MANILA, SEPTEMBER 18, 2007 (STAR) By Christina Mendez - Another showdown looms between Malacañang and the Senate after several Cabinet officials and military officers snubbed yesterday the public hearing being conducted by senators on the “Hello, Garci” wiretapping scandal.

Sen. Richard Gordon, a co-chairman of the Senate panel conducting the inquiry, warned the people of another standoff between the Palace and the Senate if the administration continues invoking Executive Order 464 to prevent top government officials and military officers from attending congressional hearings.

The officials who invoked EO 464 to avoid attending the public hearing at the Senate were Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye, National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales, presidential aide Remedios Poblador, former Armed Forces chief Gen. Efren Abu, Rear Admiral Tirso Danga, former chief of the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP) Col. Paul Sumayo, Capt. Frederick Rebong and Capt. Lindsay Rex Sagge.

The other resource persons who failed to attend the Senate hearing were Bataan Archbishop Socrates Villegas and former National Bureau of Investigation deputy director Samuel Ong.

Senators warned the military officers that they could be held in contempt for ignoring the Senate investigation on the military’s alleged wiretapping operations on government officials and private citizens.

Former ISAFP agent T/Sgt. Vidal Doble Jr. was the only witness who attended the second public hearing on the wiretapping scandal yesterday.

The “Hello, Garci” scandal refers to a set of tapes containing wiretapped conversations allegedly between former Commission on Elections (Comelec) commissioner Virgilio Garcillano and several politicians, including one who sounded like President Arroyo.

It was alleged that Garcillano was responsible for rigging the 2004 elections which led to a majority victory by the administration candidates including Mrs. Arroyo.

Doble earlier revealed that he wiretapped several phones and claimed that he recorded a conversation between Garcillano and Mrs. Arroyo regarding the results of the May 2004 polls.

Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, overall chairman of the Senate investigating panel composed of the committees on national defense, electoral reforms and the Blue Ribbon or public accountability, said his office sent the invitations and subpoena to the concerned palace and military officials, and the other witnesses but they refused to come.

According to Biazon, Ong cannot be located while Abu sent word that he is attending a meeting in Malaysia and left the country last Sunday.

The subpoena was not served to Danga, who has vacated his quarters at Fort Bonifacio in Taguig since his retirement last Sept. 6.

Biazon said Gonzales and the military officers, along with Poblador and Bunye, invoked EO 464.

In two separate letters sent to the Biazon, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita defended why the military and Palace officials will not attend the Senate inquiry.

“We respectfully submit that fairness and fair play, which is the essence of due process, require that the Executive be informed as to what the joint committees seek in the instant proceeding,” said Ermita in his letter explaining why Gonzales, Abu, Danga, Rebong, Sumayo and Sagge were not allowed to attend the Senate proceedings.

On Poblador’s absence, Ermita said in another letter submitted to the joint Senate panel that Poblador has not committed any wrongdoing which makes it improper for the Senate to invite her.

“I do not recall that she is already being charged or accused of anything or demonstrate the relevance of her testimony to the ongoing proceedings, we respectfully submit that it is premature to invite Poblador at the present time,” Ermita said, adding that the Constitution protects the right of a person in or affected by such inquiries in aid of legislation.

Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago moved that the refusal of the top military and Palace officials to attend the Senate hearings should be a compelling reason for the Senate to cite them for contempt.

“Maling-mali naman iyon,” said Santiago, noting that she has pointed out in her privilege speech last week that the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Senate v Ermita that EO 464 —which bars executive officials from testifying without presidential approval —cannot be invoked.

“I am very irritated about the excuses, which to me are very flimsy. Still I realize that as much as possible, we must avoid direct confrontation between the Office of the President and the Senate,” Santiago said.

She said that Palace officials cannot invoke executive privilege at this time because the “invocation of the doctrine of executive privilege should be expressed, not implied.”

Gordon said, “The power of the Senate to conduct hearings has been sustained many times. It will have to go again on a case to case basis because in this particular instance, the Senate may either go to the Supreme Court to order the President to release this people so that they can come down here.

“Again it’s going to be the Supreme Court’s call again,” Gordon said. “There is no doubt in my mind that they must appear.”

The irked senators even threatened to cite for contempt the military officers for ignoring the Senate’s invitation.

On the juncture of Sen. Joker Arroyo for the need to have the majority of the 22 senators present once the Senate decides to cite anybody for contempt, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, chairman of the Blue Ribbon committee and Biazon’s co-chairman in the “Hello Garci” investigating panel, agreed with his fellow senators to discuss the issue in executive session later in the day.

“The rules require (that the move to cite for contempt) require the presence of majority of all members, 22 of us. This is a very serious issue and we should call the others to discuss this,” Arroyo said. The senators present during the hearing were Biazon, Cayetano, Arroyo, Gordon, Panfilo Lacson, Francis Escudero, Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, Noynoy Aquino and Aquilino Pimentel Jr.

Lacson agreed that there is a need to conduct an all-senators caucus on the matter.

Not afraid

Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Sergio Apostol said that the concerned Cabinet officials, including Bunye and Gonzales, are not hiding anything or afraid to face questioning by the senators.

“They (senators) are in a position to cite Cabinet officials for contempt but their invitations must follow the Supreme Court ruling on Senate v Ermita,” Apostol said.

“But what will this investigation end up with? This investigation is recycled. And what legislation will come out of it? So it would also be hard for Cabinet secretaries to find reason to attend,” he said.

He pointed out that Biazon already came out with a proposed bill based on a 2005 inquiry into the “Hello Garci” scandal.

He said that it was not clear in the latest invitations what legislation was going to come of the inquiry and there was no list of questions as required in the SC ruling.

“We are not being disrespectful but we are also asking some respect from the Senate by stating in detail what they want,” Apostol said.

Bunye refused to answer calls from reporters requesting a statement on his non-appearance at the Senate.

He, however, furnished reporters with copies of Ermita’s letter to the Senate committee explaining the Cabinet officials’ absence.

During the Senate hearing, Santiago grilled Doble over his relationship with his legal wife and two alleged mistresses and scrutinized his service record as member of the ISAFP’s Military Intelligence Group (MIG) 21.

“He (Doble) fell apart, and his nerves are shot. He twisted himself into so many contradictions in just five minutes that under the Rules of Court, we can now consider that his general reputation for truth, honesty or integrity is bad,” Santiago said.

Gordon said Doble has lost his credibility after admitting that he accepted P2-million as payment for the “Hello Garci” tapes in 2005.

“I think we should subpoena everybody, and everybody should attend. So far as I pointed out, that because of the fact that the witness (Doble) has been blown full of holes, we need a corroborating testimony at the very least that is credible,” Gordon said.

When senators asked Doble if he was engaged in wiretapping operations during his stint at ISAFP, Doble said he was not engaged in wiretapping operations but was tasked to only install and repair military phones.

“As far as I am concerned, so far, Doble is an impeached witness. That means he has no credibility. The rule under the Rules of Court is he who alleges must prove,” Santiago said.

Santiago also cited Doble’s affairs with two women whom the senator identified as Marietta Santos (who also testified at the previous Senate hearing on the Garci tapes in the 13th Congress) and Jocelyn Andaya, who worked as guest relations officers in nightclubs.

She questioned how Doble was able to support his wife, Arlene Doble, and their two children, and maintain two other women at the same time with a meager income of P19,500 a month. “So are you implying that your mistresses support you?” she said, eliciting laughter from the audience in the gallery.

Santiago also asked Doble about his work at the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (PAOCTF) under now Senator Lacson.

Doble’s wife has sent a letter to Santiago, where she denied her estranged husband’s claims that he and the entire family were restricted to camp.

Arlene also revealed that Doble subjected her to physical abuse in a number of instances during their stay in Villamor Airbase in Makati City and even in their home in Kidapawan City.

Because of Arlene’s revelations, Santiago called on the Senate joint panel to issue a summons to Arlene Doble, the director of the Villamor Airbase Hospital, the chief of the Pasay City Police, school officials of a learning center inside Camp Aguinaldo where Doble’s children were enrolled while they were under military custody, Kidapawan City police officials, and social workers from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

Lacson, who is providing security to Doble, said his witness remains unfazed despite the intensive grilling from senators who are allied with the administration. “Malayo. Di talaga natinag. Kasi sabi ko basta totoo sinasabi mo huwag ka matinag. Totoo lang ang babalikan at babalikan,” Lacson said.

Besides uncovering statements that contradict Doble’s claims during the first and second hearings of the three Senate panels, the senators also found out that the ex-ISAFP agent had sent several text messages to his wife that tend to show more inconsistencies on his part.

Enrile said the text messages were not culled from wiretapped phone records, but from the testimony of Arlene Doble herself in a sworn affidavit she had filed in connection with kidnapping charges that had been filed against the National Anti-Kidnapping Task Force (NAKTAF).

Uncovering these inconsistencies, Enrile quipped: “I have many more questions for this witness. By the time I finish with him he would be a triple Doble or even a quadruple Doble.”

Meanwhile, President Arroyo reminded lawmakers that she would rather see Congress working on priority bills such as the cheaper medicines bill than conducting investigations on issues like the “Hello Garci” wiretapping scandal.

The President visited Dipolog City yesterday for the inauguration of the new Zamboanga del Norte Medical Center.

Malacañang has repeatedly questioned the need for the Senate to revive the Hello Garci controversy that administration officials claim is already a non-issue.

The cheaper medicines bill was certified by the President as an urgent measure during the 13th Congress and was actually passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives.

However, the House and Senate failed to go into a bicameral conference committee session to reconcile the differences between the two versions until Congress adjourned.

The proponents of the bill in the two chambers are refiling the bill under the 14th Congress and the President is hoping that this time it would be passed.

In the meantime, the President encouraged the private drugstores to import cheaper medicines from countries such as India and Pakistan where most major brands are selling for half or even a third of the price of those sold in the Philippines.

At the moment, the government through the Philippine International Trading Corp., has been undertaking the parallel importation of medicine from India to supply the government-run Botika ng Bayan drugstores across the country. — With Marvin Sy, Paolo Romero

Mike A quietly leaves for Hong Kong Tuesday, September 18, 2007

(STAR) First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo quietly left the country via a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong late yesterday afternoon.

Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) officials escorted him but no announcement of his departure was made at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA).

Sources told The STAR that Arroyo opted to leave quietly, knowing that the media would ask him all sorts of questions if he was seen at the airport.

“He’s going on vacation. He said he just wants to rest,” a source told The STAR after confirming that the First Gentleman indeed left country.

Arroyo reportedly boarded Cathay Pacific Airways flight CX 918 at around 5:50 p.m. with a certain Benito Araneta. Among those who escorted him were MIAA General Manager Alfonso Cusi, NAIA chief security Angel Atutubo, Customs district collector Carlos So, former Manila police chief Pedro Bulaong and a certain Simon Wong.

“He stayed at the Presidential Lounge for some 45 minutes before boarding the plane,” the source said, adding that the First Gentleman did not say when he will return.

Some sources said Arroyo flew to Hong Kong to avoid the Senate inquiry on the “Hello Garci” controversy. – Michael Punongbayan

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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