MANILA, Philippines -- In a turnaround, the Arroyo administration Sunday deferred the suspension of Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay and lifted the freeze order on all but one of the banks holding the funds of the city.
The twin moves on the crucial last week of the election campaign came after the media reported that Binay had asked his supporters to thank President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for ensuring his reelection by harassing him.
Ms Arroyo?s allies had also assailed the timing of the suspension and the freezing of Makati?s assets.
?It?s a case of too little, too late,? Binay said of the latest moves taken by Malacañang.
?It will not change the fact that this regime has again misused the powers of government for political ends at the expense of public welfare,? he said in a statement.
Binay, who is facing administration Sen. Manuel ?Lito? Lapid in the mayoral race, was served a suspension order late Friday night in connection with a plunder case filed by a political rival with the Office of the Ombudsman.
Two days before, the Bureau of Internal Revenue froze all the bank accounts of the city government and the personal accounts of Binay and Vice Mayor Ernesto Mercado in what the BIR said was an effort to recover P1.1 billion in alleged unpaid taxes.
The freeze order threatened to cripple operations at City Hall.
Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said the preventive suspension of Binay would be deferred ?for the duration of the election period.?
In a statement, Puno said he was putting off the suspension ?in the spirit of fair play.?
The Office of the Ombudsman ordered the preventive suspension of Binay -- his second in six months -- while he was being investigated for allegedly filling the city payroll with ?ghost employees.?
Assistant Interior Secretary Brian Yamsuan said the ?deferment? was actually ?the continuation of the dialogue? between Binay and Interior Undersecretary Marius Corpus and the Philippine National Police on Friday.
?We wanted to be civil and prudent, that?s why there was a dialogue. We acted in good faith,? Yamsuan said in a telephone interview.
The Department of the Interior and Local Government implemented the suspension order on Friday because it could be charged with dereliction of duty if it did not, he said.
Tension gripped the Makati City Hall on Friday night after DILG officials, armed with a suspension order from the Ombudsman, tried to evict Binay.
Corpus, accompanied by senior police officers, met with Binay to serve the order, but Corpus later agreed to defer serving the order to Monday.
Denied due process
The deferment of his suspension did not appease Binay.
?The Filipino people, not just in Makati, all know that (Malacañang?s) sole objective is to achieve its political ends without regard to public interest,? Binay said in the statement.
Binay could not be reached for an interview Sunday.
His political adviser, Lito Anzures, said the mayor was conferring with his lawyers about his legal options in a closed-door meeting.
Although he agreed to receive the suspension order, Binay said he would ask the Court of Appeals on Monday to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) against its implementation.
Binay said he was denied due process by the Office of the Ombudsman when it failed to provide him a copy of the complaint filed by a congressional candidate who, he noted, was running under Ms Arroyo?s party.
Lakas candidate Oscar Ibay filed the complaint in December 2006 but Binay said that up to now, he had not received a copy of the charges.
Neither has he been asked by the Ombudsman to comment on the allegations, he said.
Binay alleged that his political opponents had known about his imminent suspension as early as last week.
?It?s the same as the garnishment order from the BIR.?
Binay maintained that the suspension was part of a Malacañang plan to harass him for being a vocal critic of the administration, citing a series of events that began with the killing of his security chief, Pablo Glean, last year.
?The pattern of harassment is clear. After the still unsolved killing of my security chief, Malacañang tried to suspend me in October last year, but this was stopped by the people of Makati,? he said.
Officials tried to serve a suspension order against Binay last year based on a complaint by his political rival Roberto Brillante that he and the city council were keeping ghost employees.
But the mayor, after barricading himself with his supporters at City Hall for three days, obtained a TRO and later an injunction barring interior officials from carrying out the suspension order.
Binay said that the lifting of the garnishment order on Makati?s assets was another ?face-saving move.?
He questioned the order, saying the city had already paid P200 million to the BIR in a compromise settlement, and argued that the freeze order would cripple the city government.
In a statement, Revenue Commissioner Jose Mario Buñag said he had ordered the agency?s regional office to limit its freeze order on Makati?s bank accounts to only the amount that covered the tax claim.
The move is unusual for the BIR, which normally freezes all bank accounts of a delinquent taxpayer, regardless of amount, until the dispute has been settled and the levy paid.
?To enable the uninterrupted delivery of basic services to the people of Makati and the payment of salaries of city employees, I have been instructed by the President to take the necessary steps to limit the writ of garnishment issued by the Bureau against the City of Makati to the amount of unpaid taxes and increments being claimed by the BIR,? he said.
The case stemmed from the city government?s alleged failure to remit a total of P1.15 billion in withholding taxes of about 8,000 employees from 1999 to 2002.
With Buñag?s order, the BIR?s Makati unit immediately instructed the presidents, treasurers and cashiers of the banks that held Makati?s funds to lift and cancel the warrant of garnishment issued on May 2.
List of banks
These banks are Equitable PCI Bank, Philippine National Bank, Allied Banking Corp., Metropolitan Bank and Trust Co., Banco de Oro Universal Bank, Asiatrust Development Bank, China Banking Corp., LBC Development Bank, Planters Development Bank, Rizal Commercial Banking Corp., Union Bank of the Philippines, United Coconut Planters Bank, Security Bank Corp., Asia United Bank, Bank of Commerce, BDO Private Bank, Export Industry Bank, International Exchange Bank, Philippine Bank of Communications, Philippine Trust Co., Land Bank of the Philippines, Development Bank of the Philippines and Banco Filipino.
Baquiran also ordered the lifting and the cancellation of the warrant of garnishment on Makati?s funds in Philippine Veterans Bank beyond the disputed amount of tax liabilities.
?Makati has deposits in Veterans Bank that can cover the amount due our unpaid taxes,? Buñag said.
The BIR said the city?s unpaid tax liabilities stood at P600 million to P700 million for the years 1999, 2000 and 2001. This is significantly lower than the P1.1-billion liability the tax agency earlier announced.
Palace not giving up
Malacañang said it was not giving up the legal battle to unseat Binay.
Palace legal counsel Sergio Apostol even accused Binay, the president of the United Opposition, of using his court battle against corruption charges to advance his political interest.
?He is the one doing a martial law in Makati,? Apostol said.
Team Unity campaign strategist Ben Evardone denied that Malacañang was softening its stance.
?How can you sympathize with a person like Binay who would like to defy the court? This will not affect election results, contrary to what GO [Genuine Opposition] and Binay are saying,? he said.
Yamsuan rejected suggestions that Puno backtracked after Ms Arroyo blew her top over the Binay issue. ?That?s not true,? he said.
What happened was that after the report on Binay?s suspension broke in the media, Ms Arroyo called Puno to inquire ?if the suspension order was true,? Yamsuan said.
He said that even Ms Arroyo was not informed about the suspension order and the subsequent implementation of the Ombudsman?s order by the DILG.
Puno acting on his own?
Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said Puno was acting on his own when he decided to defer the implementation of the suspension order.
?Yes, the DILG is the implementing arm of government on matters of this nature. Whatever it is, Secretary Puno as head of the local government is taking this action according to his better judgment as implementor of the executive branch on matters of this nature.?
Ermita begged off, when asked about the BIR decision to lift the writ of garnishment issued against the city government.
?I have no idea,? he said. With reports from Daxim L. Lucas and Michael Lim Ubac