MANILA,  JUNE 18, 2004
By Aurea Calica  -  Re-elected Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. asked the Supreme Court yesterday to stop a 22-member joint congressional committee from canvassing votes for president and vice president on grounds that the panel could no longer legally exist after Congress adjourned last June 11.

It was the second time in two weeks that the Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) of presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr. tried to stop the congressional canvass.

In an 11-page petition for prohibition, Pimentel said the committee has lost its authority because its "mother" — the 12th Congress — has adjourned sine die.

"With the expiration and termination therefore of the 12th Congress on June 11, 2004 following the adjournment sine die of its last regular session, the life or existence of the joint committee of Congress has likewise expired or terminated.

"Hence, such joint committee of Congress cannot validly, legally and constitutionally continue to exist, much less perform the functions assigned to it by the (Rules)," he said.

Pimentel said an adjournment sine die is the complete termination of Congress.

"Having adjourned sine die and with the joint committee still performing its function, the acts of the latter could no longer be considered valid and constitutional because it had already passed out its existence," he said.

However, former immigration commissioner Rufus Rodriguez, Pimentel’s counsel, said the Constitution allows the President to call Congress to a special session to conduct the canvassing.

Ironically, President Arroyo has refused to call a special session of Congress, and has not given any reason for her action.

Pimentel said everything that transpired in the joint committee after the June 11 adjournment of Congress must be declared void.

The Constitution mandates that Congress adjourn 30 days before it convenes for the opening of a regular session, he added.

At Malacañang, Deputy Presidential Spokesman Ricardo Saludo said Mrs. Arroyo is counting on her allies in Congress to convince opposition lawmakers not to walk out of the canvass.

"All we can do is moral suasion," he said. "We cannot interfere directly (in the congressional canvass). But our allies are already striving to work with the (opposition) within the demands of the law and within the demands also of the deadline imposed by the Constitution."

On the other hand, KNP vice presidential candidate Sen. Loren Legarda accused Congress yesterday of pushing to proclaim a "bogus president" by blocking opposition moves to open precinct-level election returns.

"The pro-Arroyo Congress appears determined to stamp its imprimatur on this fraud and has clearly transformed itself into an approving body, determined to proclaim a bogus president," she said.

Speaking before the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong, Legarda said "systematic, crude and brazen" electoral fraud has robbed the opposition of victory in the last elections.

"Operators for Arroyo and De Castro simply manufactured municipal certificates of canvass with the two as winners," she said, referring to the President and Sen. Noli de Castro, Legarda’s rival for the vice presidency.

"This single incident of cheating alone padded the votes for Arroyo and De Castro by more than 100,000 each."

Legarda said in Sumisip, Basilan, precinct tallies showed that KNP presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr. received 13,203 votes against Mrs. Arroyo’s 5,136.

"But in the municipal certificate of votes, the figures were unilaterally altered –16,353 for Arroyo and 3,967 for Poe," she said.

Pimentel accused the majority in the congressional joint committee of attempting to "whitewash the massive electoral fraud" in the last elections.

"This repulsive option is being foisted by the majority to hoodwink the people, to whitewash the electoral fraud of unprecedented proportions and to make a mockery of the sacrosanct task of Congress to determine the genuine election results and let the popular will prevail," he said.

Part of the ploy is the persistent call for the opposition to bring their evidence of massive electoral fraud to the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, he added.

Pimentel said the majority has been unreasonably shooting down motions of the minority to open precinct-level election returns.

"The constant advice of the majority to bring the complaint of electoral fraud to the Presidential Electoral Tribunal doesn’t make sense if you consider the fact that the election laws and congressional rules require the submission of election returns and other supporting election documents," he said.

"For what other purpose are these source documents being made available to Congress, but for easy referral and examination in order to resolve instances of fraud."

Two weeks ago, KNP Rep. Ruy Elias Lopez of Davao City asked the tribunal to issue a temporary restraining order to the canvassing committee, a plea the court immediately denied.

Voting 14-0, the court threw out Lopez’s petition, ruling that the joint committee canvass is constitutional.

The KNP wanted a plenary or joint session tally with all members of Congress participating.

Senate President Franklin Drilon said the new petition would suffer the same fate as the first.

He said last Friday’s adjournment simply meant that the 12th Congress can no longer pass laws but can continue as a canvassing board for presidential and vice presidential votes as provided in the Constitution until June 30 when its term expires.

He said that in the 1992 and 1998 elections, Congress adjourned before convening as a board of canvassers.

Drilon said a special session call is a "redundancy" as the 12th Congress, functioning as a canvassing board, is still in session.

The session is just suspended and will remain so until the joint committee submits its report, he added.

Drilon said when the committee is ready with its report, he and Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. will resume the joint session to discuss the report, vote on it and proclaim the winners.

The canvassing panel would try to finish its tally this week so it can submit its report on Monday, he added.

Lopez said the congressmen and senators have been deprived of their constitutional mandate to participate in the canvassing of votes as members of the National Board of Canvassers.

Lopez said all members of Congress should not be "deprived of their rights and prerogatives to be present at, observe and participate in the opening of all the certificates of canvass, determining the authenticity and due execution thereof, and canvassing the votes cast for presidential and vice presidential candidates."

Unless the canvassing is stopped, members of Congress "will suffer grave and irreparable injury not only because of the loss of their representations in the canvassing proceedings but also because the use of public funds in the implementation, enforcement and execution of an invalid, illegal, unconstitutional legislative act is a misapplication of public funds," Lopez added. — With reports from Jess Diaz, Marichu Villanueva, Jose Rodel Clapano

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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