PUNO INQUIRY: BLANKET DENIALS; 'JUETENG' BACKERS REMAIN A 'MYSTERY'


[PHOTO -POINTLESS “Pointless” to further question former Interior Undersecretary Rico E. Puno, says his inquisitor Sen. Miriam Santiago on the latter’s alleged links to illegal logging, “jueteng,” and the purchase of overpriced firearms during a Senate inquiry on Friday. Also at the hearing are PNP Director General Nicanor Bartolome (center) and retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz. RAFFY LERMA]

MANILA, SEPTEMBER 17, 2012 (INQUIRER) By Norman Bordadora - MIRIAM DARES PNoy TO PRIORITIZE 'JUETENG' ERADICATION!

The so-called backers of resigned Interior Undersecretary Rico E. Puno and the financiers of “jueteng” remain a mystery as Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago failed to unmask them at a Senate public hearing on Friday.

She found it pointless to press further after Puno’s blanket denials.

“As a former [regional trial court] judge, I know he’ll only insist on his answer that since he was asked to secure documents, he’d go and secure documents whether they are in the office or in the residence,” Santiago said.

The same went for Puno’s alleged jueteng involvement.

[PHOTO -NOT QUITE BALLISTIC Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago appears to be imploring the heavens as she grills former Interior Undersecretary Rico E. Puno who issues nothing but blanket denials during the Senate inquiry. Most of Santiago’s colleagues did not show up. Only Senators Alan Peter Cayetano and Aquilino Pimentel III did. RAFFY LERMA]

“How can a creature flourish without its creator and its protector? We no longer discussed it because he’d insist on what he said and I would insist on what I said. It would have been pointless,” Santiago said.

She described Puno’s answers as “fudged.” “I don’t get the logic of what he was trying to say,” she said.

Puno’s coolness may have actually saved him on Friday. “If he made me angry, I could have gone ballistic,” Santiago said.

Santiago also challenged President Aquino to crush jueteng by declaring its eradication a government priority and warning local officials that they faced administrative charges if they’re proven to be protecting the illegal numbers game.

“It’s difficult to exterminate it until Malacañang makes it a national priority,” Santiago told reporters after the hearing on Puno’s short-lived service in the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).

Puno resigned on Monday under suspicion that he tried to suppress investigations into his alleged involvement in jueteng, an irregular firearms deal in the Philippine National Police (PNP), and illegal logging by attempting to remove documents from the offices and residence of Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo a day after the DILG chief’s plane crashed in the waters off Masbate province on Aug. 18.

The hearing called by Santiago’s committee on constitutional amendments and revision of laws proceeded despite questions about its validity that some senators had raised and the absence of the Cabinet officials that the panel had invited for questioning.

Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, incoming Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Environment Secretary Ramon Paje escaped the grilling because of supposed lapses by the committee itself.

In a letter he sent to the committee, Ochoa said the hearing had no clearance from the full Senate and the panel had failed to send to the Palace the questions it wanted to ask to the Cabinet officials.

“Whoever wrote this letter should be fired by President Aquino for being cross-eyed,” an angry Santiago said.

The letter writer, she said, had his constitutional provisions mixed up because a list of questions is required only for the congressional question hour for government officials. Her committee’s hearing was in aid of legislation, she said.

Palace blamed

[PRESIDENT BENIGNO AQUINO III]

And she poured out her frustration. “It appears to me that the President of the Philippines has ordered his Cabinet not to attend,” she said.

She was not alone in blaming the dud on President Aquino. Renato Reyes, secretary general of the left-leaning Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), suggested that the Palace barred the Cabinet officials from going to the hearing because the inquiry centered on Puno, the President’s shooting-range buddy.

That sent the Palace bristling in anger. “What will they ask Mar Roxas?” presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda asked Bayan. “He’s the incoming DILG secretary. What does he know at the DILG? Right now he’s still occupying the [Department of Transportation and Communications] position.”

He went on, “[Executive Secretary] Ochoa, he is just [officer in charge of the DILG].” Then, referring to Reyes, Lacierda asked, his voice rising, “What would you like to ask, about the past?”

Lacierda stressed that the principal in the inquiry was Puno. “What did they want to elicit from the Cabinet secretaries?” he asked.

Lacierda denied that the Palace barred the secretaries from going to the hearing. “We were ready,” he said, referring to Ochoa’s letter pointing out the committee’s lapses.

But the Cabinet officials were not the only ones who snubbed the hearing. Most of Santiago’s colleagues also did not show up. Only Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano and Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III were there and they, too, failed to find anything that could be brought against Puno.

Puno showed up after a week of silence on allegations that he tried to spirit investigation papers involving him out of the offices and apartment of Robredo.

No case


[PHOTO -Resigned Interior secretary Rico Puno. Lawmakers assail dropping of Puno probe. Why let President Benigno Aquino’s friend Rico E. Puno so easily off the hook? MATIKAS SANTOS/INQUIRER.net]

Composed and calm throughout the proceedings, Puno denied all the allegations that had been raised against him from his earliest days in office.

“For the record, I would like to state that two years after, not a single case has been filed against me by my accusers,” Puno said.

On Santiago’s questioning, Puno admitted that despite being just an observer on the bids and awards committee of the Philippine National Police (PNP), he summoned bidders in a P1-billion gun program to tell them that the contract would depend more on the results of a firearms test than on documentary requirements submitted by the suppliers.

Puno said he only did so to ensure that the country’s policemen would be equipped with the best sidearm.

Santiago questioned Puno’s statement that he was just an observer on the bids and awards committee in the police deal for nearly 60,000 handguns.

When confronted with the fact, Puno said, “I called all the proponents because we wanted the best types of firearms.”

Santiago indicated that in doing so, Puno already interfered with the process.

Puno insisted that his role on the committee was only advisory.

On the allegations that he’s involved in the protection of multibillion-peso jueteng operations in the country, Puno said, “To this day, aside from the allegations, no evidence has been presented to support the allegations made against me.”

No raid

As to his alleged “raid” on Robredo’s offices, Puno repeated his defense that he only went to the DILG chief’s offices to secure state papers on instructions of President Aquino.

He said he went to the Robredo residence also to secure government documents.

The charges that he raided and ransacked the offices and apartment of Robredo were unfair and unfounded, Puno said.

“For the record, I would like to state that there was no such raid,” Puno said.

His visit to Robredo’s offices and apartment, he said, were “witnessed by representatives of the late secretary, elements of the Quezon City police, representatives of the office of internal security of the secretary, regular guards of the building and my staff.”

Travel to Israel

Puno also confirmed Santiago’s information that he traveled to Israel, but denied that the trip was linked to a tender for an Israeli-made pistol for the police firearms program.

“I was on leave at that time,” Puno said.

Puno said he only met a certain retired General Santiago at the airport and went to shoot rifles, “being an enthusiast.”

Asked later in a news briefing whether Puno’s intervention made the gun deal irregular, Santiago said, “That is speculative.”

“But you can draw your own conclusions,” she added.

Political pressure

Santiago said she wasn’t convinced of Puno’s jueteng defense and his claim about securing Robredo’s apartment. President Aquino’s instruction was only to secure Robredo’s offices at the DILG central office, the National Police Commission and at the PNP headquarters, she said.

Still, that wasn’t enough to irk her into identifying Puno’s influential backer who allegedly secured for him the authority to supervise the PNP.

“That will die with me if they shoot me today,” she said. “But maybe some other day, we’ll reveal.”

She also declined to disclose the alleged protector of jueteng, but said she would name them if the political pressure on her mounted.

She adverted to the impeachment trial of former Chief Justice Renato Corona when Malacañang allegedly hired “a character assassin” to work against her.

“Now if that will happen again because of this, I will already identify the person [the backer of Puno] because they would by then be directing challenging me,” Santiago said.

Influence peddlers

[PHOTO -President Aquino congratulates his first cousin, Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV, and his bride, Timi Gomez, after their wedding at Chapel on the Hill in Batulao, Batangas, Saturday. The President, who turns down requests to be a sponsor at weddings of friends and relatives, came as one of the few guests at the very private morning ceremonies. SANDEE S. MASIGAN/CONTRIBUTOR]

Last week, Santiago said she would seek a Senate inquiry to unmask the influence peddlers that exerted pressure on President Aquino to appoint Puno as interior undersecretary with the “unique, even anomalous” authority to supervise the police.

Santiago confronted Puno with the fact that jueteng continues, as testified to by retired Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz.

She said this happened during Puno’s stint as the undersecretary in charge of peace and order.

“Mr. Puno has never made any dent. Jueteng is the biggest source of corruption. If the income from jueteng is that huge, there must be somebody protecting it,” Santiago said.

She said she couldn’t help perceptions that Malacañang is protecting Puno, she said.

“We cannot help it if the public draws an adverse conclusion to this effort to coddle Mr. Puno,” she said. “There is definitely a cordon sanitaire around him.”

The end

She will not send subpoenas to force the Cabinet secretaries to appear at her committee’s investigation.

“No more,” she said when asked about it. “We’re no longer on good terms with Malacañang.”

There will be no next hearing. “That’s sufficient,” she said. “He has already resigned,” she added, referring to Puno.

But she said she would study whether there’s a need to review the Administrative Code and the DILG Act to prevent a repeat of the grant of “unique powers” to Puno. With a report from TJ Burgonio


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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