MANILA, June 15, 2005
(STAR) The House of Representatives has canceled its scheduled hearings today on the controversial "master tape" of alleged conversations between President Arroyo and an election official on supposed plans to rig the results of the May 2004 elections.

The postponement was made at the request of House Majority Leader Prospero Nograles of Davao City, who said this was to give the chamber time to formulate ground rules on the investigation.

"I would ask for the postponement of the hearing to draw ground rules before going into a full-blast hearing," Nograles said.

The cancellation dismayed Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez, chairman of the House committee on national defense, and Cavite Rep. Gilbert Remulla, chairman of the committee on public information — two of the five committees set to conduct the hearing.

Golez, however, said the committee chairmen agreed to Nograles’ proposal.

But Remulla clarified that the executive session would push through so that congressmen could hear the contents of the tape, disregarding a warning by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

The Cavite lawmaker added that he learned of the postponement only through the media, and that invitations had already been sent out to resource persons in the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces, DOJ, National Bureau of Investigation, and even to former NBI official Samuel Ong who claimed to be in possession of the master tape.

As this developed, Senate President Franklin Drilon reiterated that the Senate had adjourned until July and, therefore, could not hold any investigation.

"However, all inquiries conducted by Congress are done in aid of legislation. A Senate investigation of the recordings, as suggested by Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr., will have to be conducted with the sole purpose of assisting us in our legislative functions," he added.

"The Liberal Party and I certainly subscribe to the proposition that the public should know the entire truth behind the controversial wiretapped recordings. We owe the Filipino people nothing less," said Drilon, who heads the Liberal Party.

But no legislation can be formulated while sessions in both houses of Congress are adjourned, he noted.

"Given the highly-charged political situation and the prevailing partisan political bickering, we must find a way of conducting an impartial and dispassionate inquiry on the matter in order to determine the truth," Drilon said.

Drilon’s statements were seconded by another administration senator, Mar Roxas, who explained that any investigation that starts without plenary action would be questionable.

"It’s better to wait for plenary action so that it can direct the appropriate committee, body or even the committee of the whole to undertake such action if necessary," Roxas said.

Congress adjourned on June 11 and will resume on July 25, when Mrs. Arroyo addresses both chambers for her State of the Nation Address.

Sought for comment on Drilon’s statements yesterday, Pimentel said the committee on national defense and security under Sen. Rodolfo Biazon can act "motu propio" and initiate the hearings independently.

"In all honesty, palagay ko mali siya dun (I think Drilon is wrong) for the simple reason that prior to adjournment… he said (the Senate) has standby authority for committees to proceed with investigations even without session," Pimentel said. Ground rules

The House, on the other hand, wants to lay down the ground rules for its own probe into Mrs. Arroyo’s alleged efforts to cheat in last year’s presidential polls, purportedly revealed in wiretapped recordings with Commission on Elections Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano.

Nograles said among the issues to be settled are: Was there wiretapping? Who was wiretapped? Are the tapes or compact discs genuine? Are they admissible as evidence in a legislative inquiry?

Besides Nograles, a source in the Remulla committee told The STAR that Malacañang, through the Presidential Legislative Liaison Office, was asking that this morning’s hearings be scrapped.

However, Remulla said there had been no decision to postpone the hearing.

"As far as I’m concerned, as chairman of the lead probe committee, the hearing will push through. And I am not recalling the invitations we have sent out. If the guests will come, I will hear them. My colleagues, of course, can outvote me," he said.

He said before the start of the inquiry, the committees can go into a closed-door session and discuss the ground rules.

Among those invited were former NBI official Samuel Ong, Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Brig. Gen. Marlu Quevedo, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye, Garcillano, the Comelec commissioner’s secretary Ellen Peralta, and representatives of the DOJ and NTC.

Remulla said he has been assured by former internal revenue commissioner Liwayway Vinzons-Chato, who is Ong’s lawyer, that the former NBI official would attend the hearing.

Ong claimed to possess one of the master copies of a taped conversation between the President and a certain Gary — believed to be Garcillano — about cheating in the May 2004 elections to ensure Mrs. Arroyo’s victory. Garcillano has denied that he is Gary.

In one of the tapes, the man believed to be Garcillano is talking to another person whom he instructs to leave P1 million to P1.5 million to his secretary, a certain Peralta. It turns out the commissioner’s secretary is named Ellen Peralta.

Last Monday, Biazon said a resolution for the hearing had not been referred to the committee by the plenary. He said there were other committees — such as that of public order and illegal drugs, constitutional amendments, revision of codes and laws, and justice and human rights — that could conduct the hearings.

Get on with it

Reacting to efforts by the House leadership and the Palace to scuttle the inquiry into the Arroyo tapes, House Minority Leader Francis Escudero said it would be in the President’s best interest for the investigations to proceed.

"If they succeed in their efforts, that only means Mrs. Arroyo is hiding something from the people," he said.

Golez said he was disappointed to hear this morning’s hearing might be canceled.

He said he would like Admiral Tirso Dinga, head of ISAFP in 2004, to be invited back to a future hearing.

"I believe Admiral Dinga is a central character in this drama. What was his agenda? Who was he working for? Where was his loyalty?" Golez asked.

The other probe panels are the committee on public order and security, committee on suffrage and electoral reforms, and the committee on information technology.,

Remulla said Cebu Rep. Simeon Kintanar, former NTC commissioner, had refused to participate in the investigation, saying there were already too many probe panels. Meanwhile, Sen. Ramon Magsaysay vehemently denied yesterday that he was protecting Ong, who was escorted out of the San Carlos Seminary in Makati City last Monday evening.

"It is not true that Atty. Samuel Ong is currently staying or has stayed in my residence in Alabang or I have kept him in another place. Such information is purely speculative," Magsaysay said.

Magsaysay was one of the first senators to show up at the San Carlos seminary last Friday night after Ong went on national television to reveal the audiotapes. He claimed one of Ong’s lawyers, Luis Sison, sought his help to secure Ong amid threats on his life. — Jess Diaz, Christina Mendez

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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