MANILA, MARCH 7, 2008 (STAR) Malacañang urged senators yesterday to reconsider their rejection of the compromise proposed by Chief Justice Reynato Puno to break the impasse over the appearance of Commission on Higher Education Chairman Romulo Neri before the Senate to testify on the national broadband network (NBN) controversy.

Deputy Presidential Spokeswoman Lorelei Fajardo said the Palace is appealing to the senators’ sense of statesmanship as she pointed out that executive privilege is enshrined in the Constitution.

“This (rejection) is a sad development,” Fajardo said. “We earnestly appeal to the senators to reconsider their position on the compromise proposal of the Supreme Court (SC) while we await the final ruling of the Supreme Court.

“It would be in the best interest of the curious public if we can work within the framework of the Supreme Court proposal,” she said.

She said she hopes the senators would consider public interest and soften their stand on the compromise.

Puno earlier proposed a compromise that would have Neri face the Senate grilling over the NBN deal but be allowed to invoke executive privilege in refusing to answer certain questions from the senators.

Neri earlier filed a suit before the SC questioning the senators’ insistence that he testify anew on the NBN deal and divulge details of his conversations with President Arroyo on the matter.

Fajardo said she wondered why Senate President Manuel Villar was questioning executive privilege. “As lawmakers, they should be the first to understand and follow the law.”

“We cannot compromise the law as much as we would like to heed the call of the public…so removing executive privilege cannot be done by any President,” she said.

She said the Palace was also wary about the likelihood of Neri divulging sensitive state secrets to the Senate.

“In the Senate there is the executive session because there are things that should be very confidential. This (testimony) can be a Pandora’s box. If we agree to (disclose all) on the issue of ZTE or on Secretary Neri, this can already set a precedent for the next hearings of the Senate,” Fajardo said.

She said it would be better for everyone concerned to wait first for the SC jurisprudence on executive privilege.

“We are not protecting the President here personally but what we are trying to protect here is the institution, the Presidency just as the Senate does not want to have its powers diminished,” Fajardo said.

Senate firm on stand

The Senate stood firm yesterday on its stand to wait for the SC to issue a definitive ruling on Neri’s petition.

Senate President Manuel Villar Jr. said he has explained to Puno that the Senate is not challenging the SC but is merely asserting its powers in the conduct of inquiries.

Villar met with Puno in a closed-door meeting yesterday morning at the SC.

“I told the Chief Justice that the Senate is not quarreling with the SC. The Senate just wanted to defend its powers based on the Constitution. That is what we just want to emphasize. We are also not fighting with Malacañang. We are not fighting with anyone,” Villar said.

Villar also rebuffed Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye who described the Senate’s action as an “act of arrogance.”

“This is not arrogance. We are just exercising our powers vested upon us under the Constitution, and this is not arrogance. We are just doing our jobs,” the Senate President said. He also chided chief presidential legal adviser Sergio Apostol for saying that the Senate missed the opportunity to ferret out the truth about the NBN controversy.

The Senate is willing to wait for the Supreme Court to issue the final decision in the next two to three weeks, Villar added.

“There will be a thousand Neris, in the realm of possibilities, (who) can appear in some future time and say, you are infringing on my rights and I will go to the Supreme Court…The other people who can say in the future time (will say that this is a legal precedent),” Senate minority leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said.

Sen. Richard Gordon said the SC case is of “primordial importance” to the Senate.

“The Senate feels the threat of an intrusion into its constitutional duties of legislation and oversight,” Gordon said.

Villar and Pimentel also lashed out at their colleague, Sen. Manuel Roxas, who called for the Senate to re-assess its position.

“This is not a matter of controversy between neighbors squabbling over a piece of land. This involves national interest and the powers of the executive and the legislature, any controversy over which is only capable of being decided by the Supreme Court,” Pimentel said.

Senators Loren Legarda, Rodolfo Biazon and Francis Pangilinan also urged the President to allow Neri to appear before the Senate in the interest of truth.

“If Neri isn’t ordered by President Gloria Arroyo then the revocation of Executive Order 464 is just another attempt to make it appear that she heeded the people’s clamor for truth and public accountability, it is another attempt at deceiving our people,” Pangilinan said.

“I wish to remind the President that under Section 7 of Article III (Bill of Rights) of the Constitution, it is stated that ‘The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized’,” Legarda said.

Chance missed

The SC said the Senate has missed an opportunity to help the judiciary craft a more comprehensive definition of executive privilege with its rejection of Puno’s compromise offer.

“It was unfortunate that we could have had more questions which we could have used as basis for determining whether questions to be raised in future Senate and House of Representative hearings are covered by executive privilege,” Supreme Court spokesman Midas Marquez told reporters

“With more questions, we could have made the issue more clear as the Court’s decision could then be used as reference in any future hearings. But we respect the decision of the Senate,” Marquez said.

Marquez said that with the Senate’s rejection, the process of determining which questions are covered by executive privilege and which are not, will now take more time at the Supreme Court.

“The Court can definitely decide on the issue based on the three questions. There is no question to that,” he said. The three questions, he said, touched on the president’s possible following up the ZTE Corp.’s NBN proposal with Neri, her having ordered Neri to prioritize the ZTE deal, and her alleged order for Neri to push through with the project despite her being told of alleged irregularities.

“Now the parties are given 10 days to submit all these documents and pleadings. But with or without these documents, after 10 days, the case will be submitted for decision and thereafter, the Court will be coming out with its decision,” said Marquez. – Paolo Romero, Christina Mendez, Mike Frialde

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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