Senators Ramon Revilla Jr., Jinggoy Estrada and Juan Ponce Enrile on Monday vowed to fight off plunder charges in connection with the P10-billion pork barrel scam.
But Senate President Franklin Drilon indicated that the upper chamber would not seek custody of the senators, saying the matter was for the courts to decide, as in the case of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Whether they will be suspended when they’re charged in court or when they’re convicted is a matter that would be studied by the Senate, Drilon said.
“My only appeal to you is not to prejudge me,” a teary-eyed Revilla told reporters from the session hall. He later added: “We will face the charges in court.”
Estrada, who fanned rumors he was flying to Hong Kong on Monday, turned up at the session hall and said he was staying in the country to face the charges.
“They’re trying to condition the minds of the public that we’re the worst thieves and I can’t accept that,” Estrada said of the charges, stressing he had no such record as a long-time public servant.
Otherwise, Estrada, who explained that he saw off somebody at the airport on Monday, said he had no plans to fly the coop.
Not a crime
Estrada said that endorsing a nongovernment organization (NGO) as a recipient of his pork barrel did not constitute a crime. He doubted that the charges would prosper if the erroneous audit report of the Commission on Audit were used as a basis.
“He was rushed to the hospital. He will fight this case in the courts,” Estrada said of Enrile, who was taken to the hospital days ago because of high blood pressure.
Enrile: ‘I’m innocent’
In a separate statement issued by his spokesperson last night, Enrile said the filing of plunder charges against him was regrettable, even as he professed innocence.
“I regret that the Department of Justice has filed this case after an incomplete, hasty and partial investigation,” Enrile said. “Let me make clear that I am innocent of the charges filed against me.”
Enrile said he trusted the Ombudsman to conduct a “thorough, complete and impartial investigation,” and vowed to cooperate with the investigation.
“It is with this trust that I will lay my case before her. I am therefore ready to fully and honestly cooperate with the investigation to discover not just the truth but the whole truth,” he said.
Senate custody ruled out
Before the filing of charges, Drilon ruled out the possibility of the Senate taking custody of the senators at any stage of the preliminary investigation or trial.
“I repeat that is not for us to determine. That is for the court to determine…. I have already demonstrated to you that in the case of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the court determined where she would be located,” he told reporters.
Arroyo, now lawmaker representing a district in her home province Pampanga, is detained at Veterans Memorial Medical Center while facing charges of electoral sabotage.
“She is under the physical custody of courts. She is confined in the hospital because that is where the court ordered that she be confined,” Drilon said.
The Senate President also said that the chamber would not provide any support for the senators, saying they were capable of defending themselves.
Estrada scoffed at this. “I’m not asking help from him,” he said.
Drilon also acknowledged that there was a difference of opinion on which stage of the court process would the senators be suspended, hence, the need for a study by the upper chamber.
Suspended once charged
Drilon earlier asserted that lawmakers could be suspended upon conviction.
But Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago insisted that they be suspended once the Ombudsman filed criminal charges against them in the Sandiganbayan.
“There is a provision in the plunder law which says that,” Drilon, referring to Santiago’s statement.
“There is also a provision in the Constitution which says matters of disciplining members of the House and the Senate rest on the respective chambers. We have to study that because this is a case of first impression,” he added.
But should the Sandiganbayan eventually issue warrants for the lawmakers’ arrest, the senators would be placed under the antigraft court’s custody. If the Sandiganbayan orders their suspension, this would be respected by the Senate, Drilon said.
In a statement, Santiago, a former trial court judge and a constitutional law expert, corrected Drilon’s position on the suspension.
Citing the 1991 Anti-Plunder Act, Santiago said that the accused would be automatically suspended from office when the Ombudsman filed plunder charges in court.
Santiago quoted Sec. 5 of the law: “Suspension and Loss of Benefits. Any public officer against whom any criminal prosecution under a valid information under this Act in whatever stage of execution and mode of participation, is pending in court, shall be suspended from office.”
“This means that the senators and representatives implicated as persons of interest shall be suspended from Congress while the trial is pending,” she said.
Santiago pointed out that the provision cited by Drilon was found only in the Senate Rules, not in the Constitution.
She quoted the Senate Rules, Rule 34, Sec. 97: “Upon the recommendation of the Committee on Ethics and Privileges, the Senate may punish any Member for disorderly behavior and, with the concurrence of two-thirds (2/3) of the entire membership, suspend or expel a Member. A penalty of suspension shall not exceed sixty (60) calendar days.”
“That provision is not found in the Constitution, but only in the Senate Rules. While under the Anti-Plunder Act, suspension is mandatory as indicated by the word ‘shall’ in the Senate Rules suspension is merely permissive, as indicated by the use of the word ‘may,’” she said.
Drilon said the filing of charges against the senators was “part of the cleansing process in our system” and expressed confidence the Senate “will come out stronger.”
“We will exert every effort in order that we can recover the confidence of the people in the institution of Congress as a pillar of our democratic system. We will continue to discharge our functions and we will continue to define policies, which we think is critical in every aspect of our political life,” he said.
Support from JV, Nancy
The three senators’ colleagues in the minority aired their support for them. Sen. JV Ejercito expressed hope that the government would not be selective, while Sen. Nancy Binay hoped her colleagues would get a “fair trial.”
Drilon said the suspension of senators would not affect the functions of the chamber.
“This is a collegial body and we will continue to function as a collegial body,” he said. “We will function. All the committees are still there. The committees will continue to work.”