Drilon, De Lima cite Ombudsman ruling vs publicity
A fuming Senator Teofisto Guingona III berated Justice Secretary Leila de Lima Tuesday for failing to bring witnesses before the Blue Ribbon Committee, which is investigating the P10 billion pork barrel scam.
Guingona, chairman of the panel, dismissed De Lima’s explanation that the law might prohibit the appearance of the whistleblowers after a plunder complaint had been filed before the Office of the Ombudsman against the alleged mastermind of the scam, Janet Lim Napoles and 37 other people, including three senators.
If looks... Senate Blue Ribbon Committee Chairman Teofisto Guingona III confronts Justice Secretary Leila de Lima after whistle blowers Benhur Luy and Merlina Suñas failed to attend Tuesday’s resumption of the Senate’s investigation of the alleged P10-billion pork barrel scam. Inset, Senate President Franklin Drilon holds up the subpoena he had signed compelling De Lima to present the whistle blowers. Ey Acasio
“You have attempted to undermine and diminish the power of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee. I’m very, very disappointed. I do not agree with your stand. I am therefore issuing a subpoena directed to you, to have the whistleblowers appear before the Senate Blue Ribbon on Thursday, 10 a.m.,” said Guingona told De Lima.
He also expressed “extreme disappointment” over Senate President Franklin Drilon’s refusal to sign a subpoena to compel Napoles to appear before the Blue Ribbon panel, on the grounds that the Senate should defer to the Ombudsman, which was already handling the case.
Guingona asked what part of Napoles’ testimony was so secret that it could not be made under oath before his committee.
The tirade triggered a sharp rebuke from the Palace, which said De Lima was merely following the law.
“I understand that the secretary of Justice went there personally to state her position, that she is deferring to the Office of the Ombudsman on the matter, precisely because of a specific provision that is found in the Ombudsman Law,” said presidential deputy spokeswoman Abigail Valte. “In our parlance, she did not snub the Senate. She appeared before the committee... The treatment was quite surprising.”
Valte said as head of the Justice Department, De Lima cannot be expected to violate an existing law.
“The President expects her to execute her mandate in faithful compliance to our existing laws,” she said. “It cannot be that the secretary of Justice is the first one to violate an existing rule of law.”
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales on Tuesday ruled out a Senate appearance by Napoles, citing a provision in the Ombudsman Act of 1989 that authorizes her office to determine which cases may not be made public.
“It cannot be gainsaid that publicity that may be spawned by the testimony of Napoles would, among other things, adversely affect public interest, prejudice the safety of witnesses or the disposition of cases against her or her co-respondents pending before this office, or unduly expose them to ridicule or public censure,” Morales said.
“I hope that the distinguished Senate will understand the concerns of this office, under the contextual circumstances of the cases against Mrs. Napoles et al., so that it can effectively discharge its mandate,” she added.
At the start of Tuesday’s hearing, Guingona told De Lima he did not issue a subpoena for the appearance of the whistleblowers due to the commitment she had made to bring them.
“We had a meeting last week. You and I met and in that meeting, I asked you point blank if you will bring the whistleblowers and you did say yes. In fact, you even named them. So I asked you who are the whistleblowers that you will bring and you said, Benhur Luy, Getrudes Luy, Marina Sula and Merlina Suna,” Guingona reminded De Lima.
De Lima explained that her appearance without the whistleblowers was not an act of disobedience but an acknowledgment of the Ombudsman Act.
But Guingona took offense and banged the gavel to suspend the hearing, cutting off De Lima, who was about to speak further.
He said he needed no more talk but action from De Lima to bring the whistleblowers to the Senate.
Earlier, Guingona had told De Lima he could not understand why she would not allow the whistleblowers to appear in the Senate when she permitted them to be interviewed on television stations, and by newspapers and ratio stations.
“I really cannot understand, Madam Secretary. What you have done is unprecedented,” said Guingona , noting that the Supreme Court has recognized the power of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee in a long line of decided cases.
In a press briefing after the hearing, Guingona said he was not amenable to De Lima’s suggestion that they seek the permission of the Ombudsman.
He said if this were the case, anyone who wished to avoid being investigated before the Senate could simply have a case filed against him before the Ombudsman.
Drilon on Tuesday stood firm on his decision to defer to the Ombudsman regarding Napoles’ testimony, but he signed Guingona’s new subpoena for the whistleblowers to appear before the panel on Thursday.
“I am signing this subpoena in your presence now, for Secretary De Lima to produce the witnesses in this subpoena. This is now the subpoena for Secretary De Lima and the other witnesses that the Chairman of the Blue Ribbon Committee wishes Secretary De Lima to bring,” said Drilon.
De Lima told reporters she would comply with the Senate subpoena and apologized to Guingona, who readily accepted her apology.
Guingona said Drilon did the right thing in signing the new subpoena but insisted the same thing should have been done for Napoles.
“If the Senate President can allow the whistleblowers to come before the Senate, I see no logical reason why he should prevent the Blue Ribbon Committee from summoning Janet Lim Napoles, the very reason why this investigation is being conducted in the first place,” he said.
“If we accept the invocation of the Ombudsman’s power to protect the confidentiality of matters before it, then the Senate President should not have signed the subpoena for the whistleblowers. The different but unreasonable treatment between the whistleblowers and Janet Lim Napoles raises the obvious question: what is so confidential about Ms. Napoles’ possible testimony that it cannot be made under oath before the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee? It just does not make logical and legal sense,” Guingona said.
Drilon, however, said Napoles and the whistleblowers were not in the same situation. He said the Ombudsman had ruled that the appearance of Napoles could prejudice the prosecution of the case, but it made no such finding in the case of the whistleblowers.
He also denied accusations that the Senate was trying to prevent Napoles from testifying since she might drag other senators in the scandal.
Earlier this month, pictures of Drilon partying with Napoles surfaced. He later admitted seeing Napoles several times during social gatherings (“no more than 10 times), but denied channeling pork barrel to any of Napoles’ bogus non-government organizations.
Senator Francis Escudero, a member of the Blue Ribbon Committee, sided with Guingona on the independence of the Senate. He called for a caucus to resolve the issue.
Escudero also said the prohibition on Napoles to appear before the Senate Blue Ribbon committee would be applicable only during the preliminary investigation, and not during the fact-finding probe.
Also on Tuesday, the lawyer of whistleblower Benhur Luy said a former Cabinet secretary was behind the misuse of millions of pesos from the Malampaya gas fund. With Joyce Pangco Pañares and Rey E. Requejo