(STAR) By Marvin Sy And Jess Diaz - It’s up to Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez to respond to calls for her to take a leave of absence while the impeachment complaint against her is being tackled at the House of Representatives, Malacañang said yesterday.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said that Gutierrez, being the head of an independent constitutional body, should be left to come up with her own defense against accusations hurled by members of civil society.

“That’s a call for Ombudsman Gutierrez (to make). Let us not interfere in this matter,” Ermita said.

President Arroyo has been dragged into the issues surrounding Gutierrez because of her and First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo’s closeness with the Ombudsman.

Prior to her latest posting, Gutierrez served the President as acting justice secretary and chief legal counsel.

The First Gentleman, Gutierrez’s Ateneo Law School batchmate, came to her defense the other day, saying she has performed well as Ombudsman. He also denied they were close to each other.

Ermita said the First Gentleman’s statements were his own and should not be attributed to Malacañang.

“Remember, the First Gentleman is a private individual and therefore it is within his right to be able to take a position on matters of that nature,” Ermita said.

“But the President, she is not taking a position at the moment considering that the case has been brought before Congress,” he added.

Ermita also said the attempt to link the Ombudsman to the President is unfair since her office is an independent body created by the Constitution.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Anthony Golez said the individuals behind the impeachment case against Gutierrez were the same people behind attempts to remove President Arroyo.

“They are just nuisance to the work of the institution,” Golez said.

Set into motion

Speaker Prospero Nograles gets the impeachment process against Gutierrez moving today by sending it to the House committee on justice.

“I will transmit it (to the committee) tomorrow,” he told reporters in a text message yesterday.

Congress goes on a month-long Lenten break tomorrow.

Under the House impeachment rules, the Speaker has 10 session days to refer a complaint to the committee on justice.

Former Senate president Jovito Salonga and 30 other prominent citizens, including former members of President Arroyo’s Cabinet, filed the case against Gutierrez last Monday.

Quezon City Rep. Matias Defensor, justice committee chairman, said even if his panel gets the complaint before the Lenten break, he doubts whether he can schedule hearings during the recess.

He said the impeachment rules give his committee 60 “session days” to hear a case and submit its report to the House.

“Since the rules refer to session days, I don’t think we can hold hearings during the break. Even if we hold hearings, those may not be counted as part of our 60-session-day deadline,” he told The STAR.

He said his committee might be questioned if it schedules hearings during the break in violation of procedures.

He added that hearings are likely to be scheduled shortly after the resumption of session. So far, six House members have endorsed the complaint against Gutierrez.

Rep. Rafael Mariano of Anakpawis, one of the endorsers, said Mrs. Arroyo’s husband’s defense of the embattled Ombudsman could be a “cue to administration allies to kill the case.”

Mariano also lashed out at for calling Salonga and his co- complainants a “nuisance.”

Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon said Salonga filed the case not as a Liberal Party officer but as head of corruption watchdogs Kilosbayan and Bantay Katarungan.

Meanwhile, Kalookan Bishop Deogracias Iniguez of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines-Public Affairs Commission said the Ombudsman should go on leave “so that we could maintain credibility and objectivity in the process of the case.”

FG draws more flak

The impeachment case’s lead endorser Rep. Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel of Akbayan said the First Gentleman’s defense of Gutierrez “betrays the dangerous political liaison between the two embattled personalities.”

She said the President’s husband should not be the judge of the Ombudsman’s performance.

“The performance of the Ombudsman should be measured against her constitutional mandate, not against how well she has defended the interests of the FG Mike Arroyo or the Arroyo administration,” she added.

The First Gentlemen also drew flak from senators for his defense of Gutierrez.

“Deplorable and disturbing. The First Gentleman’s unusual interest shown by his coming out in defense of the Ombudsman is very disturbing,” Sen. Francis Pangilinan said.

Sen. Manuel Roxas II believes that Mr. Arroyo’s defense of Gutierrez validated the allegations against her.

“The First Gentleman consciously or unconsciously has himself indicted and confirmed the validity of the impeachment complaint against Merceditas Gutierrez,” he said in a privilege speech.

PCGG backers

Some officials of the Presidential Commission on Good Government

(PCGG) have come to Gutierrez’s defense and besmirched the record of Salonga as PCGG chair.

Narciso Nario, former Sandiganbayan justice and now PCGG commissioner said that a number of cases filed by the PCGG during the time of Salonga were weak due to inadequate documentary evidence submitted by the government.

Camilo Sabio, PCGG chairman, for his part, called Gutierrez a “very responsible lady.”

“I’m sure she would not say anything kung walang (if there’s no) basis,” Sabio said. with Rainier Allan Ronda, Evelyn Macairan, and Christina Mendez

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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