RESIGNED PROSECUTORS MAY RETURN IF ESTRADA TESTIFIES
Manila, Jan. 19, 2001 (STAR by Pia Lee-Brago & Efren Danao) - Prosecutors who stalked out of the Senate impeachment tribunal last Tuesday may return if President Estrada agrees to testify, Makati Rep. Joker Arroyo said yesterday.
Asked what it would take to bring them back to the courtroom, Arroyo, a key member of the prosecution panel, replied: "Nothing."
He added, however, that they may reconsider if the defense will put the President on the witness stand so that the prosecution could cross-examine the Chief Executive.
This developed as the House of Representatives failed yesterday to arrive at a solution to the mass resignation of the congressmen prosecuting the President in the impeachment trial, leaving the case in limbo.
In a bid to resolve the stalemate, Speaker Arnulfo Fuentebella and the prosecution panel held a caucus in a restaurant in Quezon City where six options were reportedly drawn up.
Fuentebella refused to reveal the options, which sources said included a request by the House leadership for the 11 prosecutors to reconsider their resignation.
"We hope to finalize what option we will take not later than Sunday this week. The panel will surely consider said options which will be adopted by the House as a whole," Fuentebella said.
But it appeared that the prosecutors have decided that they have had enough of what they called a "charade" of an impeachment trial.
South Cotabato Rep. Lualhati Antonino revealed that the options drawn up were: The return of the prosecution panel to the impeachment tribunal, election of a new set of prosecutors, withdrawal of the articles of impeachment, reconsideration of the Senate decision on the Equitable-PCI Bank envelope, amendment of the rules on the admission of evidence, and for the President to take the witness stand. Lawyer Sigfrid Fortun, in a television interview, argued that the prosecution could not dictate on how the defense should present its case.
Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr., presiding officer of the impeachment trial, ordered the indefinite suspension of the hearings in the light of the resignation of the prosecution panel, which included private law practitioners representing the private complainants.
Legislators have warned that a constitutional crisis could arise if the House cannot convince the prosecutors to finish their mission, or form another set of prosecutors from the chamber.
"The government is now in paralysis," Arroyo said.
Quezon Rep. Wigberto Tañada stressed that their resignation was irrevocable since it was already obvious how the pro-Estrada senators who make up the majority in the chamber would finally rule on the case.
Opposition Rep. Magtanggol Gunigundo II said the impasse could be resolved if the impeachment tribunal would reverse its controversial ruling excluding a second set of bank records purportedly showing that President Estrada, using the fictitious name Jose Velarde, held close to P1.2 billion at the Equitable PCI Bank.
"What we have now is a constitutional crisis triggered by that controversial vote. If the court wants the prosecutors to go back, then it must reconsider its decision and allow scrutiny of the bank records," Gunigundo said.
Ilocos Sur Rep. Salacnib Baterina, a member of the prosecution team, shared Gunigundo’s views, adding that the documents contained in a second envelope surrendered by the bank were crucial in nailing down Mr. Estrada on charges of graft and corruption.
South Cotabato Rep. Daisy Avance-Fuentes said the House leadership wanted the prosecution panel headed by Quezon City Rep. Feliciano Belmonte to go back to the hearings.
"The idea of having pro-administration congressmen appointed as prosecutors is absolutely out of the question. Prosecuting the impeachment case is within the turf of the minority," Fuentes said.
Meanwhile, Fuentebella said the House leadership will file a resolution giving the prosecution team a vote of confidence "for job well done."
"They have performed very well. It was a sterling performance and they did more than what was expected of them," the Speaker said.
Executive Secretary Edgardo Angara allayed fears of a looming constitutional crisis, saying there are "built it mechanisms for setting up replacements."
Angara was adverting to the resignation of Senate President Aquilino Pimentel Jr. and the prosecutors.
Former Press Secretary Ricardo Puno Jr. dared the House prosecutors to return to the Senate courtroom, saying the legal battle is not yet over.
"We have to go through the entire process and in any kind of democracy, majority prevails as in this particular Senate voting," Puno said.
Puno reminded the House prosecutors that they have a duty to perform as mandated by the electorate.
Mr. Estrada was on trial for alleged bribery, graft and corruption, betrayal of public trust and culpable violation of the Constitution. Nene asks colleagues to reconsider vote
Pimentel said the senators can still regain public confidence if his pro-Estrada colleagues would reverse their vote on the Jose Velarde documents which the prosecution tried to submit as evidence in the impeachment trial.
Pimentel made the call even as the alleged contents of the envelope have already been widely publicized in almost all of the major newspapers in the country.
The Senate leader stressed earlier that the chamber has become a "damaged institution" after the pro-administration senators voted down a motion by the prosecution panel to open a second envelope surrendered by Equitable-PCI Bank to the impeachment tribunal.
The envelope reportedly contained details of transactions pertaining to the bank account of "Jose Velarde" holding some P1.2 billion deposits.
Equitable-PCI Bank senior vice president Clarissa Ocampo testified at the trial on Dec. 22 that Mr. Estrada repeated signed bank records as "Jose Velarde" in her presence.
The first envelope opened by the tribunal last month also contained bank records on the Velarde account, among them a P500-million trust account testified to by Ocampo.
The defense panel led by Estelito Mendoza vehemently objected to the opening of the first envelope but Davide ruled to allow its opening provided that the prosecution could establish its relevance to the articles of impeachment.
Documents in the second envelope indicated that 27 checks amounting to P175 million were drawn from the Allied Bank head office branch account of a certain Kelvin Garcia, another false name believed used by Mr. Estrada, and deposited in the Velarde account.
Nine of the checks for Kelvin Garcia totaled P10 million, five for P5 million and three for P20 million.
Pimentel voted in favor of the opening of the second envelope, then hastily added that he was giving up the Senate presidency since he no longer enjoys the support of the majority.
The majority bloc refused, however, to elect a new Senate president, compelling Pimentel to hold on to the post.
Under the rules of the impeachment trial, only a senator belonging to the majority bloc could raise a motion for reconsideration of their previous votes.
"They (prosecutors) have already announced their decision to withdraw and it will take a lot of persuasion on the part of Fuentebella to make them reconsider," Pimentel said.
Senate President Pro Tempore Blas Ople said the impeachment court would not be complete without the prosecution panel.
He said if the House leadership accepts the prosecutors’ resignation, the chamber is obliged to form a new prosecution team. Belmonte unveils defense strategy
Belmonte unraveled what appeared to be the defense panel’s scheme in blocking the opening of the second envelope.
"The action here is towards rejecting the testimony of Equitable PCI Bank senior vice president and trust officer Clarissa Ocampo," Belmonte said.
He explained that rejection of the opening of the envelope would be followed by a motion to strike out from the records of the case Ocampo’s testimony, as well as the exclusion of all the subpoenas to the various banks in connection with the Velarde account.
Iloilo City Rep. Raul Gonzalez described the contents of the envelope as the "mother of all documentary evidences."
"With this document being frozen in limbo, they can now ask the court to strike off the testimony (of Ocampo) from the records of the court," Gonzalez said.
Belmonte said the 11 pro-Estrada senators effective excluded the documents which could have served as principal evidence to nail down the President on graft charges "because the millions in his account were not declared in his 1999 statement of assets and liabilities (SAL).
"We were going to probe through the second envelope that the money in his account with the Equitable PCI Bank existed before he submitted his SAL on or before Dec. 31, 1999, but it was not declared," Belmonte said.
He added that the opening of the envelope would be the starting point of the prosecutors in assessing the sources of funds in the Velarde account.
The documents showed that certain presidential friends deposited huge amounts in the Velarde account. They are Mark Jimenez, Dante Tan, Lucio Co, Jaime Dichaves and Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. chairman Manuel Pangilinan.
Arroyo said the pro-Estrada senators deliberately filed a motion to put the second envelope to a vote by the senator-judges, preempting Davide from making an impartial ruling on the issue. "This is a grand conspiracy between Malacañang and the 11 senators. They knew they had the numbers ,(so) to hell with fairness and justice."
Arroyo has branded the result of the voting as a "shameless act of acquittal for the President."
Meanwhile, former First Lady Imelda Marcos urged the prosecutors to go back to the Senate and finish their job.
Marcos’ spokesperson Cherry Cobarrubias said her boss and the four million Marcos loyalists fully support the prosecutors. — With reports from Marichu Villanueva, Non Alquitran, Jose Rodel Clapano
Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi
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