, October 13, 2005
(STAR) By Paolo Romero And Christina Mendez - President Arroyo is considering whether to ask National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales to take a leave of absence to deal with his health problems, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita disclosed yesterday.

However, Sen. Joker Arroyo, chairman of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee who ordered Gonzales detained, believes the security official should be replaced after he linked Mrs. Arroyo to the government’s contract with American lobby firm Venable LLP.

Arroyo said he believes Gonzales has become a bigger liability after linking the President to the Venable contract.

Ermita said Malacañang has not received a request from the Senate regarding Gonzales. "Let’s cross that bridge when we get there," Ermita said.

"That is a call for the President. There should be some considerations and I’m very sure that has come to the attention of the President, but she is the approving authority or the appointing authority in the same manner that it’s Bert Gonzales’ body," Ermita told a press briefing.

Gonzales suffered a hypertension episode during Senate grilling over the Venable contract.

Ermita declined to answer reporters’ questions on how Mrs. Arroyo might resolve the matter. "She has her own decision on the matter but I would not want to second-guess her. It’s not proper."

Gonzales has been in detention at the Philippine Heart Center in Quezon City after he was cited in contempt and detained by the Senate last Sept. 21 for refusing to answer senators’ questions on the government’s contract with the American lobby firm.

He was taken to the hospital after the inquiry, and doctors later recommended that Gonzales undergo heart bypass surgery because of a blocked major blood vessel.

Gonzales has asked the Supreme Court for his release, saying he wished to see his family before undergoing surgery, fearful that he might not survive the procedure.

His sister, Violeta Gonzales Tolentino, has also petitioned the High Tribunal for his release, arguing that the Senate overstepped its legal bounds.

The STAR tried to reach Gonzales for comment but a female aide said he was resting upon doctors’ orders. The aide said she was instructed by Gonzales to reset requests for media interviews to today.

Senator Arroyo, who is not related to the President, maintained that Gonzales would remain in Senate custody until he answers legislators’ questions on the Venable contract.

Malacañang insists, however, that Gonzales enjoys executive privilege and is therefore excused from answering questions, especially if they might compromise national security.

The senator has suggested that Mrs. Arroyo ask her adviser to take a leave to resolve the impasse.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye earlier said Gonzales was technically on medical leave because he is in the hospital recuperating from an illness.

However, Gonzales appears to be capable of doing his job, with his staff regularly bringing paperwork to his room, Ermita said. The headquarters of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency is adjacent to the hospital, he added.

"It’s not like he is totally incapacitated but he had to be reminded by his doctors to take it easy so the work of the NSA is not totally blacked out," Ermita said.

During oral arguments Tuesday on the petition for Gonzales’ release, Gonzales lawyer Antonio Bautista told the Supreme Court that his client remained fit for the job and a medical leave was unnecessary.

The SC has given the Office of the Solicitor General, the government’s legal representative, five days to submit a manifestation that the President has confirmed that Gonzales enjoys executive privilege.

In a resolution issued late Tuesday, Chief Justice Hilario Davide directed Solicitor General Alfredo Benipayo to clarify if Mrs. Arroyo had extended executive privilege to Gonzales.

"If the President invokes executive privilege, she is involving herself and we do not want that. We do not want to involve the President, but if she invoked it, we will honor it," Senator Arroyo told the court at the hearing.

The court has also ordered both sides to submit written comments within five days "to amplify their arguments and expound on their answers to the court."

It also ordered Dr. Lugerio Torres of the Philippine Heart Center to submit within five days medical examination results to determine Gonzales’ health condition.

Senator Arroyo’s Senate Blue Ribbon Committee was also ordered to submit its rules on contempt citation and detention.

Bautista told the Supreme Court in Tuesday’s oral arguments that Gonzales was ordered by Mrs. Arroyo not to disclose the identities of the private donors who paid for the contract because it might affect Philippine-US relations.

"Secretary Gonzales asked the President (if he could) reveal the names of the donors, but the President did not allow him. I think Gonzales knows who referred it (the Venable contract) to him and who funded it. But the President did not allow him to reveal who referred it to him," Bautista said.

Bautista added that it might put the donors in danger with the opposition, particularly Sen. Panfilo Lacson, in their ongoing campaign to force Mrs. Arroyo from office over allegations that she cheated in last year’s presidential election.

He added that Gonzales enjoyed executive privilege in refusing to answer questions on the donors’ identities.

Senator Arroyo said the President "would do well to distance herself from Gonzales."

"He is a liability. He causes problems, not solves problems. That is the President’s call," Arroyo said in a statement. "The plot thickens. The Venable contract becomes more mysterious."

Instead of protecting the President, Gonzales has dragged her as well as an unnamed Cabinet official into the controversy, the senator said.

Arroyo’s committee wanted to find out who authorized Gonzales to sign the contract, which it said was inimical to the Philippines’ national interests because it appeared to allow a foreign government to meddle in its affairs.

The Venable contract came under fire because it was signed in secret and it called for the American lobby firm to help Manila secure US official and private funding for a number of projects, including the President’s initiative to amend the Constitution.

Gonzales told the committee that he got Mrs. Arroyo’s approval but failed to clearly answer whether he got specific authority to sign the contract.

He also refused to publicly identify the donors, prompting the Senate committee to cite him for contempt and detain him.

Mrs. Arroyo terminated the contract shortly after the controversy erupted.

In her petition seeking her brother’s release, Violeta Tolentino argued that the detention order violated the Constitution and jurisprudence set by the Supreme Court and was "issued with grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack of jurisdiction."

Senator Arroyo maintained that Gonzales would remain in custody indefinitely until he answers their questions on the Venable contract.

He told the Supreme Court that Congress won’t be taken seriously if it is robbed of its constitutional power to compel witnesses to testify. — With Aurea Calica, Jose Rodel Clapano

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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