MANILA, Philippines—Some witnesses to the cases now being laid at the doorstep of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez are dead now, but others showed up to testify at Wednesday’s hearing at the House of Representatives, the first in a series to determine probable cause for her impeachment.
For the first complaint, Akbayan party-list Rep. Kaka Bag-Ao cited eight cases—including Gutierrez’s purported inaction on corruption charges filed against former Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Romulo Neri and former Commission on Elections Chair Benjamin Abalos in the NBN-ZTE scandal; the dismissal of four cases filed against Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo, the husband of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, concerning their involvement in the same case; the inaction on the death of Navy Ensign Philip Pestaño; and the arrest of then Akbayan party-list Rep. Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel at a women’s rally—to show “a pattern of inability, inefficiency and manifest partiality in favor of high-ranking government officials to the detriment of the public welfare.”
At one point in her presentation of the cases in the first impeachment complaint, Bag-Ao told her fellow lawmakers: “The Ombudsman brags about her plea bargains. Is she really selling justice at a bargain?”
She listed the other four cases as Gutierrez’s dismissal of the robbery case of former Justice Secretary Hernando Perez, pursuit of a graft case involving P200 million, failure to investigate then President Arroyo on her culpability in the NBN-ZTE scandal, and failure to look into the P1-million dinner of Arroyo and her entourage at the swank Le Cirque in New York.
Ensign Pestaño’s father Felipe and Hontiveros herself testified as witnesses for the first complaint.
Felipe Pestaño said potential witnesses to his son’s death in September 1995 had died or had gone missing.
For the second complaint, Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Teodoro Casiño said the 53 documents that six witnesses presented as evidence for three main issues—the P728-million fertilizer fund scam, the “euro generals scandal” involving ranking police officials caught in October 2008 at the Moscow international airport with an undeclared sum of money, and the Mega Pacific eSolutions contract with the Comelec which the Supreme Court voided on Jan. 13, 2004—would be more than enough for the justice committee to find probable cause for impeachment.
“Your honor, we only need to establish probable cause. We’re not here to establish whether she’s guilty beyond reasonable doubt. This is an obvious betrayal of public trust,” Casiño said.
‘Why were they smiling?’
Only a handful of lawmakers loyal to Gutierrez were present at the hearing.
One of them, Davao del Sur Rep. Marc Cagas, left in a huff a few minutes into the hearing, apparently annoyed that Tupas and Deputy Speaker Lorenzo Tañada III were smiling when he likened Gutierrez’s case to that of the late Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. during the martial law years.
“I don’t know why they were smiling when I raised this issue. Ninoy is my hero and we were among the original Ninoy supporters,” Cagas said.
Gutierrez herself was a no-show, contrary to her lawyer’s earlier declaration that she would face her accusers. She sent questions through her lawyer Anacleto Diaz, which were read aloud by Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr., chair of the House committee on justice hearing the two impeachment complaints against her.
Reply on Friday
At the opening of the hearing, Gutierrez’s lawyer Diaz said that his client had no intention of derailing the impeachment process and that she would file an answer “ex abundante ad cautelam” (with extreme caution) or without prejudice to the outcome of her pending appeal in the Supreme Court.
Diaz asked that Gutierrez, who was scheduled to present her side on Thursday, be given until Monday to submit her reply. But Tupas agreed to give her until Friday only.
“Never mind if we have a pending motion for reconsideration. We are not waiving [our right to file an answer] just so we are able to preserve our rights,” Diaz said in explaining his presence at the hearing.
Tupas initially rejected Gutierrez’s request. But he eventually relented and agreed to postpone Thursday’s hearing (where she was supposed to give her side) to Tuesday, after sending her written reply Friday.
Diaz had said in an earlier letter that Gutierrez would “face her accusers and prove to your committee that the charges against her are false and baseless.”
He insisted that Gutierrez had an unblemished record in her four decades of public service. “If you look at all of the charges, they are not based on any act of corruption or graft. They are based on supposed omissions committed by the Ombudsman in the course of the performance of her functions,” he told the committee.
If Gutierrez snubs the Tuesday hearing, the committee will proceed to vote on the finding of probable cause before the two complaints are consolidated into one case for submission for plenary deliberations and voting, Tupas warned.
No action in 6 years
Testifying on the P728-million fertilizer fund scam for the second impeachment complaint, Danilo Ramos, secretary general of Kilusang Magbubukid sa Pilipinas (KMP), said a witness in the case had been killed and another remained missing in the six years of “no action” on a complaint filed by KMP in 2004 in the Office of the Ombudsman.
Ramos said Perla Rodriguez, a peasant leader of Aguman Dareng Maglalautang Capampangan (AMC) from Mexico, Pampanga, was killed in her own house by suspected Army soldiers in January 2006 during the time of then Gen. Jovito Palparan.
Nilo Arado, another witness who testified in the Senate inquiry into the same issue in 2005, had also been reported missing since April 12, 2007, Ramos said.
He said he himself went into hiding for two years after his testimony in the Senate.
Ramos said the Senate had established irregularities in the use of public money intended for farmers and recommended the filing of the case against former Agriculture Secretary Luis “Cito” Lorenzo and Undersecretary Jocelyn “Jocjoc” Bolante.
He said that since the case was filed in the Office of the Ombudsman in 2004, Gutierrez had not even bothered to inform them about developments.
Worse, he said, a certification he secured from the Sandiganbayan just last week showed that no criminal or civil case had been filed against Lorenzo and Bolante by the Ombudsman.
Obstacle to justice
Ramos said Gutierrez not only slept on the case but also used her office to deceive the farmers and exonerate the culprits.
“For us, Merceditas Gutierrez is an obstacle to justice for farmers,” he told the justice committee.
Former Solicitor General Francisco Chavez, another witness for the second impeachment complaint, said he, too, filed four plunder charges in July 2004 in the Ombudsman—two for the fertilizer fund scam, one for the use of public funds in the so-called “Oplan Mercury” during the 2004 elections, and one for the unlawful use of Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration funds.
Chavez said he had also filed three plunder cases against former military comptrollers Carlos Garcia and Jacinto Ligot, and whistle-blower George Rabusa.
Art of doing nothing
He said the Ombudsman did not act on all these complaints. “She was mastering the difficult art of doing nothing, your honor,” he said.
On the Mega Pacific contract, witness Augusto Lagman said the Supreme Court decision included two directives in its decision nullifying the contract—for the Solicitor General to see to the recovery of the amount that was paid Mega Pacific amounting to more than P1 billion, and for the Ombudsman to determine who were liable for the criminal and illegal acts that were committed in the course of the bidding procedure.
Lagman said the first resolution of the Ombudsman on the case only pointed to the culpability of then Comelec Commissioner Resurreccion Borra.
But three months later, he said, the Ombudsman again issued a resolution absolving all the Comelec officials of culpability in the irregular contract.
“In so doing, the Ombudsman did not only not act on it but also reversed the decision of the Supreme Court by saying nobody was guilty, thereafter exonerating everyone in the Commission on Elections,” Lagman said.
Tupas said the committee would subpoena the records of the cases cited to compare the evidence presented before it.
Minority Leader Edcel Lagman said he and his colleagues decided that they would join the impeachment hearings only after the Supreme Court had ruled with finality on Gutierrez’s appeal.
Lagman described the proceedings as a “farce,” saying the majority had no basis for rushing the investigation before the high court had finalized its decision.
Meanwhile, calls for Tupas and other lawmakers with pending cases with the Ombudsman to inhibit themselves from the process have mounted.
“If they have any honor, they should inhibit,” Camiguin Rep. Pedro Romualdo said.
He said Tupas was showing a “bias” against Gutierrez.