, FEBRUARY 2, 2007 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - Malacañang is solidly behind Commission on Higher Education (CHED) Chairman Romulo Neri as officials brushed off allegations that the Palace was hiding the beleaguered official.

“We told him that we are solidly behind him,” Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said, after he and other officials talked with Neri over the phone and reassured him of their support.

Palace officials also said the arrest warrant intended for Neri may not be enforceable outside the Senate.

“They (Senate sergeant-at-arms) can try looking for him (Neri) here but I doubt if they have the legal authority to do so,” Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Sergio Apostol said.

Presidential Security Group chief Brig. Gen. Romeo Prestoza said Palace guards would not allow personnel from the Senate to enter the Palace complex to look for Neri.

He said if they want, the Senate sergeant-at-arms can just wait at the Palace gates.

Bunye said Philippine Information Agency Director General Conrado Limcaoco called up Neri during their meeting with Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita along with other officials at the Palace and greeted him. Neri celebrated his birthday yesterday.

Bunye, however, did not disclose Neri’s whereabouts but hinted, “he appeared to be nearby.”

Apostol found the allegations that Neri was hiding in Malacañang “ridiculous,” adding that the official has no reason to hide despite the arrest order from the Senate.

He said the arrest cannot be enforced by the Senate unless the sergeant-at-arms would be accompanied by local policemen.

Bunye appealed to the Senate to withdraw the arrest order and wait until the Supreme Court rules on the case filed by Neri on the new summons from the senators.

“We would like to appeal to the Senate for at least a chance for the Supreme Court to decide on the case,” he said.

Neri fights back

In an act of defiance, Neri filed a supplemental petition yesterday asking the Supreme Court to stop the Senate from enforcing the arrest order.

In a seven-page petition, Neri, formerly the Director General of the National Economic and Development Auhtority (NEDA), said the Senate committees committed grave abuse of discretion when they jointly ordered his arrest for his failure to appear during the scheduled hearings on Sept. 18, 20, Oct. 25 and Nov. 20 last year.

Neri also asked the Court to issue a temporary restraining order on the Senate committees on Accountability of Public Officers and Investigation (Blue Ribbon), Trade and Commerce and National Defense and Security.

He also asked the Court to void the arrest order, saying the respondent committees have yet to publish their rules.

Neri added that the order for his arrest also pre-empted the Court’s action on his original petition and disrespected the Court, a coordinate and co-equal branch of government.

“The gross arbitrariness of respondents’ order of arrest is patent on its face. This order of arrest elides, and sidesteps, the President’s invocation of executive privilege in behalf of petitioner,” Neri’s lawyer, Antonio Bautista, said.

“Quite clearly, respondent committees would lord it over two co-equal branches of government, to wit, the President and the Supreme Court,” he added.

Neri insisted he did not commit any acts of contempt when he failed to appear on the said hearings since he was then out of town.

However, he said his non-appearance on the Nov. 20, 2007 hearing was “by order of the President,” invoking executive privilege. He said that he had, in obedience to respondents’ show-cause order, personally explained his non-appearances.

Gonzalez: SC should intervene

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez expressed reservations on the arrest order, saying “unless the offender is cited for direct contempt of court, he cannot be made the subject of an arrest order without a verified complaint against him.”

“The Senate has its own rules but I don’t think we can get out of the definition of contempt under the rule of court,” he said.

Speaking in an interview over dzXL, Gonzalez added that the case of Neri is considered “indirect contempt,” at least under the rules of court.

However, the justice secretary did not indicate if he would issue an opinion against the Senate’s issuance of arrest orders based on that argument, saying he is still trying to make a “distinction.”

“I am trying to make a distinction, I don’t know if the rules of the Senate follow the definition of the rules of court. There is no question every legislative body has power to punish a person. The question is, what is the procedure in their specific rules?” he said.

As these developed, Gonzalez said the Senate hasn’t made any request for the issuance of a “hold departure order” against Neri.

He said that if requested by the Senate, his office would comply quickly with the request.

“If the Senate will ask for it, we will issue it because that is under the rules,” Gonzalez said.

He also said that if needed, Rodolfo Lozada Jr., another ZTE witness, can be quickly placed on the Bureau of Immigration’s watchlist.

Gonzalez added that the Supreme Court should now intervene in Neri’s case as it could spark a Constitutional crisis.

“If the quarrel between the Senate and the executive goes out of control, it will create already a disruption of the workings of the government, with more reason that I think that the SC should now act on Neri’s petition so that everybody will be guided accordingly. This is something that we can consider as a singular situation. This can lay down parameters as far as what one can do and cannot do,” he said.

Senate has had enough

Meanwhile, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago slammed some members of the Senate, saying it would be better if they become entertainers on television if they continue to grandstand.

Santiago issued these statements at the 2nd National Summit on the Philippine Accession to the Revised Kyoto Convention (RKC) held at the Bureau of Customs (BOC) office in Port Area, Manila yesterday morning.

Santiago has previously relayed her sentiments to Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, chairman of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, saying she thinks they have already heard enough on the ZTE scandal and it was time that the case be forwarded to the Office of the Ombudsman to determine if anyone should be held criminally liable of violating the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

She also said she believes that discussing the matter is against the public’s interest. The Senate’s investigation, which should have been in aid of legislation, has not yet been accomplished.

“What law are we talking about here? It seems there is no end to this ZTE investigation. If they want public entertainment, if they want to be entertainers they should join the television. This is the work of the Ombudsman, which has prosecutors trained to extract the truth from various versions given by different party witnesses. There is already a preliminary case that can already be officially referred to the Office of the Ombudsman,” she said.

“Chairman Neri has said that he had disclosed everything he knows about the controversial deal and that the senators should concentrate on other pressing issues such as the Renewable Energy Act and the Japan Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA) and the RKC,” Santiago said.

However, the judge-turned-politician has a different point of view when it comes to Lozada. “He never responded, unlike the case of Secretary Neri who testified at length and exhaustively. This man never responded in any way. I think the warrant was necessary even only to assert the authority of the Senate. He should have answered even if to say that the Senate should have subpoenaed someone else or that he has no knowledge about the ZTE. He cannot just disappear, that is really contempt. He could not just disregard the Senate,” she said.

When asked if Lozada’s travel abroad was an indication of guilt on his part, Santiago said the saying “flight is tantamount to guilt” is only applicable if the person is already named accused in a criminal case.

But at present, no case has been filed or undergone preliminary investigation “so the presumption of innocence is very, very strong.”

Santiago also said that Neri could not be cited for contempt for not attending the hearings. It is more classified as indirect contempt.

But she said that the Senate should exercise caution in issuing warrants of arrest. “In my modest opinion, the Senate should not be quick to issue warrant of arrest for contempt when it is indirect.”

“In court if a witness is absent, immediately a warrant of arrest called a bench warrant (would be issued) as stated by the rules of court. The Senate is not covered by the rules of court, what we have is the rules of the Senate. They gave themselves the power to cite for contempt,” she said.

She added that there should be a liberal interpretation wherein the civil rights of the citizen and the rights of the Senate should be considered to ensure the integrity of the proceedings. “If there is a doubt it should be resolved in favor of the individual citizen, after all we have courts where you could have a remedy if you feel that you have been aggrieved.”

When asked if she thinks the Senate stepped on the rights of the CHED chairman, she said, “that is a feasible statement.”

She also doubts speculations that Malacañang is coddling Neri, who is said to be in hiding. “I don’t know if it is possible since the administration is at logger heads with Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. No matter how they try to finesse it, Neri is a known De Venecia protégé. I doubt that Malacañang would try to protect and preserve its adversary.” – with Mike Frialde, Aurea Calica, Evelyn Macairan

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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