, February 14, 2006, (STAR) By Aurea Calica - Malacañang maintained yesterday that it would not revoke Executive Order 464, saying the EO would continue to "shield" officials of the executive branch against "political persecution, grandstanding and character assassination."

Senators have challenged the constitutionality of EO 464 and asked the Supreme Court to issue a restraining order stopping Malacañang from enforcing it. EO 464 initially covered Senate investigations but was expanded to include budget and Commission on Appointments confirmation hearings. However, over the weekend, Palace officials announced that President Arroyo was allowing Cabinet members to attend budget deliberations.

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez and officials of the sub-agencies under the Department of Justice survived the grilling by senators yesterday over its proposed P4.8-billion budget for 2006.

"The government adheres to a policy of transparency and constructive relationship with the Senate but will not stand for slander proceedings under the guise of legislative inquiries," Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said.

Bunye said Malacañang will "adhere unconditionally" to the high court’s ruling on EO 464, which bans government, military and police officials from attending congressional inquiries without prior consent from the President.

Bunye assured the public that he himself would attend the budget hearing for the Office of the Press Secretary once it is scheduled by Congress.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said budget hearings should not be used as a "political forum" to taint the image of the administration.

He expressed hope that the Palace’s move to relax the implementation of EO 464 would convince the senators to avoid politicizing the Senate processes.

Presidential Political Adviser Gabriel Claudio said the government would use EO 464 judiciously but firmly in order to stabilize the political situation.

"The current strength of the peso, the upward revision of our economic outlook by credit rating agencies and improving investors’ confidence can be attributed considerably to the abatement of acrimonious, destructive and slanderous political noise, particularly in Congress, due to EO 464," Claudio said.

The controversy over EO 464 was fueled last week by the refusal of Bunye and officials of the Department of the Interior and Local Government to attend their budget hearings before the Senate, citing EO 464.

Ermita said the Palace decided to allow the officials covered by EO 464 to attend budget and confirmation hearings as part of efforts to "have a meeting of the minds" with the senators.

Senators want the Palace to repeal EO 464, however, saying it could trigger a political crisis between the executive and legislative branches.

Senate President Franklin Drilon continued to defend the chamber’s investigations in aid of legislation, saying that questions over alleged anomalies are basically "about how public funds were being utilized by the executive department."

Satisfied with DOJ

Senators have deemed the DOJ’s budget as "submitted," pending the submission of some documents requested for their examination.

Drilon said he was satisfied so far with the DOJ’s presentation. Gonzalez was grilled on a number of issues ranging from the issuance of EO 464 to the Commission on Elections’ (Comelec) contract with Mega-Pacific consortium for the purchase of automated counting machines, later declared void by the Supreme Court.

"If you notice, the head of the department himself, Secretary Gonzalez, has no invocation whatsoever, no questions being raised, being perfectly valid whether or not it is related to the budget," Drilon said.

Asked how the impasse over EO 464 might be resolved, Gonzalez said the solution was to wait for the Supreme Court to decide on the matter. He said oral arguments have been set by the SC for Feb. 21.

Gonzalez added that members of Congress have the "latitude" to ask various questions, but as a member of Congress for nine years, "I also know the ‘kung fu’ in budget hearings."

Earlier in the day, Gonzalez got a tongue-lashing from Sen. Edgardo Angara, who questioned him over his statements on destabilization at the height of coup rumors last year.

Angara said matters of national security should be left to officials of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency and the National Security Adviser.

In the same hearing, Senators Rodolfo Biazon and Juan Ponce Enrile asked Gonzalez and National Bureau of Investigation acting director Nestor Mantaring about the "Hello, Garci" wiretap controversy.

Mantaring said the NBI did not pursue its investigation for lack of a complainant in the case. They also found the two tapes earlier submitted by Bunye to the NBI had been "tampered with."

Time limit

Mrs. Arroyo’s relaxation of EO 464 is good only until June this year, Trade Secretary Peter Favila told members of the House appropriations committee yesterday.

Answering queries from opposition Rep. Roilo Golez of Parañaque about his appearance before the committee and what questions he was willing to answer, Favila said Mrs. Arroyo had issued Memorandum Order 192-A, which relaxes EO 464 by authorizing Cabinet members to attend Senate and House budget hearings and the confirmation proceedings of the Commission on Appointments (CA) unless otherwise directed.

He said the memorandum order states that this authority is good until June 30. Favila did not say, nor was he asked, why this deadline had been set.

Favila said he would also answer queries from Golez about the incorporators and registration papers of private foundations used as conduits of fertilizer funds by congressmen, governors and mayors if these were registered with agencies under his department.

Golez asked for copies of these foundations’ incorporation papers.

Some 110 congressmen, 53 governors and 26 town mayors received between P3 million and P10 million in fertilizer funds shortly before the May 2004 presidential election. The opposition claims the funds were used to buy electoral support for President Arroyo.

Golez was not among the 110 congressmen who received fertilizer money. The other Parañaque congressman, Eduardo Zialcita, got P5 million in fertilizer funds.

Meanwhile, Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) Chairman Camilo Sabio stood his ground yesterday, refusing to give testimony before the Senate beyond budget issues.

He said he was protected by a provision of Executive Order 1, which shields PCGG officials from giving information during investigations.

"This agency was conceived in a revolutionary situation for a specific purpose. This is no ordinary agency," Sabio said. — With Jess Diaz, Christina Mendez, Sandy Araneta and Jose Rodel Clapano

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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