ILOILO CITY, Philippines?The prospect of her own people testifying against her could have finally pushed Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez to quit, the chair of the 11-member impeachment prosecution panel said Saturday.
Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr. said the panel had been considering at least seven senior officials and employees of the Office of the Ombudsman to testify at Gutierrez?s impeachment trial that would have started after the Senate resumes session on May 9.
?They felt that it is the right time for them to come out and tell the truth. They have vital insider information that could have been explosive,? Tupas told the Inquirer in a phone interview.
The lawmaker said that the seven included a ranking official who had expressed willingness to testify, and that the others were seeking assurance of their families? security if they took the witness stand.
?The senior official could have been a surprise witness because of the official?s rank,? said Tupas, who chairs the House committee on justice that heard the impeachment complaints against Gutierrez.
He declined to name the potential witnesses for their own security but said their testimonies could have been crucial in proving that Gutierrez had deliberately blocked the inquiry into the P728-million fertilizer fund scam.
The fund was said to have been diverted to the election campaign of then President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2004.
Tupas said the prosecutors were still finalizing arrangements with the potential witnesses when Gutierrez resigned.
?She probably sensed that even some of her senior officials would testify against her,? he said.
Gutierrez presented her letter of resignation, to take effect on May 6, to President Aquino on Friday. In a press conference later in the day, she said she quit to spare Congress and the nation a ?long-drawn-out? impeachment trial.
But Tupas made light of Gutierrez?s statement, saying: ?She could have resigned at the first instance, especially during the time of ... Arroyo, if she were really sincere.?
He said the testimonies of the potential witnesses would have proven ?deliberate inaction? and direct orders from Gutierrez to block the inquiry into the fertilizer fund scam.
The Office of the Ombudsman ordered on April 15 the filing of plunder charges against Luis ?Cito? Lorenzo and Jocelyn ?Joc-Joc? Bolante, former agriculture secretary and undersecretary, respectively, and several others in connection with the fertilizer fund scam.
But critics said the belated filing of the plunder case was meant to save Gutierrez from being convicted at her impeachment trial.
Tupas said that while Gutierrez?s resignation was a result of a combination of many factors, the key was the strength of the prosecution panel?s evidence and the growing public support of her impeachment.
He said the panel was relieved that Gutierrez resigned before the trial. But he added that he was personally disappointed because the trial could have been an opportunity for the people to know the details of the issues.
Tupas said the panel was confident of the strength of its evidence because many lawyers had volunteered to handle the impeachment articles filed against Gutierrez.
He said the prosecutors were inclined to back the proposed amendment in the Senate rules on impeachment, which would allow the voting of the senator-jurors after each article of impeachment is presented instead of voting only after all the presentations had been concluded.
The prosecution panel will meet next week to discuss its options after Gutierrez?s resignation.
Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares, a member of the prosecution panel and copresenter of the case involving the fertilizer fund scam, said Gutierrez might have also been pressured to resign.
?Many details could have surfaced, and many [persons], not just Arroyo and Bolante, could have been implicated if the trial pushed through. All these could have weighed heavily on her,? Colmenares said in a separate interview.
He said the resigned Ombudsman was now ?fair game? for anyone interested in taking her to court.
?It must be clearly stated that even though she resigned, we will still hold her accountable. As it is, she can be charged with various violations of the Anti-Graft Law including obstruction of justice. I expect farmers to be among the first to file a case against her for the fertilizer fund scam,? he said.
In another interview with the Inquirer in Manila, Colmenares said he would share with farmers additional evidence and witnesses once criminal charges were filed in court.
?She did not even apologize to the farmers for the deliberate inaction on the fertilizer fund scam in the Ginintuang Masaganang Ani, or GMA, Program. It was as if the people owed her when she resigned,? he said.
Colmenares said insider witnesses, volunteer lawyers and public prosecutors should now help build cases and file criminal charges against Gutierrez.
He said his party-list group would forward to the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas the evidence it was able to gather during the preparations for the impeachment trial so that the farmers themselves could initiate the appropriate suits.
With Gutierrez now out of the Office of the Ombudsman, Tupas said the focus of the House committee on justice would shift to the impeachment complaint against Supreme Court Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo, who has been accused of plagiarism but cleared by the high court.
?We have no choice but to proceed with the impeachment of Justice Del Castillo because there is a prescribed period within which to finish the proceedings,? Tupas told the Inquirer in Manila.
?We will schedule it within May. Witnesses will be called during this period,? he said.
Wartime ?comfort women,? along with 11 lawmakers, filed the impeachment complaint before the committee and accused Del Castillo of betrayal of public trust.
Del Castillo was earlier accused of plagiarizing the works of foreign scholars which he cited in several decisions he wrote as a Supreme Court justice.
One decision, which he wrote on April 28 last year, denied the petition of 70 comfort women who wanted the tribunal to compel the Philippine government to demand a public apology and reparation from the Japanese government for the victims of sexual abuse during World War II.
But the high court eventually dismissed the plagiarism complaint against Del Castillo for ?lack of merit.? With a report from Cynthia D. Balana in Manila