Ombudsman: Lawmakers' suspension is Sandigan's call
MANILA, Philippines - Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales has made it clear that the power to suspend legislators charged with plunder rests with the anti-graft court and not with her office, but whether the Sandiganbayan can automatically suspend lawmakers is another thing.
Her clarification came amid a debate on whether lawmakers implicated in the pork barrel scam allegedly engineered by Janet Lim-Napoles could be suspended right away.
The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and Department of Justice (DOJ) on Monday filed charges against 38 individuals, including Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla Jr. in connection with the scam before the Office of the Ombudsman.
During the Senate hearing on the proposed P2.5-billion budget of the Office of the Ombudsman for 2014, Sen. Francis Escudero asked Morales to clarify when legislators could actually be suspended from office when facing plunder charges.
“I take it that that refers only to cases when the information has been filed in court. But as far as the ombudsman is concerned, I have said it publicly before that the ombudsman has no administrative, disciplinary jurisdiction over members of Congress,” Morales said.
Senate President Franklin Drilon and Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago stated that any suspension of legislators would come once the actual cases were filed by the ombudsman before the Sandiganbayan.
Santiago believes that the suspension would be automatic based on the Anti-Plunder Act.
But Morales, a former associate justice of the Supreme Court, has raised some doubts about the automatic suspension of the legislators.
“The use of the word ‘it shall,’ I don’t think it will be automatic on the part of the Sandiganbayan to suspend. I really don’t know... that’s really debatable. Of course the ombudsman will move for the suspension of the defendant-congressman or senator,” Morales said, referring to the Anti-Plunder Act.
“Whether or not the Sandiganbayan can motu propio (on its own) suspend a defendant in a plunder case who is a member of Congress, I’m not in a position to say with authority whether it should or it should not,” she added.
For his part, Drilon said the Supreme Court ruled before that preventive suspensions, just like what the Sandiganbayan could issue against the legislators, should only be within a 90-day period and not for the duration of the trial.
He said that a suspension for the duration of the trial could already mean a virtual removal from office of a legislator if the case drags on longer than the lawmaker’s term.
He also said that a senator could be suspended sooner through a process that would involve the filing of a complaint before the Senate ethics committee. The formal complaint must be filed before the ethics committee against any senator if the intention is to expel the legislator from the Senate.
Drilon said that no complaint has been filed yet and the Senate ethics committee has not even been organized.
In previous congresses, the ethics committee has been slow in acting on cases filed against senators and almost no hearings were held to hear the complaints.
Drilon appeared hesitant in supporting this route, especially since the ombudsman is already reviewing the complaints filed by the NBI and DOJ.
“It would be better to just leave this matter to the courts, anyway this case is already with the ombudsman. The ombudsman will decide if cases will be filed before the Sandiganbayan. The moment cases are filed that would be the end of the matter,” Drilon said.
Morales said she expects to complete the review of the cases in a year or less based on the amount of documentary evidence submitted.
“The DOJ filed cases by batches and if that is the case, then we can also file cases by batches. In other words, we will not wait for the entire case, the subject of fact-finding by the NBI to come over to us before we refer with finality the cases which were filed yesterday,” she said.
“So that one year that I gave is only just an estimate. It could be less. I don’t expect it to be more. It could be less. I will see to it that it won’t be more,” she added.
Santiago: Don’t allow delay due to diarrhea
Santiago suggested that the ombudsman should not allow any motion for postponement, particularly on the ground of any sickness such as diarrhea, to prevent delays in the preliminary investigation of plunder cases.
Santiago said that when she was regional trial court judge, she discovered that the country suffers from pandemic diarrhea.
“That (diarrhea) is the most common ground for postponement sought by lawyers, the parties and their witnesses. No postponement should be granted in the name of the almighty diarrhea,” Santiago said.
The veteran senator said that the ombudsman can speed up the preliminary investigation of plunder cases by observing its own rules of procedure which prohibit the following delaying tactics: motion to dismiss, motion for bill of particulars, or motion for more definite statement of crimes.
She also proposed that in cases involving “acute public interest,” the ombudsman would be justified in devoting all the its resources to the plunder cases, to the exclusion of other pending cases.
Belmonte: House will not protect guilty lawmakers
For his part, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said that most lawmakers in the House of Representatives have used their pork barrel funds well, but he vowed that the chamber would not protect members found guilty of misusing their congressional allocations.
“Those who violated the rules on the PDAF, of course, they have to answer for it and I’m hopeful that as the wheels of justice go, then they will see that our system of government works and that PDAF also has not been abused by most of the congressmen,” Belmonte told reporters yesterday.
“I promise 100 percent cooperation, in terms of records, because friendships aside, this is really a blot on all of us and it is necessary for the sake of the institution that we cooperate with the authorities,” he added.
The Speaker also said he has not yet spoken with Enrile, whom he considers as a personal friend.
“But at the same time, I have no intention in any way of interfering or doing anything. It’s just a personal thing, I’m really sorry for him,” Belmonte said.
Raps vs Napoles, lawmakers welcomed
Sorsogon Bishop Arturo Bastes, on the other hand, said that he hopes that lawmakers who would be found guilty by the Sandiganbayan be imprisoned for life.
“I hope that businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles and the guilty senators would be jailed for life. They have committed crimes against the nation. Indeed, the pork barrel issue must be outlawed, not only abolished. It is certainly the greatest cause of corruption at present in the past many years,” Bastes said.
The #Abolishpork Movement, a broad alliance of organizations opposed to the pork barrel system, also welcomed the filing of criminal charges against Napoles and several lawmakers but they warned of a possible cover-up.
The #Abolishpork Movement said the gag order issued by the ombudsman on the legal complaint filed by the DOJ is a “violation of the people’s right to information on such a crucial issue of government corruption.” – With Rhodina Villanueva, Paolo Romero, Christina Mendez, Evelyn Macairan