gma  allies  won't  inhibit  selves  from  impeachment

AUGUST 10, 2006 (STAR) By Jess Diaz - Allies of President Arroyo in the House committee on justice that is hearing an impeachment complaint against her are not about to stay away from the proceedings despite accusations of conflict of interest against them.

Voting 43-22, the committee rejected yesterday a renewed appeal from Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez and the minority bloc for 38 of 102 committee members to inhibit themselves for having received P3 million to P5 million in fertilizer funds shortly before the May 2004 presidential election as contained in a report of the Commission on Audit (COA).

Later last night, the justice committee voted unanimously that the impeachment complaint is sufficient in form.

It was Deputy Speaker Raul del Mar who moved for declaring the petition sufficient in form since it was duly sworn to and accompanied by an endorsement from four House members.

Minority Leader Francis Escudero said it was a small victory for the impeachment proponents and the minority bloc.

Malacañang, meanwhile, expressed confidence the second impeachment case could no longer rock the administration simply because the opposition figures in the House "don’t have the numbers."

"Well, our confidence is borne out by the fact that we are backed up by law, we are backed up by the legal procedure and by the rules in Congress," Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita told reporters.

"The ordinary person can see that they just don’t have the numbers to be able to pursue their case," he said, noting that they’re down to 16 from 39 last year. "These impeachment cases will go the way of the first one and it will not prosper."

Golez, who first presented his plea in the course of the panel’s first impeachment hearing on Tuesday, said the alleged use of more than P700 million in fertilizer funds for President Arroyo’s election campaign is one of the impeachment charges against her.

He said the 38 members could not be expected to act on the charges with impartiality if they or their districts were beneficiaries of the bonanza.

He urged the committee to compel the 38 to stay away from its proceedings and from voting on the complaint.

According to the COA findings, which The STAR had reported on extensively, more than 100 House members, including some from Metro Manila where there is hardly any agricultural area, and over 70 governors and mayors received fertilizer funds between February and April in 2004.

A large part of the money was skimmed by corrupt officials through "excessive overpricing ranging from 800 percent to 1,300 percent," auditors discovered.

While committee members tangled on Golez’s proposal, impeachment petitioners led by former social welfare secretary Dinky Soliman filed with the committee a motion for the inhibition of the 38. In particular, the impeachers asked presidential son and Pampanga Rep. Juan Miguel "Mikey" Arroyo to keep off the case against his mother.

The President’s son, however, indicated that he was not staying away. He was among the 43 members of the majority who voted against the Golez motion.

"While the appeal for inhibition is noble, there is no act nobler than representing our districts (in this process)," he said.

Maguindanao Rep. Simeon Datumanong, committee chairman, promptly rejected Golez’s plea, saying his panel does not have the authority to compel any member to stay away from the impeachment process.

He said the matter was better left to the discretion of the individual member.

Supporting his colleague’s and the impeachers’ plea, Escudero told his colleagues, "We should not only be proper in our actions but we should avoid doubts with respect to impropriety in everything we do."

Escudero said he hoped the committee would also find the complaint sufficient in form to pave the way for the presentation of evidence that could convince the House to send the case against Mrs. Arroyo to the Senate for trial.

The President’s allies, however, are not expected to declare the petition sufficient in substance.

Datumanong said his panel would start determining the substance of the complaint on Tuesday.

He said there would be five to six hearings, after which the committee would submit its report to the House.

Last year, the House barred the opposition complaint and ruled that the case filed by Marcos loyalist lawyer Oliver Lozano was the only valid petition. It determined the Lozano pleading as sufficient in form and then proceeded to kill it for lacking in substance.

Inhibition and integrity

Deputy Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano said inhibition won’t becloud the integrity of the member making it.

"On the contrary, it will protect his or her integrity and credibility, those of the institution and the impeachment process," he said.

Deputy Majority Leader Arthur Defensor said Golez’s appeal was unfair to members of the committee and the House.

"My name is in the list (of fertilizer fund beneficiaries), but I had nothing to do with those funds. Is it (inhibition appeal) fair? Is this your idea of justice and fairness?" he asked.

"If you inisist that all those whose names were included in the list should inhibit themselves then you are prnouncing judgment that in one or another they were involved in an anomaly," he said, adding the COA listed them as proponents and not as beneficiaries.

Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay said congressmen "are present here to represent the voice of the people in our districts. Asking members of the committee to inhibit themselves is to disenfranchise the people in our districts. We have no power to do that."

"Secondly, there is no such thing as conflict of interest because the fertilizer fund did no go to the pockets of congressmen. The fertilizers went to the farmers," Pichay said.

Eastern Samar Rep. Marcelino Libanan, a justice committee vice chairman, questioned the motive of Golez and the minority in pushing for the inhibition proposal.

He said the minority’s strategy should be to convince at least 78 House members to support the impeachment complaint and not for them to stay away from the process.

"Is it your intention to just create trouble and noise?" asked Libanan, whose name is in the COA list. "I am surprised wth the strategy of the opposition" whose numbers, he said, continued to dwindle.

Makati Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr. said heeding the Golez appeal would mean excluding an accused in a forum where the accusation against him was made.

In that case, he said "accusation is conviction."

Mandaluyong Rep. Benhur Abalos said "the sole issue here is if the chair can compel a member to inhibit himself." This had already been tackled the day before, he said, and he stands by the rules of court and jurisprudence: "Kung gusto mag-inhibit ng isang tao nasa kanya na ’yon."

Camarines Norte Rep. Luis Villafuerte turned the tables on the minority, saying if Golez’s proposition were followed, at least two endorsers of the impeachment complaint should inhibit themselves.

Reading from a COA document, he identified the two as Representatives Nereus Acosta of Bukidnon and Manuel Mamba of Cagayan. He also mentioned former Batanes Rep. Florencio Abad, whose wife Henedina is an endorser, but the Abads are not listed as among fertilizer fund beneficiaries.

"If we accept your motion, then it means that if your name is in the list then there is a conflict of interest to be avoided. Does this mean that the endorsers should also inhibit themselves since their names were in the list?" Villafuerte said.

The fourth endorser, Tarlac Rep. Benigno Aquino III, is not in the COA list.

Rep. Liza Maza of the party-list group Gabriela, a minority member, supported Golez’s assertion that the justice committee has the power to compel members to inhibit themselves in case of a conflict of interest.

She said in the impeachment case against President Arroyo, it is incumbent upon the committee to tell her lawmaker-relatives to stay away from her case for obvious conflict of interest.

Though she did not name names, she was apparently referring to Representatives Mikey Arroyo and Jose Ignacio "Iggy" Arroyo of Negros Occidental, a brother of First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo.

Before Golez renewed his appeal, Quezon Rep. Lorenzo Tañada III questioned the precedent the justice committee set on Tuesday in determining the reckoning point for the one-year impeachment protection that an officer subjected to a previous impeachment process enjoys.

Under such precedent, the protection period begins upon receipt by the committee of a valid complaint referred to it by the Speaker.

Tañada told his colleagues that the Constitution and a Supreme Court ruling on a case involving an impeachment petition against then Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. refer to "referral" to and not "receipt" by the justice committee as the reckoning point.

In effect, he said the committee is amending the Constitution and the high tribunal’s ruling by prescribing "referral plus receipt."

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, committee vice chairman, said the panel is not changing the Charter and the court’s decision.

"We have not changed them, we are just clarifying them. Receipt is an integral part of referral. Its time and date are the reckoning point of the one-year ban (on a new impeachment process)," he said.

Tañada expressed doubts on whether the committee or the House, or Congress for that matter, can "clarify" a provision of the Constitution or a ruling of the Supreme Court.

Lagman is the author of the "referral plus receipt" formula, which the justice committee used on Tuesday to dismiss seven of eight impeachment complaints against the President.

Last year, it was Lagman who raised a long list of "prejudicial questions" that led to the killing of all three petitions against Mrs. Arroyo.

Iloilo City Rep. Raul Gonzalez Jr., son of the justice secretary, said as far as propriety and conflict of interest were concerned, then it is the complainants who should have inhibited themselves from the outset. He also complained that the proceedings have become "weird bcause there are so many weirdos here."

Quezon City Rep. Matias Defensor said the Golez motion was "merely muzzling the members of the justice committee. Let’s call a spade a spade." — With Aurea Calica

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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