Even if they are criminally charged before the Ombudsman, the senators implicated in the P10-billion pork barrel scam may continue to discharge their duties as legislators and cannot be suspended until they are convicted, according to Senate President Franklin Drilon.
Discipline is not automatic with the filing of charges, Drilon told a Quezon City media forum on Saturday.
“There must be a process, there must be a case filed in the Senate,” he said.
“Of course, down the road, if the conviction carries a perpetual disqualification from holding office, that conviction will effectively expel the legislators from office,” he said.
The National Bureau of Investigation, after completing its four-month investigation of the P10-billion alleged plunder of the congressional pork barrel, officially known as the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), is expected to file criminal complaints with the Ombudsman against the alleged mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles, and a number of legislators and their accomplices in the implementing government agencies.
Not guilty by photo op
Drilon seemed confident that he could not possibly be included in the group of legislators who are likely to be charged.
“I have not assigned any of my PDAF to Napoles or any of her NGOs (nongovernment organizations),” he said.
He said he was being pronounced “guilty by photography”—a phrase attributed to presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda—for having been caught in a photo op moment with Napoles and members of her family.
Drilon jokingly said he was not the senator code-named “Sexy” that whistle-blower Benhur Luy said he had visited at the Senate at the height of Napoles’ operations.
“That’s not me. I’m fat,” he said in Filipino.
What happens next
Once the NBI files the criminal information with the Ombudsman against the alleged scam perpetrators, the “rational process” would be for Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales to first “evaluate” the evidence submitted.
“After evaluation, they can take two options: One, conduct further fact-finding investigation if the Ombudsman feels the evidence is insufficient, or two, consider the fact-finding stage as having been completed and therefore, require respondents to file counteraffidavits within 10 days and conduct a preliminary investigation,” he said.
“Remember that from newspaper accounts, there are a dozen of boxes of evidence, which means it will take time to assess. It is not a simple case where a one-page document is submitted,” Drilon said.
If the Ombudsman finds probable cause, a trial will take place in the Sandiganbayan antigraft court, he said.
“If the evidence of guilt is beyond reasonable doubt, there’ll be those who’ll be imprisoned,” Drilon said.
According to a Commission on Audit special audit of pork barrel releases from 2007 to 2009, among the senators whose pork barrel entitlements were allegedly channeled to dubious Napoles-linked NGOs were Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile and Senators Jinggoy Estrada, Ramon Revilla Jr. and Gregorio Honasan.
The four senators have denied any wrongdoing in the disbursement of their PDAF entitlements.
Power to discipline
If his fellow lawmakers are charged before the Ombudsman, Drilon said it would be up to the Senate and the House of Representatives, not the Ombudsman, to administratively discipline their members.
“Whether or not [the Ombudsman’s] power to suspend can be exercised against the members of Congress is debatable. Why? Because under the Constitution, the power to discipline members of Congress belongs to the House or the Senate, as the case may be” he said.
Drilon cited the case of former Zamboanga Del Norte Rep. Romeo Jalosjos who, despite being charged for rape in the 1990s, went on to serve as congressman until he was convicted.
He also cited the case former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who continues to discharge her functions as a Pampanga congresswoman even if she is facing several serious charges.
“This supports the theory that indeed, the application of the constitutional principle that a matter of disciplining members of Congress belongs to both Houses,” Drilon said.
Congress to become stronger
The Senate President admitted that the multibillion-peso pork barrel scam has affected the credibility and integrity of the Senate and the House but said he expects Congress to come out stronger from the controversy.
“Admittedly, this has affected the Senate and the House. But I find this as an opportunity to strengthen the institution afterwards,” he told the same Quezon City forum.
“Yes, there may be a weakening of the institution, but I am confident we should be able to strengthen our democratic institution afterward,” Drilon added.