Diminished esteem for senators
Time was when an invitation to appear or testify in a Senate committee conducting an investigation in aid of legislation was treated with utmost respect by its subject.
When resource persons or witnesses then took an oath to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, they meant it. They did so either out of respect for the senators or because they knew that lying could put them in serious trouble.
Sadly, this kind of attitude seems no longer true today.
Last September, Edgar Matobato, a confessed member of the alleged Davao Death Squad (DDS), testified in a Senate hearing that he killed people on the instructions of then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. But under intense questioning, he came up with several inconsistencies in his testimony that convinced the majority of the senators present that he was not being truthful in his narration.
In the same hearing, then SPO3 Arthur Lascañas, one of the police officers implicated by Matobato, denied under oath the existence of the DDS and his participation in its activities.
Three months later, during the Senate inquiry into the killing of Mayor Rolando Espinosa of Albuera, Leyte, Ronnie Dayan, a former bodyguard of Sen. Leila de Lima, denied knowing confessed drug lord Kerwin Espinosa. When shown proof to the contrary, Dayan backtracked and admitted his acquaintance with Kerwin Espinosa and their meeting in Baguio City in 2015.
Early this month, Lascañas, now retired from the police service, appeared in the Senate again to withdraw his earlier statements belying Matobato’s testimony on the DDS and its links to then Mayor Duterte. Claiming a spiritual renewal, Lascañas said he was prepared to accept the consequences of his retraction.
In all these cases, the witnesses were forewarned that they could be held criminally liable for perjury or making untruthful statements under oath. This admonition appeared to be of no worth to them. And to date, no complaint for perjury has been filed against them by any senator or the Senate.
What accounts for the cavalier treatment of the oath that supposedly ensures that those who take it will give honest and trustworthy statements to the senators?
The answer may be traced to the change in the manner by which the Senate’s authority to conduct investigations in aid of legislation has been used. In recent years, this power has often been wielded for reasons other than that intended by the Constitution.
Like its counterpart in the House of Representatives, the investigative process has become an instrument for political grandstanding or pursuit of parochial political interests.
The publicity that these probes generate has been exploited by some senators to project themselves to the public and give the impression that they are worth the millions of pesos in taxpayer money spent for their upkeep. Never mind if they ask nonsensical questions, make comments that expose their ignorance of the matter under investigation, or make a circus of the proceedings. What counts is they are seen or heard by the public and are not just part of the audience.
And once the hoopla dies down, nothing is heard from the committee anymore. It is rare, if at all, that a bill will be filed to address the issues discussed during the investigation. But who cares? After all, the objective of the exercise—media exposure—has been achieved.
Thus, it is not surprising that the public now has a very low regard for Senate investigations and, by extension, the senators who demand that action whenever a headline-hogging event happens.
Given this situation, the people who are invited to appear at Senate hearings cannot be faulted for thinking that the oath that they are made to take at the start of the proceedings is a trivial exercise or merely part of a show with the senators as the main actors.
Besides, even if they lie under oath, they will not be prosecuted for perjury. So why bother to be honest and truthful in their testimony?
Raul J. Palabrica (email@example.com) writes a weekly column in the Business section of the Inquirer.