Sound and fury

A week ago, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago pre-sold the controversial hearing she was going to conduct on the grant of “unique powers” to since-resigned Interior Undersecretary Rico E. Puno in vivid Shakespearean terms. “There will be a lot of sound and fury. There will be a lot of sound from Mr. Puno and maybe a lot of fury from me.” Unfortunately for all of us, the hearing last Friday turned out to be more Shakespearean than we realized: It was “a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The outcome was a disappointment. Santiago folded her tent after one skirmish, prompting her counterparts in the House of Representatives to drop their own inquiry into Puno’s actuations. But these actions left a people hungry for accountability even hungrier.

And the idiot who told the tale? It was our political system, which promises to discover the truth behind so-called burning issues of the day, but because of its typical over-reliance on the testimony of witnesses and on the power of legislative intimidation, failed yet again to tell a coherent story.

We should note, as Santiago certainly did, that none of the Cabinet secretaries invited to the hearing showed up. This was not helpful. We can infer from Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s pre-hearing remarks, that she needed to clear the matter of her appearance with President Aquino personally, that the absences on Friday had Mr. Aquino’s blessings. “It appears to me that the President of the Philippines has ordered his Cabinet not to attend,” Santiago observed ruefully.

This isn’t executive stonewalling; President Aquino has not invoked Gloria Arroyo’s Executive Order 464 or issued a similar EO, and the jurisdictional controversy over the nature of the hearing itself provided the Cabinet officials the legal cover they needed. But we must note the irony: an administration pledged to transparency, accountability and everything the Arroyo regime was not, being represented only by a resigned official and a police chief nearing retirement.

It may be that, rather than hiding anything in particular about the controversial circumstances involving Puno, the Cabinet officials invited to the hearing were leery of inadvertently revealing anything about the main rivalry that divides the administration. The Puno resignation, truth be told, has become the occasion for various forms of loyalty checks in the administration.

But credit where credit is due: Puno conducted himself in a manner that effectively took the wind out of Santiago’s sails. He showed up. He was calm throughout, gave composed answers, did not seek to hide behind legal gobbledygook or feign a sudden attack of illness (the familiar maneuver we can call the medical equivalent of gobbledygook).

Santiago, on the other hand, came up short a number of times. “As a former judge,” she said, “I know he’ll only insist on his answer that since he was asked to secure documents, he’d go and secure documents whether they are in the office or in the residence.” This strikes us as inadequate, not because it is the same blanket denial President Aquino himself offered Puno when he was questioned about the matter in Vladivostok, Russia, but because we thought the role of a senator conducting an inquiry was not to think like a judge but, precisely, to act like an investigator.

Perhaps Santiago, like other senators before her, thought the implied threat that a legislative hearing represents was enough to pry the truth from its witnesses. Unfortunately, not even the “manual for nincompoops” she prepared to defend her claim of jurisdiction, or the harsh words that come often from her mouth, can ever be a substitute for real sleuthing.

Just one example: Puno consistently rebutted the insinuation that a prospective arms supplier had brought him to Israel. He said he was  on vacation at that time; as it happens, so was his aide—in the same country, at the same time as the inspection tour of the arms factory. It is an answer that strains belief, and Santiago made sure to tell Puno that. But the public would have seen a little more light, and a little less heat, if the committee had scrutinized the relevant flight records—made available by a DILG report submitted to the late Secretary Jesse Robredo. Now that is a tale, signifying something.

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Tags: Benigno Aquino , Government , Miriam Defensor Santiago , politics , Rico Puno , Senate

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