MANILA, Philippines -- (UPDATE 4) Armed with a suspension order from the Ombudsman, officials of the Interior department on Friday moved to evict Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay from the City Hall, a little over a week before elections.
About 2,000 supporters of Binay, who is heavily tipped to retain his mayoral post in the May 14 polls, quickly gathered outside the new Makati City Hall shortly before 10 p.m. in an outpouring of support for the opposition leader.
It was not immediately clear why the order was being served late at night before the weekend, where the courts -- where Binay could challenge the order -- are closed.
The Department of Interior and Local Government said in a statement it placed Binay under preventive suspension over charges of defrauding the city government by putting ?ghost employees? on its payroll.
Binay will be suspended ?without pay for a period not exceeding six months pending the investigation? of the administrative complaint filed against him, the statement added.
Interior Undersecretary Marius Corpus, accompanied by senior police officers, met with Binay and Vice Mayor Ernesto Mercado in Binay's office on the 21st floor of the City Hall to serve the order.
But the actual serving of the order was deferred to Monday.
During their meeting, Binay questioned the timing of the order, saying a preventive suspension order could not be served after office hours.
Corpus said he had wanted to serve the order earlier because a hearing of the case had been scheduled for Tuesday and he thought that serving it on Monday would be a bit late.
Binay told Corpus that he would be at the City Hall on Monday at 8 a.m. during the flag raising ceremony to receive the suspension order.
Corpus agreed to defer the serving of the order until then.
Binay said the status quo would be maintained for now. He added, however, that once the suspension order is served on him on Monday, Mercado would assume the mayoral post while he would file a petition with the Court of Appeals for a temporary restraining order.
"The suspension order is null and void," he said.
This was the second time in six months that the Arroyo administration, on whose side Binay had been a political thorn, had tried to oust the leader of the United Opposition (UNO).
Some supporters waved clenched fists, others chanted: "We don't want an actor," an apparent reference to movie actor, Senator Lito Lapid, whom Malacañang is backing in the mayoral contest.
Asked if he believed the suspension order was a form of political harassment, Binay?s son Erwin said: "They want Lapid to be the mayor."
Earlier, special police units tried to seal off secondary roads to prevent the entry of Binay supporters.
"This is harassment," the mayor's daughter Abigail said in a radio interview. "They are moving [against him] in succession. There was the petition for disqualification ... Then there was the garnishment of the assets of the city. Then the personal assets of Binay were frozen."
"Now here comes the suspension order. His political rivals are getting desperate. By hook or by crook, they want to win. As a result, the people of Makati are getting more united against them," said Abigail, who herself is running for a seat in Congress.
A senior official at the Department of Interior and Local Governments told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that the DILG was merely implementing an order from the Ombudsman for the suspension of Binay.
"This is not an arrest but an implementation of the suspension order," said the official, who asked not to be identified because he said he was not authorized to speak to the media.
At one point, policemen looking for Binay, forced their way into the City Hall, damaging some property.
Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno informed the Palace on Friday that he had received a copy of the Ombudsman's suspension order.
"They have been looking for Mayor Binay but could not locate him. They just found him an hour ago," Ermita said at about 9 p.m.
Ermita disclaimed Palace involvement in the move to oust Binay.
"We cannot meddle with the Ombudsman," he said. "They (Binay's group) have a recourse [in the courts]. Either Monday or Tuesday, they can get a TRO (temporary restraining order," Ermita said.
"The DILG is just executing a lawful order from the Ombudsman," said Ermita.
Sources in the Ombudsman, reached last night, said the order stemmed from a complaint by former councilor Oscar Ibay that City Hall under Binay employed ghost employees possibly numbering allegedly by the thousands.
Also contacted last night, Ibay said that of the five complaints he had initiated against Binay, one complaint did involve ghost employees.
He claimed that his office discovered up to 8,000 City Hall employees without tax identification numbers (TIN) and "this is where they probably hid the ghost employees."
In October last year, Binay barricaded himself in his 22-floor office at the City Hall after the DILG also tried to suspend him over the issue of ghost employees.
The latest suspension order was reportedly signed by Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and endorsed by Deputy Ombudsman Orlando Casimiro.
At one point last night, Binay's opposition colleagues began streaming into City Hall to provide moral support for the embattled mayor.
They included opposition senatorial candidates Sonia Roco, Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III and Makati Representative Teodoro Locsin Jr.
Pimentel said that as a general rule there should be no preventive suspension of candidates during an election period.
Roco, for her part, said: "It's very, very unjust and sets a state of terrorism. It sends a chilling effect on democracy."
She said the suspension order was an attack not just on the Mayor but on the opposition.
A handful of members of the militant group Bayan Muna and Akbayan also came and waved flags on the steps of the City Hall in a show of support for Binay. With reports from Thea Alberto, INQUIRER.net; Volt Contreras and Juliet Labog