By Delon Porcalla
The Philippine Star
MANILA, Philippines – Impeaching Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez is the “strongest signal” the Aquino administration can send to the public to prove the seriousness of its fight against corruption.
“The impeachment of the Ombudsman is the strongest signal we can send to you right now that we are trying to put in place the kind of level playing field for your businesses to survive and prosper in the long term,” President Aquino told businessmen attending the Philippine Economic Briefing in Cagayan de Oro City yesterday.
He said removing Gutierrez is one way of restoring the people’s faith in government and of attracting investments.
“This is why we called for the impeachment of the Ombudsman. We cannot have deals such as ZTE, MegaPacific, or NAIA-3 hold back the country any longer. As the Senate prepares to try the Ombudsman, I urge you to support this and other efforts to fight corruption,” he said.
“We are working to eliminate corruption in our institutions. I know that corruption can seem easy over the short term – bribe the right people and you can get the deal. But look what happens to those who do this. Sooner or later, the anomalies are discovered,” he said.
“There is public outrage, and the deals are undone. In the end, the money invested, and the bribes spent on the project, are wasted. What a waste of private capital and taxpayers money,” the President pointed out.
“Adding insult to injury is that those who were caught are not prosecuted or are allowed to plea bargain instead of being tried,” Aquino said, apparently referring to former military comptroller Carlos Garcia who was able to strike a plea bargain deal with the Ombudsman’s prosecutors.
“We are trying to create an environment where this does not happen, where no one questions the legitimacy of such deals, and where nothing needs to be undone later on. And part of creating such an environment is putting in place the right people who will prosecute those who do such things,” he added.
“Together, we can eliminate the dark elements that hinder us from the true and lasting change that we have long hoped for. Together, we can end the systematized corruption that has prevented our country from fulfilling its vast potential,” he said.
“I may be President but I am also a citizen of this republic. As a citizen of this republic, I am really not happy with the performance of the Ombudsman and her people,” he told Palace reporters in chance interview.
No pork dangled
Malacañang also denied that it had dangled P20 million in additional pork barrel funds to lawmakers to buy their votes for Gutierrez’s impeachment.
“You should have greater faith in the ability of many of our legislators to transcend their narrow, parochial interest and aspire for the greater good,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda stated in a text message in response to the allegation.
“Well, these kinds of things normally defy the bounds of logic. Alam naman po natin iyung budgetary constraints ng pamahalaan. Again, hindi po natin alam kung saan nanggaling ito but kung sino po man iyung nagsabi nuon (We know the budgetary constraints of the government. Again, we don’t know where all these came from but whoever made the allegation) obviously did not do the math,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said for her part.
She also rebuffed Gutierrez’s claim that “dark politics” was at play when House members voted overwhelmingly to impeach her.
“If you say dark, it presupposes that something was done covertly. But I think everybody can attest to the proceedings in the House, the hearings were televised publicly. I don’t know the frame of mind of the Ombudsman when she made such claim,” Valte said.
She also said it was understandable for Gutierrez to hold a press conference to air her side following her impeachment.
“I think that is to be expected of someone who is being accused of something – to come out to the public and say I didn’t do this and that,” she said.
“But again, at the end of the day, what matters would be the trial at the Senate,” she said.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives formally indicted Gutierrez before the Senate acting as an impeachment court yesterday by transmitting the articles of impeachment against her.
Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr., justice committee chairman, and his senior vice chairman, Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas of Ilocos Norte, hand-carried to the impeachment court House Resolution 105, which contains six articles of impeachment or charges against Gutierrez.
Tupas chairs the 11-man prosecution panel in the impeachment trial.
“We’ll start with the strongest article which is the fertilizer fund scam and we will end with another strongest article, which is the low conviction record, which includes the plea bargaining agreement entered between the Ombudsman and General Garcia,” Tupas said.
Also with Tupas and Fariñas were Rep. Lorenzo Tañada III, former Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros Baraquel, Akbayan Rep. Arlene Bag-ao, Bayan secretary-general Renato Reyes, Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares, and Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali.
“We don’t have to convict the accused on all six charges. If we can convict her on at least one charge, that is already enough to oust her,” Fariñas said.
According to the committee, the six charges amount to “betrayal of public trust,” one of several grounds for removing impeachable officers.
Broadly, the articles of impeachment accuse Gutierrez of inaction on the P728-million fertilizer scam in 2004, the case of a “Euro general,” the P1-billion Mega Pacific deal, the botched $329-million national broadband network (NBN) contract the Arroyo administration had awarded to Chinese firm ZTE Corp., the death of Navy Ensign Philip Pestaño, and her low conviction record.
The first article states that the Ombudsman failed to promptly act on the recommendations of the Senate and the Commission on Audit to file the appropriate charges against then Agriculture Secretary Luis Lorenzo, his undersecretary Jocelyn “Jocjoc” Bolante, and other agriculture officials and politicians involved in the fertilizer scam.
It accuses the respondent of having “inexcusably failed” to file such charges “for more than five years.”
During the justice committee hearings on the complaints against Gutierrez, former Solicitor General Frank Chavez, a complainant in the fertilizer scam cases, said the Ombudsman “has mastered the difficult art of doing nothing.”
He said Gutierrez has not required Lorenzo, Bolante and others implicated in the scam to submit their counter-affidavits since he filed his complaint more than six years ago.
The second article of impeachment cites the case of “Euro general” Eliseo de la Paz, who had admitted in a Senate hearing to bringing more than $10,000 out of the country without a proper declaration with Customs and in violation of currency regulations.
It states that despite the lapse of more than two years from time De la Paz made the admission and the submission by the Philippine National Police of its report charging the officer with violating the law, Gutierrez failed to file the appropriate charges against him.
On the P1-billion contract the Commission on Elections had awarded to Mega Pacific, the impeachment resolution calls attention to the Jan. 13, 2004 decision of the Supreme Court that “Comelec and its officials concerned must bear full responsibility for the failed bidding and award, and held accountable for the electoral mess.”
It says Gutierrez “has absolved from any criminal liability the Comelec officials and private individuals involved in the Mega Pacific deal” despite the decision of the Supreme Court.
The fourth impeachment article accuses the Ombudsman of “wrongfully” excluding then President Arroyo and her husband “from criminal prosecution stemming from the scandalous NBN-ZTE broadband contract” notwithstanding the evidence presented to her office. It notes that Gutierrez is a former classmate of Mrs. Arroyo’s husband.
In the Pestaño case, the House has charged the respondent with “wrongfully absolving the Philippine Navy officers and personnel implicated in the death of Navy Ensign Philip Andrew Pestaño, notwithstanding the findings and recommendations of the Senate committees on justice and human rights, and on national defense and security, and the United Nations Human Rights Committee.”
The last article of impeachment cites the “low conviction record” of Gutierrez.
Gutierrez “has acted in a manner that violates her oath and constitutional duty, has undermined the integrity of her office, has brought disrepute to the Office of the Ombudsman, and has acted in a manner contrary to the Constitution, law and justice, to the prejudice and manifest injury of the Filipino people, rendering her unfit to continue in office,” Resolution 105 states.
“Such conduct of Ombudsman Merceditas Navarro-Gutierrez warrants her conviction for betrayal of the public trust, and removal from office and disqualification to hold any office under the Republic of the Philippines,” it read.
Appearance not required
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, who will serve as presiding officer during the trial, said Gutierrez does not have to be present during the trial.
“It is her right to appear or not to appear. She has no duty to. That is a matter of right. There is no arraignment. I don’t think we have an arraignment system here,” Enrile said
He said that as soon as the Senate convenes as an impeachment court on May 9, it would send a copy of the articles of impeachment to the Ombudsman, issue summonses and start accepting the lawyers who will support the prosecution if necessary.
“Then we schedule the trial after giving the respondent a period to answer the charges,” Enrile said.
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, for her part, wants political neutrality clearly spelled out in the rules.
“We must accept that the impeachment is a very serious process. Remember, when we were impeaching a president, we are not only removing him from office and disqualifying from entering any future office, but we are also rescinding the will of the electorate that put him in office,” Santiago said.
“In the political aspect, what should govern the impeachment process in the Senate should be, among others, the provision in the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials which says we should observe political neutrality,” she added.
Senate Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano echoed Santiago’s position.
“Yes, it is true that it is a numbers game, only so much as the Constitution provides for specific numbers. For example, in the House of Representatives, you need 1/3 of the members to be able to transmit the articles of impeachment. Here in the Senate, you need 2/3 to convict,” Cayetano said.
“But it doesn’t mean that when you say it’s a political process and it is a numbers game, it doesn’t mean that there is no judicial nature or there is no conscience, there is no law, no application of fairness to this,” he added.
“The (House) proceedings end after they submit the articles of impeachment. It’s the impeachment trial that takes over, that’s a different ballgame. The difference here will be the evidence presented,” Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III said.
Sen. Joker Arroyo said he expects his colleagues to be impartial.
“Our demeanor, our deportment and the way we conduct ourselves during the trial will be watched so I think the Senate will do justice to both sides,” Arroyo said.
The Senate has approved Resolution 432 or the rules of procedure on impeachment trials after a caucus held yesterday, emphasizing the need for the senator-judges to exercise neutrality over the course of the trial.
Meanwhile, Sotto said the Senate would need about P15 million to carry out the impeachment trial of Gutierrez for two to three months. The amount will cover equipment and food purchases among others. With Jess Diaz, Marvin Sy, Christina Mendez