Manila, March 14, 2003 -- A breach in interparliamentary courtesy may be the start of a new tradition in Congress, after a senator yesterday called on the House of Representatives to come clean on the Malacañang-directed bribery involving close to half-a-billion pesos given to a majority of congressmen as a “prize” for them to speed up the enactment of a power reform bill.

Opposition Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. challenged the leadership of the House to carry out the congressional inquiry into the revelations of whistleblower former National Electrification Administrator Manuel Sanchez on the payoff for the passage of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act, or Epira, saying it should be the House that has first crack at probing the congressional payola scandal, since this involved members of the House.

“The House of Representatives should take up the challenge because the gauntlet was thrown its way by Sanchez. Out of inter-chamber courtesy, it would be difficult if we (senators) would condemn the House at this point,” Pimentel said.

Both majority and minority members in the Senate attested that money did not change hands, at least in the chamber, when the Epira was taken up in 2001.

Pimentel said a probe is in order in view of the move by Minority Leader Vicente Sotto III filing a bill in the Senate to repeal the Epira on account of Sanchez' allegations and the Palace denial that the bribery ever happened.

At the same time, he added the former NEA chief should lock up his claims by presenting solid evidence to prove there was a solid case on the payoff, since bribery can take the form of so many inducements.

“Some of them are outright giveaways. Some of them are for projects and if eventually the exposé of Sanchez would turn out that the money was for projects, then the accusation of bribery would probably not hold water. Therefore, we should take a look at the issue very seriously,” Pimentel said.

Sotto said if indeed Sanchez's accusation against the congressmen is baseless, his colleagues in the House should prove this by working for the repeal of the law. “Obviously, the law is flawed and the only recourse for us is to start all over again. If they did not receive any as some of them have immediately claimed, then they should not have any second thoughts on repealing the law,” Sotto said. “We should stop the bleeding. The Epira should be stopped,” he added. Administration Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr. said he would be amenable to revisiting the law but was against its abolition. “We can always amend and improve it particularly in having open access (provision in the Epira) in the distribution of franchise so that more than one will be supplying power to users. Open access to remove the monopoly of supplier,” he added. Magsaysay, however, came to the defense of Malacañang saying if indeed there have been some allocations made to the congressmen, it could not have been bribery but more of “incentives” given them. “I don't think it's bribery. I think it's more like an incentive,” he said adding immediately senators were not treated the same. Nontheless, Magsaysay would not discount the possibility that indeed some form of incentives was given out by the Palace when the Epira was still at the hands of Congress. Malacañang also yesterday laughed off the claim of Sanchez that unidentified persons are out to silence him for his exposé that pointed to Mrs. Arroyo's direct involvement in allegedly bribing congressmen with close to P500 million for the passage of the Epira measure. In a press briefing, presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye also announced that Malacañang does not agree with the suggestions of some senators to repeal the controversial Epira. Bunye branded as a gimmick the latest claim of Sanchez that someone was out to silence him. He made light of the death threat, saying “he (Sanchez) is probably being threatened by his wife.” The presidential spokesman said though there were some senators who wanted to abolish Epira, there are other senators who side with Malacañang in calling for its retention.

“There's also (an) objection specially...in both houses' objections to its possible repeal, I found interest in the comments of Sen. Joker Arroyo who was among those who opposed the enactment of the (Epira) law, saying that having gone this far he said (he thinks) we should give this law a chance,” Bunye commented.

The presidential spokesman said some moves of the congressmen to investigate the alleged bribery in Epira would just be waste of time and taxpayers' money since it had been investigated in the past by the Office of the Ombudsman and found this to be lacking evidence.

Meanwhile, the non-government Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC) yesterday called on Mrs. Arroyo to answer Sanchez's allegation on the Palace bribery.

FDC secretary general Lidy Nacpil said Malacañang should at least issue a statement on whether the issue is true or not. “Malacañang should at least deny or confirm it,” she added.

The Palace have not yet denied or confirmed the alleged bribery but it admitted through Bunye that it released funds for the electrification of barangays through their congressmen, even as he stressed the fund was not a bribe. (By Angie M. RosaleS, Tribune)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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