OMBUDSMAN Merceditas Gutierrez resigned on Friday, barely a year shy of the end of her tenure in 2012. The resignation averted what would have been the first bruising confrontation between President Benigno Aquino III and the preceding Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration over the holdover Ombudsman, who has been impeached by the House of Representatives and whose office is protected by the Constitution.
The impeachment case against Gutierrez was regarded as a proxy fight between the President and Arroyo in his campaign to make her accountable for a number of corruption cases spelled out in the impeachment complaint. The ouster move against Gutierrez to stop her allegedly from blocking the prosecution of corruption cases also put to the test the presidential powers to remove officials deemed to be standing in the way of his anticorruption drive—a major objective of his administration.
The resignation followed intensified pressure mounted by the President who embarked on a no-holds-barred campaign to swing public opinion behind two objectives: first, to force her to resign before she stands trial in the Senate; and second, get the impeachment tribunal to convict her for “inaction” on corruption cases involving ex-President Arroyo, if the impeachment trial had gone ahead.
After weeks of relentless battering and bullying in a charge led by Mr. Aquino himself, mounted on the white horse of governance reform, Gutierrez succumbed and folded, and the President got his way without a bloody battle in the Senate.
Why she quit
The first question after the surrender of the Ombudsman is: What made her quit? There are several interpretations.
According to the government’s side, Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr., head of the House impeachment prosecution panel, a number of officials in the Office of the Ombudsman were prepared to testify against Gutierrez at the Senate trial (which was scheduled to start on May 9 but now aborted by her resignation). Tupas said the prospect of this damaging testimony could have pushed Gutierrez to quit.
Another version is, persons close to Gutierrez told me, that she had been overwhelmed by the pressure from the government that she feared the trial would turn into a “witch hunt,” in which the President has thrown the resources of his office to remove her and replace its staff with people deemed more cooperative with the administration’s anticorruption purge of the bureaucracy.
According to a third version by former special prosecutor Dennis Villa-Ignacio, Gutierrez’s resignation was a strategic move to protect Arroyo. According to this theory, while it would have been Gutierrez on the stand during the Senate trial, the evidence to be presented would have inevitably led to Arroyo. Hence the abortion of the trial, as a consequence of the resignation, is believed to have benefited Arroyo, at the expense of Gutierrez, as the “fall guy.”
Woes not yet over
Apart from the fact that Arroyo has been spared the ordeal of receiving the full brunt of what would have been the testimony of Gutierrez, the abortion of the trial cleared the deck of the Senate to revert to its normal legislative functions, given that an impeachment proceeding would have eaten up most of its working sessions for at least the remaining days of the year.
But after her resignation, the woes of Gutierrez are far from over. With the trial rendered moot, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said those wanting to pursue cases against her should file suits with the Department of Justice using evidence gathered in the House impeachment.
The resignation did not buy her immunity from suits.