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Analysis

Constitutional crisis averted in Senate probe

/ 10:27 PM September 26, 2013

CANBERRA—A potential constitutional crisis involving a clash between the Senate and the Aquino administration was averted yesterday when Justice Secretary Leila de Lima escorted the pork barrel scam whistle-blowers to the chamber. The group showed up in obedience to a subpoena issued by Sen. Teofisto Guingona III in connection with his blue ribbon committee’s inquiry into the P10-billion fund scam.

Such a political clash would have diverted public attention away from the criminal charges of plunder filed by the Department of Justice at the Office of the Ombudsman against three senators, two former congressmen, other officials, and Janet Lim-Napoles, the alleged mastermind of the scheme that siphoned legislators’ pork barrel funds to her group of dummy nongovernment organizations. At yesterday’s (Thursday) hearing, De Lima told reporters she had “no choice” but to obey the subpoena because she did not want the cases filed by the DOJ on Sept. 16 to be “diverted or sidetracked.” She said: “I want a successful prosecution of those charged with misuse of the pork barrel fund. I want to preserve the proceedings before the Ombudsman. I want to protect the whistle-blowers and the witnesses.”

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Apparently realizing that prudence is the better part of valor in dealing with the Senate, the normally combative De Lima bowed to the subpoena that was issued after an exchange between her and Guingona last Tuesday. Among all of the Senate panels, none is more feared and inquisitorial than the blue ribbon committee, as attested to by those who have experienced the ordeal of appearing before it.

De Lima received a tongue-lashing from Guingona when she appeared solo before the committee on Tuesday after earlier promising that she would bring Benhur Luy, the principal witness in the operations of the Napoles group of companies and the other whistle-blowers.

“What you have done is unprecedented. Unprecedented. And in my view, you have attempted to undermine and diminish the power of the blue ribbon committee. I’m very, very disappointed,” Guingona lambasted De Lima.

He added: “And I don’t agree with your stand. I’m therefore issuing a subpoena for you, directing you to have the whistle-blowers appear before the Senate blue ribbon committee on Thursday, at 10 in the morning.”

The whistle-blowers are in the custody of the National Bureau of Investigation under its witness protection program.

According to Guingona, the committee received a letter from De Lima saying she could not bring the whistle-blowers. She cited the rules of the Office of the Ombudsman prohibiting “publicity” when the case related to the diversion of the congressional pork barrel fund to the Napoles group of companies has been filed in court.

The letter apparently poured oil on the flames. “You invoked the rules of the Ombudsman in that letter,” said a bristling Guingona. “You can’t invoke the rules of the Ombudsman because you are not the Ombudsman.”

The exchange marked an early encounter between the executive branch and the Senate, which has historically been jealous of guarding its independence against encroachments by the latter. It also put Guingona on the spot concerning the issue of whether the Senate leadership or the majority would support him in his conduct of the blue ribbon committee’s investigation, as it affects senators charged by the DOJ with plunder for allegedly endorsing their Priority Development Assistance Fund to Napoles’ group of NGOs, allegedly in exchange for kickbacks.

On Tuesday, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales advised the Senate against inviting Napoles to its inquiry into the pork barrel scam. In her letter to Senate President Franklin Drilon dated Sept. 23, Morales said: “Even as I recognize the Senate’s power to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation, I submit it would not be advisable, at this time for Ms Napoles to testify before the committee on what she knows about the alleged scam.”

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Among the reasons cited by Morales for her advice was the filing of charges of plunder or other offenses at her office against some legislators, Napoles, and others.

“There are also other PDAF-related cases involving other government officials in conspiracy with other private persons that are pending investigation by this office,” Morales said. She said summoning Napoles would not produce at this stage “complete, nay, reliable information that legislation intends to affect change.” She added that the appearance of Napoles at the Senate would be an “exercise in futility.”

Morales further said: “It cannot be gainsaid that the publicity that may be spawned by the testimony of Ms Napoles would, among other things, adversely affect public interest, prejudice the safety of witnesses or the disposition of cases against her and/or her co-respondents pending before this office, or unduly expose them to public censure or ridicule.”

Drilon, who had sought the opinion of the Ombudsman, announced on Tuesday that he was deferring to her advice “out of prudence and respect for her office…as she has acquired primary jurisdiction over the case.”

Despite Drilon’s deference to the opinion of the Ombudsman, Guingona issued the subpoena ordering De Lima and  the whistle-blowers to appear at yesterday’s  hearing. Guingona indicated that if the blue ribbon committee did not assert its authority, wrongdoers who do not appear at its hearings could have other people file flimsy cases at the Office of the Ombudsman.

In the end, Drilon signed the subpoena for De Lima and the whistle-blowers. In the process, he also averted a Senate revolt against his leadership.

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