two institutions…. It became a whitewash by concluding that the thousands of killings were not state-sponsored, hence signaling the green light to the executive that the Senate will not stand in the President’s way in the killing orgy,” Pilapil said.

Senator Panfilo Lacson, in a tweet, disagreed. He said the Senate adopted Committee Report 46 on the killing of Albuerra mayor Rolando Espinosa in jail. The report said former CIDG 8 chief Superintendent Marvin Marcos and his deputies had planned the killing of Espinosa, mainly to rid all traces of their supposed ties to the illegal drugs network in Eastern Visayas.

“I disagree. My Committee Report No. 46 on the killing of Mayor Espinosa… says otherwise. Excerpt: “No man in this country is so high that he is above the law,” Lacson said on Twitter.

While the mayor’s death was a drug-related killing, Espinosa was a high-profile suspect and his case was not part of the probe into the killing of thousands of ordinary Filipinos.

Pimentel, the Senate president then, defended the chamber’s move and said they had been nothing but fair.

“It did not absolve everyone. We made some recommendations to prosecute. But of course those not supportive of the President will never be satisfied unless and until the President himself is implicated. But if there is no evidence, why force the link? Just as if there is evidence, we will not deny the link. We are fair and we have been fair,” Pimentel said.

After the Senate hearings in 2016, drug-related killings continued nationwide. It was only in mid-2017 when Duterte slowed down his campaign. It had to take the blood of an innocent 17-year-old boy, who was killed by Caloocan police, and the public outrage it sparked to change his tune. The Senate investigated the matter and found police liable. (READ: Our son, Kian: A good, sweet boy)

By then, the drug war received less support from the public, as shown in surveys. To date, with no credible authority or institution officially stopping Duterte, his campaign against illegal drugs has branched out – this time to include “tambays” or loiterers. 

Corruption, irregularities

In his two years in office, Duterte, his family, and his allies have been subjects of corruption allegations.

Customs broker Mark Taguba said in congressional hearings that a so-called Davao Group was his connection to fast-track shipments in the Bureau of Customs (BOC). Trillanes linked presidential son Paolo Duterte to the Davao Group.

Paolo Duterte was implicated in the P6.4-billion worth of smuggled shabu from China. Gordon, also the Senate blue ribbon chair, cleared the younger Duterte and said there was no evidence  against him. Other allied senators shared the same view.

Gordon described as “hearsay” the photos presented during the hearing showing the younger Duterte, together with Kenneth Dong, the alleged middleman of the smuggled shipment of shabu, and Charlie Tan, alleged smuggler. Duterte admitted before a Senate panel that he is indeed friends with Tan, but denied knowing illegal transactions.

In Gordon’s committee report, he instead recommended a lifestyle check  on the presidential son and son-in-law Manases Carpio, husband of Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte.

After a series of hearings, the Senate failed to identify the real Tita Nanie, whom Taguba said introduced him to the so-called Davao Group for smooth transactions.

A memorandum dated December 7, 2007, from the Presidential Anti-Smuggling Group (PASG), stated that the younger Duterte was responsible for the smuggling of sport utility vehicles (SUVs), luxury vehicles, rice, sugar, and used clothes into Davao City.

The special fact-finding panel of the Office of the Ombudsman, meanwhile, has cleared Duterte and Carpio in the P6.4-billion shabu shipment case, but recommended further investigation against former customs chief Nicanor Faeldon.

Saguisag said there should have been a “credible” investigation into the issue. Even Faeldon was treated with kid gloves, he said.

“Again, no credible probe or closure when it comes to administration personalities, beginning with the reported smuggling of P6.4-B worth of shabu coming from Digong’s acknowledged protector, China. Why is Captain Nicanor Faeldon always hearing let-me-call-you-sweetheart?” Saguisag said.

The Senate also conducted investigations into the alleged bribery in the Bureau of Immigration (BI) by Chinese tycoon Jack Lam, as well as the controversial frigate deal where Special Assistant to the President Bong Go intervened.

On the BI bribery, the Senate cleared former justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II. It only reprimanded the latter for privately meeting with Lam, despite an ongoing case against Lam’s Chinese workers in Clark.

While the Senate cleared Aguirre, it recommended the filing of bribery and plunder charges against Al Argosino and Michael Robles. The three are President Duterte’s fraternity brothers at the San Beda-based Lex Talionis Fraternity.

The Senate also failed to dig deeper into the supposed involvement of Go, Duterte’s most trusted aide, in the multi-billion-peso frigate project. To date, questions still exist. (READ: DOCUMENTS: How Bong Go is linked thrice to frigates deal)

Go has maintained that he never intervened, even as a note by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana stated that a white paper endorsing a supplier of the frigates’ Combat Management System (CMS) came from Go. Go’s former undersecretary, Lloyd Christopher Lao, had also arranged a meeting with Navy officials in Malacañang about the project.

Lorenzana said he had indeed written the note, but that the white paper did not come from Go. He said he could not remember which official had handed him the document in Malacañang.

Senators, during a one-time hearing, also made sure to amplify praises for Go. Senators Juan Miguel Zubiri, Grace Poe, Loren Legarda, and Gordon vouched for Go’s innocence and insisted on the lack of evidence against him.

Silence on China

As early as September 2016, there has been a pending resolution calling for an inquiry into Duterte’s “conflicting” foreign policy. There are also at least 3 resolutions calling for an investigation into China’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea.

Yet until now, nearly two years after and with China being more hostile, there has been no Senate investigation into the matter.

A Chinese aircraft had landed in President Duterte’s hometown in Davao City recently. Senator Panfilo Lacson and the minority bloc slammed the move, saying the Philippines might one day wake up a province of the Asian giant.

The landing comes as the Philippines and China remain embroiled in a dispute over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). The most recently reported incident between the two countries involves the China Coast Guard taking the catch of Filipino fishermen in Scarborough Shoal. (READ: To prove fruits of PH-China ‘friendship,’ Roque brings fishermen to press briefing)

With all this, Senate foreign relations committee chair Loren Legarda only said she would conduct an investigation “soon” – how soon remains unclear to date.

Opposition senators have questioned why there is no investigation yet, with Drilon calling on the body to “assert the Senate’s role as a partner in the conduct of foreign affairs.”

“We will soon conduct a public hearing and I will work with my colleagues, including the [Senate] committee on national defense and security, in determining how best to support current initiatives to diffuse the tension, while at the same time protecting our sovereignty and territorial rights,” Legarda said in a statement on June 15.

Legarda said she might schedule one hearing during the break, but she would only hear those referred to her committee. Other resolutions, she said, were referred to Senator Gregorio Honasan II’s committee on national defense and security. Congress is set to resume sessions on July 23, but so far there is no schedule yet.

Sotto, for his part, is cold to the idea of an investigation.

“Baka may mga librong mabuksan, eh. May mga kilos na mabuksan na ‘di dapat malaman ng iba muna,” Sotto earlier told reporters. (It might open books and acts that others should not know yet.)

Legarda and Honasan are both ending their terms in 2019. Legarda is reportedly eyed as the next secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development. Duterte earlier told reporters that he made an informal offer to a lady senator he refused to name. Legarda has expressed openness to it.

There are also talks that Honasan would be appointed secretary of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT). He has remained silent on the issue.

The absence of an inquiry into China’s aggressions is meant to protect the Duterte administration, said Pilapil.

“This is to avoid embarrassing the Duterte administration for electing to become a stooge of Chinese expansion in the West Philippine Sea as the Philippine stance has become not so much just an appeasement policy but a collusion policy,” Pilapil said.

“[The scheduled Senate inquiry] should show how late the inquiry is and only because there are already missiles deployed in the built-up structures of China in the disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea. There has also been no senate inquiry on what has happened to our relations with our allies, especially the EU and the US…. All these Senate inquiries, the Senate majority has avoided in conducting because of the negative impact on the Duterte administration they will surely bring,” he added.

Former senator Pimentel, for his part, stressed the importance of a Senate investigation.

“Yes definitely. I think we should not allow any nation to bully us out of our own national territories…. We should insist our territory is ours and, even under the guise of friendship, we should not allow China to creep into our own territories and claim it for their own. That would be our betrayal of our commitment to protect integrity of our country,” the former senator said.

Silence on other issues

Aside from these issues, the Senate has also been criticized for not standing up to Duterte on the quo warranto petition against former chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno – which supposedly violates the chamber’s constitutional duty to try and decide all cases of impeachment.

Saguisag, Pimentel, and Pilapil all slammed the quo warranto petition and said the right way to remove Sereno is through impeachment.

Saguisag and Pilapil said the Senate should have intervened – or, at the very least, made a united stand. Without it, the chamber showed how “timid” it is in defending its territory against Duterte.

“The quo warranto route diminished the power of the Senate as an impeachment court. Therefore, the least the Senate could do is to pass a resolution basically protesting this usurpation,” Pilapil said.

Fourteen senators signed a resolution urging the Supreme Court to review its decision ousting Sereno. The fate of the resolution, however, remains hanging, as senators failed to reach a verdict before sessions ended in June. The SC’s final ruling even came ahead of the chamber’s decision, rendering the measure practically moot.

It could still be discussed when sessions resume, but some senators argue it is already pointless.

For Saguisag, being allied with the President should not intervene with crucial decisions for the country.

He recalled how he and the late senator Agapito “Butz” Aquino were close to former president Corazon Aquino, but they decided against her wish to continue the American bases in the country.

Same thing he and former senator Wigberto “Bobby” Tañada did when they met with former president Benigno Aquino III.

“Butz Aquino and I were as close as anyone could be to President Cory. When she asked us to see her in the Guest House to ask for our votes on the bases in 1991. As much as we loved her, the country came first, and we said to ask us another,” Saguisag said.

“When PNoy asked Bobby Tañada and me in Malacañang to support his EDCA stand, same response, without affecting our respect and affection for one another, and for one we would go to the ends of the earth for. We didn’t want to be America’s Last Plantation or China’s new one.”

The 3rd regular session, or the last year of the 17th Congress, is crucial to see how senators and the new leadership would steer the Senate’s direction.

After all, the country is entering an election year, making senators all the more attentive to public sentiment. – Rappler.com

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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