PALACE MAY NO LONGER ALLOW GONZALES TO TESTIFY BEFORE SENATE

MANILA
, September 26, 2005
(STAR) By Paolo Romero - Malacañang may not allow National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales to appear before the Senate Blue Ribbon committee since he has suffered a mild stroke, officials said yesterday.

In a radio interview, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said he visited Gonzales at the Philippine Heart Center (PHC) in Quezon City on Saturday.

"I saw the medical report and (PHC medical director) Dr. (Ludgerio) Torres explained to me what it really means and he told me that (Gonzales) appeared to have suffered a mild stroke," Ermita said.

He added that Gonzales "looks stable" and they talked for almost an hour. It was not clear whether Gonzales suffered the stroke during the Senate inquiry or while he was confined in hospital.

Ermita said Torres explained that Gonzales "has a positive treadmill stress test for myocardial ischemia, which means that the heart is suffering from lack of oxygen supply to the heart muscle due to occlusion or blockage of the arteries supplying nutrition to the heart muscle."

Torres also told Ermita that Gonzales is scheduled to undergo more tests today such as "coronary and cerebral angiography with the possibility of coronary angioplasty and stenting."

Ermita said he has formally requested the Senate Blue Ribbon committee to reconsider its decision citing Gonzales in contempt and placing him under confinement, considering Gonzales’ health condition.

"Hopefully, we have an understanding with the Senate because I strongly believe that our senators are level-headed persons. What we are trying to do is safeguard... the government," he said.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye, in a separate interview, said Gonzales is technically on leave because of his medical condition. He said he has been texting Gonzales but has not received any response.

Asked whether President Arroyo would replace him or appoint an officer-in-charge, Bunye said, "As of now, we can say he’s on leave because of his condition... Let’s see if his condition improves."

Ermita, however, said Gonzales continues to perform his duties even while confined in hospital. He pointed out that the PHC is very close to the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency building where Gonzales holds office.

"He’s not necessarily on leave. He’s on vacation in the sense that he’s in the hospital but he can continue to function," Ermita said. "He’s able to go through his papers in his office, he’s able to call his staff and give instructions to them... so the work is not held up in his office."

Ermita described Gonzales as hardworking and industrious, adding that the Senate inquiry was a "blessing in disguise" because it forced him to be confined in a hospital for an ailment he has long ignored.

Ermita said Gonzales confided to him that his family has been urging him to have a medical check-up because of his diabetes.

Permission Not Granted

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez said under the Constitution, no Cabinet member may appear before a congressional inquiry if he or she is not permitted by the President.

"Especially in this particular case where Bert Gonzales was never a respondent," Gonzalez said. "However, I know this is debatable because he already made an appearance (before the) committee."

He said it may be seen that Gonzales had already waived his right not to appear before the Senate panel.

Gonzalez said he earlier advised Gonzales that he had the option not to appear but the latter chose to face the Senate panel. "I also advised him to bring a lawyer, but he did not do so," he added.

He also cited an obscure law — Commonwealth Act 616 — which imposed similar prohibitions on public officials.

Bunye, however, said it was still "academic" to discuss whether Gonzales would again face the Senate committee as he is still being treated in the hospital and that senators are still mulling over the Palace’s request to release him from detention.

"Let’s see first what would be the developments. This will come to a head when we get a response and Gonzales is well," he said.

Bunye, however, referred to Ermita’s letter to the committee on Friday asking the senators to reconsider their decision to cite Gonzales for contempt and immediately release him. The Palace referred to the Supreme Court’s decision on the case of Almonte vs. Velasquez, where a US Supreme Court ruling on Nixon vs. the United States was cited.

The US ruling said SC deliberations, closed-door Cabinet meetings, and executive sessions of both houses of Congress are all considered confidential.

"By the same token, there is no reason for the Senate to force any Cabinet official secrets, especially if it is on national security matters," Bunye said.

Gonzales appeared before the Senate Blue Ribbon committee last week to answer questions regarding a lobby contract he signed on the government’s behalf with US law firm Venable LLP.

One of the provisions of the contract is for Venable to seek funding for the Arroyo administration’s plans to amend the Constitution.

A top Palace official, on the other hand, scored the opposition for its double standard in attacking lobby contracts entered into by Malacañang.

The official cited the contract entered into by San Juan Rep. Ronaldo Zamora, who was then executive secretary under deposed President Joseph Estrada, with Patton and Biggs LLP in 2000. The law firm was paid $32,083.33 monthly for one year, with the contract taking effect on July 1, 2000.

The law firm was tasked to coordinate and facilitate various investment initiatives for the Philippines, the official said.

"My point is the opposition is trying to make an issue about availing the services of lobby firms yet they themselves have entered into similar contracts," the official said.

Alternatives

Sen. Rodolfo Biazon advised Malacañang to send Ermita in Gonzales’ stead, saying he will support the Palace in its appeal to release Gonzales from Senate custody once it sends word to senators that Ermita would tell the Senate the details of the Venable LLP contract.

Ermita earlier denied knowledge of the deal with the US law firm.

Malacañang and Gonzales’ supporters earlier accused the Senate of abusing its authority and not respecting the separation of powers of the three branches of government.

"If the (Palace) wants to help Gonzales, I have a proposal. If Gonzales refuses to answer, then they should answer. I am not saying President Arroyo should be the one to face the Senate, but Ermita can do so, as a senior adviser of the National Security Council," Biazon said in a radio interview.

Biazon also clarified that the separation of powers among the three branches of government.

"The legislative branch has an inherent oversight function (on the executive branch)," he said.

Biazon added that the problem will not be addressed even if Gonzales resigns his post. "Even if he resigns, it won’t end there. Malacañang should be made liable," he said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mar Roxas said the real issue in the Venable LLP deal is "institutional integrity and what properly lies within the domain or authority of the executive in entering into lobby contracts."

He said that to preserve institutional integrity, the government should practice the full disclosure of contracts entered into by any government agency.

Transparency is also important in all dealings, unless the contract involves matters that may jeopardize national security or cost people’s lives, Roxas added, noting that "so far, Gonzales has not presented any justification for the withholding of any information about the Venable contract." — With Christina Mendez


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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