MANILA, Philippines—Saying that Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez had been “given so many chances” to do her job but failed to do it, President Benigno Aquino III on Monday gave the go-signal for members of the ruling Liberal Party in the House of Representatives to ensure her impeachment.
Mr. Aquino, who is the Liberal Party chair, issued the marching orders at a luncheon meeting with party mates on the eve of a crucial vote by the House justice committee that would decide whether the impeachment complaint against Gutierrez would be sent for plenary debate.
Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr. on Monday said an overwhelming majority of the members of the House committee on justice would find Gutierrez “probably guilty” of betrayal of public trust when they vote on Tuesday on the two impeachment complaints against her.
The President said members of the Liberal Party were “at a crossroads,” pointing out that the Constitution has given members of the House the right to investigate if someone did something wrong.
“If there’s a probable cause, it is your obligation to file the articles of impeachment and bring them to the Senate,” he told party mates.
The first impeachment complaint charged Gutierrez with betraying the public trust and with culpable violation of the Constitution for her dismal conviction rate in connection with the death of Navy Ensign Philip Pestaño and the allegedly overpriced National Broadband Network deal with China’s ZTE Corp., among other cases.
The second complaint cited Gutierrez’s failure to act promptly on cases like the P728-million fertilizer fund scam and the Mega Pacific eSolutions contract with the Commission on Elections that the Supreme Court voided.
No turning back
Mr. Aquino said there was no turning back. “We crossed the Rubicon a long time ago,” he said, adding that the people should win this battle.
A one-third vote (95) of the 283-member House is needed to elevate the impeachment case to the Senate for trial.
Although the Liberal Party has 83 members in the House, it can easily enlist the support of lawmakers belonging to other political parties who are part of the ruling coalition.
There are only 34 opposition lawmakers in the House.
Mr. Aquino said the Office of the Ombudsman had been used as a “political tool” for so long.
He noted that one’s case would be fast tracked if he or she was an enemy of the former administration.
“But if you are a friend of the former administration, your case will be delayed, and nothing will be found. In the end, you can even enter into a (plea) bargain,” Mr. Aquino said.
The President was apparently referring to former military comptroller Carlos Garcia whose plunder charge was reduced to direct bribery and money laundering charges after he entered into a plea bargain deal with special prosecutors of the Office of Ombudsman.
“She [Gutierrez] has been given so many chances. The fertilizer scam—How many years did it take [the Ombudsman] to start investigating? We can bring people before the bar of justice but at the end of the day, there is somebody who will condone everything,” the President said.
He reminded the lawmakers of their obligations to the people who elected them. “The choice is simple: Let us leave behind the rotten system. The proof is there and let us stand by it. Let us help each other remain on the straight path,” he said.
Excerpts of the speech of the President at the meeting were released by Malacañang Monday night, just a few hours after he left for weeklong state visits to Indonesia and Singapore.
Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang, who attended the luncheon, said the President had told Liberal Party lawmakers, governors and mayors that they had an “obligation” to pursue the impeachment case against Gutierrez.
Carandang said that after the speech, a congressman stood up to move that the President’s stand on the issue be a party stand and that they all agreed.
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, who also attended the luncheon, said Mr. Aquino “in broad terms” reminded they had to “face up to the commitments and promises they made to the people.”
Lacierda said Mr. Aquino received applause and several standing ovations during his speech at the luncheon that was closed to the media for coverage.
Tupas, chair of the committee on justice, said the votes on the determination of probable cause would likely be the same as the votes cast when committee members first found the complaints sufficient in form and substance in September 2010.
The committee voted 41-12 on the first impeachment complaint filed by the group of former Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel, and 42-12 on the second impeachment complaint filed by the group of Renato Reyes of Bayan Muna.
“There is a very strong sentiment among members that Ombudsman Gutierrez is probably guilty as charged. Remember the votes before on sufficient in form and substance were 41-12 and 42-12, respectively. It will be the same, more or less,” Tupas told the Inquirer.
There are 55 regular members of the committee and 26 ex-officio members who can also vote. But according to Tupas, for purposes of determining the majority, the ex-officio members will not be included in Tuesday’s voting. As chair, Tupas can only vote when there is a tie.
Tupas said he did not expect Gutierrez to appear at the hearing before the voting.
He said the committee had adopted the classical definition of probable cause, which is “to determine whether there are sufficient grounds to engender a well-founded belief that an impeachable offense may have been committed and the respondent is probably guilty thereof and should be held for trial.”
Tupas said the complaint for culpable violation of the Constitution was already assumed in the betrayal of public trust.
“So actually, there is only one, which is betrayal of public trust as it already assumed culpable violation of the Constitution,” he said.
If Gutierrez does not appear at Tuesday’s hearing which is scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m., the committee members will be allowed to raise a clarification before the voting, Tupas said.
But if Gutierrez will appear and affirm her pleadings, voting may take place in the afternoon or in the morning of the next day, he added.
Gutierrez beat the Friday deadline given by the committee for her to file her answer to the allegations in the complaints.
In her pleading, she said all the allegations against her were “devoid of factual and legal basis.”
Under the rules of the committee, Gutierrez has to appear to affirm her pleadings. “Otherwise, it will just be treated as a mere scrap of paper if she does not appear,” Tupas said.